TWO TIMES A TRAILBLAZER
Precious few are true pioneers in their passion, but Shirley Spork was twice a trailblazer in the sport she loved – golf. In 1950, she was one of 13 Founders of the LPGA. A decade later, Spork almost singlehandedly created the LPGA Teaching & Club Pro Division.
Spork, who died in Palm Springs, California on April 12 at the age of 94, was born at the peak of the Roaring 20s, raised during the depths of the Great Depression and matured as a golfer during the turmoil of World War II. She was a daughter of The Greatest Generation, and she did it proud.
As important as Spork was in founding the LPGA, she was even more impactful as a coach and as a coach of coaches. She literally wrote the book on how to teach the game and was especially innovative in tailoring instruction methods to the specific needs of women, remaining a coach into her 90s.
“Becoming a founding member of both the LPGA Tour and the LPGA Teaching Division were highlights along the road,” Spork said in her book From Tee to Green.
“My journey reminds me of a sticker we had in our motorhome… ‘Been There – Done That,’” Spork wrote. “So True! I certainly have been blessed to see and do a lot in my life. A great big thank you to all who support this great game we call golf.”
A longtime resident of Palm Desert, Calif., Spork was on hand each year at the ANA Inspiration at Mission Hills and, from its inception in 2011, Shirley was a fixture at the Founders Cup, greeting players as they came off the 18th green, often adding a swing tip to her handshake.
“There are many things I admire about Shirley but one, in particular, is her passion to continue to learn and stay involved with the game,” said Hall of Fame member Karrie Webb. “When she’s at an LPGA event you will always find her on the range watching all the girls, getting to know them, and maybe even giving a tip or two.”
The road to the LPGA for Spork started in the industrial Midwest during the dark days of the Depression. Her family lived off the 17th fairway of Bonnie Brook Golf Course near Detroit, where they moved after her father lost his job and exchanged caretaker work for free rent.
The little red-haired girl bought her first golf club when she was 12, a putter she got for a dollar with money earned from selling golf balls she found. Then Shirley endured the laughter of the boys who caddied at Bonnie Brook because she used that putter to hit full shots. But it was her only choice; it was her only club.
That humiliating experience inspired one of the most consequential journeys golf has known. With the echo of laughter ringing in her ears, Shirley began a lifelong fight for her gender and for the game of golf.
Spork was born in 1927, a year when Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs, Gene Tunney defeated Jack Dempsey, Bobby Jones won twin titles in golf as did Helen Wills Moody in tennis.
Two years later, the world’s economy collapsed. Shirley’s relentless work ethic and undying commitment to a sense of fairness were molded by the tough times in which she came of age – the Depression and World War II.
Bonnie Brook was the perfect place for Shirley to grow up. She was a natural athlete and picked up golf quickly. Eventually, Otto Hinds, the pro at Bonnie Brook, aware she was sneaking on the course with her one club, gave her a 3-, 5-, 7- and 9-iron.
With that primitive set on her shoulder, Shirley would ride her bicycle to Redford Golf Club where the Detroit Free Press sponsored free lessons for juniors. By her mid-teens, she was winning regional tournaments.
Then came a crucial decision, not just for Spork but for golf. Shirley entered Michigan State Normal School, now Eastern Michigan University. She won the 1947 Women’s National Collegiate Golf Tournament, but more importantly she studied to be a Physical Education instructor and learned how to teach.
On May 6, 1950, while teaching in the Detroit public school system, Shirley turned pro and became one of the 13 women who signed the original charter of the Ladies Professional Golf Association.
That fall she began teaching at Bowling Green State University while also studying for her Master’s Degree, teaching Monday through Thursday and playing LPGA events Friday through Sunday.
While Spork competed regularly on the LPGA in those early years, she was always a teacher at heart. She was mentored by PGA professional Joey Rey at Pasatiempo Golf Club in Santa Cruz, Calif, who got Shirley her first head pro job at Ukiah Municipal Golf Course.
By 1955, Shirley was coaching at Tamarisk Country Club near Palm Springs. In 1959, she convinced the LPGA to create the LPGA Teaching & Club Pro Division, the decision passing by one vote.
In 1983, the first LPGA Teaching Division National Championship was held and now the top eight finishers in that tournament earn spots into the field of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.
Coaching was Shirley’s prime passion. In 1960, the first LPGA National Golf School was held at the University of Michigan to educate coaches on how to teach the game to women. In the 1970s, she worked with Dr. Gary Wiren, Director of Education for the PGA, to make it possible for apprentices to get PGA credits while working for an LPGA pro.
She also worked for the National Golf Foundation to create the Golf Teaching Kit, a guide for coaches.
Shirley was one of only two to be LPGA Teacher of the Year twice – and she did it 25 years apart.
“Through the years I have met a lot of people and made a lot of dear friends,” Spork said. “It was fun to go to work every day and teach because people who came to me wanted to learn how to play. Learning to play the game of golf is like eating an elephant. It’s overwhelming unless you eat just one bite at a time and slowly digest it.”
It was a meal Spork never finished, savoring every bite.
“I have played golf for almost 80 years, and in my life, I have eaten probably six-eighths of the elephant,” she said. “Hopefully, I’ll have time to work on that one next bite.”
Throughout her life, Shirley preached the Gospel of golf, instructing and inspiring generations how to bring the game to new players. Her keen insight, kind soul and comforting wit made her a joy to be around.
LPGA Founder and trailblazing teacher: Shirley Spork was twice a pioneer – and that made her one of a kind.