It started with a simple question that led, as always, to a lot of listening, one of many such sessions that I will recall for years to come. I first spoke to Shirley Spork at the 2017 Solheim Cup in Des Moines where she was decked out in red, white and blue, shaking hands like a candidate for mayor. That first day, she asked me if I played golf. I told her I was a former college player trying not to embarrass myself these days. She said, “You’ve still got it here (pointing to her head) even if you don’t here (waving to her body). Stick to your fundamentals. There’s nothing new under the sun in this game.”
Every conversation we had after that included a golf lesson of some sort, including the last one 13 days before she passed away this past Tuesday, April 12. That discussion started when she came into the media center at The Chevron Championship at Mission Hills and put her hand on my shoulder. After a hug and a greeting, I introduced her to John Strege, a bestselling author and longtime friend from Golf Digest. Then I said, “So, Shirley, are you still teaching?”
She said, “I teach who I want when I want, which makes it a lot of fun.” But that wasn’t all. For the next thirty minutes, I was regaled with stories from her early playing days on the LPGA Tour, starting with how the original 13 Founders would convoy to events in five cars, using different colored paddles that they would hold out the windows to signal the need for gasoline or a bathroom break.
Then it went in a direction I never expected. “When I was working with Armour, he would always say, ‘You have to move off of it before you can move onto it.’ It took a while for me to figure out what that meant,” Shirley said. “I realized that he was talking about turning off the ball, getting onto your right side.”
Wait, Shirley, did you say, “Armour?” As in, Tommy Armour, three-time major champion and World War I veteran who lost sight in his left eye and lost his left arm after mustard gas and machine gun attacks and had metal plates in his skull? That Tommy Armour?
“You can’t believe how big his hands were,” Shirley said. “He would take my hand in his and my hand would just disappear. They were huge.
“He started that company (Tommy Armour Golf) in World War II by going around to other companies and buying up all their shafts,” she said. “You couldn’t sell steel to the public then because everything was going toward war production. But they could sell their shafts to Armour. He stockpiled them so that when the war was over, he had all this inventory on hand and just added heads and grips to them.
“He believed in me and signed me when nobody else would,” Shirley said. “Companies like Wilson wanted the Babe and Patty (Berg) but Armour saw value in me, and I’ll never forget that.”
Then it was back to the lesson. “Don’t forget to release the club,” she said. “Get off it; get back on it; and release.” She demonstrated perfect footwork at age 94.
Five days later, before the final round at The Chevron and after she and the rest of the original Founders were inducted into the LPGA Hall of Fame, Shirley walked the range early that Sunday afternoon. She stood behind Jessica Korda for a few minutes, hands clasped behind her back. Then she meandered a few yards south to the spot where Patty Tavatanakit had just taken out a driver. A word or two was exchanged and Shirley watched with great interest as Patty ripped drives high and long down the range.
Her final stop was behind Jennifer Kupcho who remained focused on her work. That was likely the last time Shirley interacted with a fellow LPGA Tour player - a Founder nodding to the future.
That’s the thing about lasts; you never know when they’re coming. It’s easy to celebrate the firsts in life. Those of us old enough to remember Neil Armstrong know exactly where we were when he took “one small step for man.” Most have no recollection of Gene Cernan stepping out of the lunar module, as none of us knew at the time that he would be the last man there.
My last interaction with Shirley wasn’t much different than my first. Lessons, golf and otherwise, were part of her DNA. She was a player, a coach, a Founder, a legend, and a teacher to the end.
We will never forget her, or the countless gems she left for us all.