LPGA Founder Helen Hicks was America’s Female Professional Golfer

First Lady

Someone had to be first. In the history of golf, the 13 original Founders of the LPGA have been rightly heralded for their vision, tenacity, resourcefulness and dogged persistence as they created what has now become the oldest professional league in women’s sports. This year, those Founders who were not already included will be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame during the 124th U.S. Open at Pinehurst Resort, a celebration of the Hall’s move from St. Augustine, Fla. to the Village of Pinehurst in North Carolina. One of those new inductees will be a woman many people don’t know. That is a shame, really since Helen Hicks, one of the original 13, was the very first woman professional golfer.

There were a few club pros in the pre-World War II era, although even those numbers were a pittance compared to the swelling ranks of men within the PGA of America. In the early days of American golf, most club pros – all men – came from Great Britain where golf had been an honorable craft for three centuries.

By the 1930s, the game was full of magnificent women amateurs. Among them were Margaret and Harriot Curtis, creators of the Curtis Cup; Glenna Collette Vare, for whom the Vare Trophy is named; Alexa Stirling, friend and inspiration for a young Bobby Jones; World Golf Hall of Fame member Marion Hollins; and Edith Cummings, whom F. Scott Fitzgerald would make famous as the literary model for Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby But only a handful of women – Helen McDonald in Chicago and Bessie Fenn in Palm Beach, Fla., for instance – made a living teaching the game. No woman earned a wage playing or promoting golf. Such an idea seemed absurd at the time.

Then came Helen Hicks.

In 1934, the gregarious girl who grew up in Cedarhurst, N.Y. signed a contract with Wilson Sporting Goods to travel the country promoting the Wilson brand. She had a pilot’s license for a single-engine private plane, so barnstorming and giving exhibitions was easier for Helen than for some others. But it was a radical move by the leaders at Wilson and a giant leap of faith by an athlete.


Helen was a toddler when the Titanic set sail. William Howard Taft was President of the United States, a golfer himself who famously got stuck in a bunker at Myopia Hunt Club and had to be pulled out by a mule. Helen was an active kid, playing all sorts of sports, excelling in basketball and tennis. When she was 15, Helen’s father put a golf club in her hand at Salisbury Links.

“The first time I had a club in my hand was when Dad jokingly stopped during a friendly game and said, ‘Hit on, Helen.’ I don’t remember which club he gave me,” she said. “I took it, swung it, and the ball went scorching down the fairway. Dad and the others in his foursome stared. ‘Hit another one,’ one of the men said. There was another swing, and the ball went on its way. I can only call those two shots accidents. I knew nothing about the stance or the swing. Everybody seemed surprised by how far those balls traveled.”

From there Helen ventured out to Inwood Country Club, not quite two miles from her house, with her brother Jarvis, nicknamed “Chub,” an amateur boxer who would also win the Long Island Junior Golf Championship. She played with a kid named Jack Mackie, Jr., son of the pro at Inwood. That competition was just what Helen needed.

In a 1931 profile, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle wrote: “When still very young and in high school, (Helen) tried out for and won a place on the (Lawrence) high school golf team (all boys at that time). Had Helen been a bit older and her male teammates been around a bit longer, Helen might have found herself patronized. But, as it was, they accepted her as one of the team, and when she and her three teammates went out to play against other high school opposition, Helen Hicks played in the number 2 position and got no quarter at all from those pitted against her.”

 She won the Women’s Metropolitan Golf Association Girls’ Junior Championship in 1926, less than a year after first swinging a club. She repeated as champion in 1927 and won again in 1928, establishing herself as one of the top juniors in the country. Losing to the guys early lit a fire.

According to Ralph Trout, a New York sportswriter in the 1920s, “I recall one match Helen had to play on the Dyker Beach course against some New Utrecht golfers. That was one in which Helen was beaten by a young man who played better golf than ever before in his young life. At his age, he simply wasn’t going to let any girl put anything over on him, certainly not with a gallery of several hundred around watching the fun. Doubtless Helen recalled that afternoon, and after competition like that, she must have realized that her golf would have to improve if she were to beat those kids from other schools.”

Clad in a long skirt and beret, Helen’s athletic form was well ahead of its time. She was often referred to as “muscular,” or “robust” or “stockily built,” although photographs from the period show a fit and strong woman who would have gone unnoticed at any gym in the world in the last 30 years. Every college coach in the United States wants golfers who look like Helen Hicks did in her prime. Still, American writers of that time referred to her as “sturdy” and “broad-shouldered,” a “full-bodied type of youngster with muscular strength and stamina.” She earned various nicknames including “The Eastern Slugger” and “The 4-H Girl” for “Hard-Hitting Helen Hicks.”

“When Father bought my first set of clubs, I remember pouting an entire day because he said they were extra-heavy clubs for a kid,” Helen said. “I’ve always been an extra-heavy girl for height and years, but I never relished having it pointed out to me by anything but a mirror and scales, until I took those extra-heavy clubs out to the course and learned what they meant in terms of distance.”

She pounded the golf ball. Bobby Jones said of Helen, “Her game is tremendously powerful.” Gene Sarazen agreed, saying, “She can match the best of men in length of drives and second shots.”

Lawrence Robinson, writing in the New York World-Telegram: “Helen Hicks is a hitter instead of a swinger. She puts power into her strokes and appears to concentrate on proper behavior at impact rather than the sweeping swing that presupposes control. Helen now rates as the longest wood-shot player in the country. Her irons are firm, low-trajectory shots, lacking somewhat in control at the finish, but for the most part well directed. She has a wide shoulder swing with a graceful arm and hip action. Helen’s putting is not exceptional, but she does not often three-putt. Her greatest weakness has always been her short shots to the green, either chips or runs, and she still manifest an intense dislike for that particular stroke. But she has worked on it in practice until she has mastered the essentials.”    

During the spring of her senior year of high school, Helen realized that she just might be able to compete on a national stage. Basketball season had just ended for the star forward, and in that sport, she often practiced with the boys as well. Girls basketball at the time was played with six players per side instead of five, three on each side of the half-court line because no player was allowed to cross half-court. No full-court presses or man-to-man defenses. No one wanted to injure or upset young girls just out for a little fun and exercise. Helen had none of it. She would post on the wing against the boys and hit set shots from what would now be close to the three-point line.

“We Long Island girls played basketball with determination,” Helen said. “I’ve seen grown-up games, professional and semi-pro games. Those boys only bounced harder than we did because they were bigger.”

Once the Long Island weather broke, golf, tennis, horseback riding and sailing occupied most of Helen’s time. “There’s nothing sweeter in my young athletic life than to win an exciting game of tennis,” she said. One afternoon, she skipped her morning classes and darted over to the Women’s National Golf & Tennis Club in Greenhead, Long Island for the Long Island Women’s Championship. In her first round, the relatively unknown Helen defeated U.S. Women’s Amateur champion Marion Hollins 3 and 2 before hustling back to Lawrence High School for a math class after lunch. She had been playing golf for just over two years at the time.

The next year, everyone would know her name.


Helen was 18 when she arrived at Hamilton Golf Club in Ontario for the Women’s Canadian Open Amateur, a name that seems contradictory today, but with no women professionals in 1929, the “Open” portion of the event was a formality.

Helen was not among the favorites. Glenna Collette (Vare), Ada Mackenzie, Maureen Orcutt, defending champion Virginia Wilson and Alexa Stirling all got more publicity than Hard-Hitting Helen from Long Island, despite the fact that Helen had won events in Bermuda and Florida earlier in the summer.  

That changed by the final day.

Helen advanced to the finals against arguably the greatest player in the women’s game at that time, Glenna Collette, who, single at the time, hadn’t added Vare to her name. As Helen described the finals action, “It was the 17th hole, and Glenna and I were tied.” 

Helen had been 3-down at the turn before clawing her way back.

“The (17th) hole was 400-plus (yards), close to 500,” Helen said. “Glenna smashed out a long drive. So did I. For her second shot, Glenna hooked it slightly into a trap at the side of the green. Examining my lie, I saw it was a bad one, downhill and about 230 yards to the pin.”

This was a test of her mettle. Helen had worked for the previous year at controlling her emotions without cooling her competitive fire. She had carved the word “Compah” on the top of her woods, an ancient Nahuatl Aztec word meaning “serenity” or “the peace and focus of one who has been baptized.”

She needed that peace and focus down the stretch at Hamilton.

“Mental poise of a golfer makes up more than half the game,” she said. “One has to train oneself to the right mental attitude under a strain, as in competition. Practicing shots, controlling temper, learning to relax under strain, building up confidence, striving to control the mental side of golf and, in a few words, working darn hard are necessary to become a good golfer.”

Helen put all those attributes to the test that afternoon in Ontario. As she put it, “Here was the gamble. My chance to win the hole was to get on that green in two. The only way to reach that green was with a heavy wood from a downhill lie. I took the brassie out of my bag, and with a ‘here goes something,’ I hit that ball with every ounce that I had. It went straight and true to the pin. I took a birdie three, won the hole, the match and the championship.”

Helen hoisted The Duchess of Connaught Gold Cup that afternoon. Everyone knew her name after that.

Photo Credit: USGA


Two years later, she faced Vare again in the biggest championship in the women’s game, the 1931 U.S. Women’s Amateur at Country Club of Buffalo in New York. To get to the finals, Helen had beaten Enid Wilson, who had taken down Helen 5 and 4 the summer before in the Women’s British Amateur at Formby. In her home state, Helen beat Wilson 2 and 1 to earn a spot in the finals against Vare.

According to the account in The New York Times, the final match hinged on the shot that Helen hated most, the one weakness in her game that she had to constantly work to overcome. “Every championship has its miraculous shots, its pulsating moments, and its touches of drama,” wrote Lincoln Werdon, who called Helen “one of the greatest shot-makers in the game.”

“Miss Hicks merged them all into one as she pitched her shot to the green at the 33rd hole,” Werdon wrote. “One up by virtue of a birdie at the 32nd, she now had the lead once more. Miss Hicks had driven into the rough at the 33rd and reached the edge of the green with her third. The iron Miss Hicks played with her second went wide of its mark and nestled in the rough close to a tree to the right of the green-guarding bunker. Surveying the line carefully, Miss Hicks realized she had scant space in which to play the shot and prevent her club from hitting the tree back of her. Moving slightly ahead of the ball, Helen came back easily with her niblick and pitched the ball eight feet beyond the pin. Mrs. Vare missed the cup with her putt. Then Miss Hicks rolled hers in for a 4 to go 2-up and practically clinch the match. After that, Mrs. Vare’s efforts were hopeless.”

Photos of Helen holding The Robert Cox Trophy plastered newspapers around the world. At 20, she was the youngest winner of the championship. Her magnetic smile jumped off the page, catching the eyes of editors and executives everywhere.

Vare called Helen, “Debonair, blithe, happy-go-lucky, and fearless,” and continued her praise by saying, “(Helen) enters into everything she undertakes with the same joyous spirit.”

By then Helen was considered one of the “Big Four” in women’s golf, along with Vare, Maureen Orcutt and Virginia Van Wie. Those four made up the first U.S. Curtis Cup team that traveled to Wentworth Club outside London. Captained by Marion Hollins, the American team won the matches 5½ to 3½.

By 1934, Helen had won three New York Women’s Amateur titles, two Metropolitan Women’s Amateur championships, the Women’s Eastern Amateur and the prestigious Western Derby in addition to her Canadian and U.S. Amateur titles.

It was time to turn a page.

Photo Credit: USGA


Helen lit up every room she entered.

Whether it was a magazine editor’s office in Manhattan or the head pro’s cubby at a club she was playing, she would stride in with her hand extended and the kind of inviting smile that drew everyone close.

Her charisma eventually caught the eye of Lawrence Icely, the president of Wilson Sporting Goods. Wilson had started its signature line of clubs with Walter Hagen, the dapper pro with an incredible winning record but a questionable personal reputation. The company had gone more clean-cut in recent years by signing Gene Sarazen. But they were still playing catch-up to A.G. Spalding and Bros. that had signed the 800-pound gorilla of the game with its Robert T. Jones, Jr. signature line. Throw in the fact that Jones had just built a new golf course in Augusta, Ga., and was about to host his first “Augusta National Invitational Tournament,” and Icely knew it was time for a radical move.

Signing a woman would make the perfect splash.

Vare had no interest, and Hollins was busy with her new club on the Monterey Peninsula, Cypress Point. That put Helen at the top of the list.

Like almost everyone who met her, Icely instantly loved Helen. The deal was done quickly. Wilson Sporting Goods added the Helen Hicks signature line of clubs to its product list. And just like that, America had its first female professional golfer.

Helen and Sarazen barnstormed the world, playing exhibition matches from Saratoga to New Zealand.

“I don’t believe we were defeated more than three times in our 62 matches, so you can judge for yourself the brand of golf that Helen was playing,” Sarazen wrote in his autobiography, Thirty Years of Championship Golf. “Her naturalness and affability captivated the galleries wherever we went and made our exhibition tour just about the most continually pleasant one I have ever undertaken.”

Babe Didrikson Zaharias joined Helen and Sarazen on their tour at one point, although she was relatively new to the game and considered a “wallflower” at the time.

In addition to her clinics and exhibitions, Helen won two more titles that were considered major championships: the 1937 Women’s Western Open and the 1940 Titleholders Championship.

In 1938, Helen married a man 18 years her senior, a widower named Whitney Harb, who owned some auto dealerships in Arkansas. They were a couple for 10 years until Harb passed away in 1948.

Then, at age 39, Helen joined Babe as well as some other players she had convinced Wilson to sign, including Patty Berg and Opel Hill, in creating the LPGA.

“I watched her give clinics and exhibitions, and Helen Hicks had a tremendous personality, in addition to being a great player,” Berg said. “And she was just a very lovely lady and a fun person.”

Twenty-four years after she helped found the LPGA, Helen passed away from throat cancer in 1974. She was 63.

But she’ll forever be remembered for her contributions to the women’s game.

This summer, Helen will join the remaining LPGA Founders as well as her fellow Canadian Women’s Amateur champions, Vare, Dorothy Campbell and Marlene Streit in the World Golf Hall of Fame, ensuring that this unforgettable athlete’s name will never be forgotten.