It was an afternoon for reconnecting, for sharing special memories, for hugging old friends and yes, for feeling a great sense of sadness. Above all, though, the Celebration of Life for LPGA Founder and Hall of Fame member Marilynn Smith – attended by around 200 people in a large ballroom at the Phoenix Airport Marriott on Saturday - was a time for rejoicing.
Rejoicing in the fact that Smith, who passed away on April 9 just four days shy of her 90th birthday, graced this earth for nine decades with her extraordinary golf prowess, her competitive fire, her courage on and off the golf course, her infectious smile and a huge heart and generosity of spirit that led her to positively influence the lives of everyone she touched. She was a supreme advocate for women's golf during her playing career and throughout her retirement. In so many ways, she was the heart and soul of the LPGA.
LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan was unable to attend Saturday’s Celebration of Life function due to the college graduation of one of his sons in High Point, North Carolina, but he spoke to the audience in Phoenix about Smith's remarkable legacy via video.
"I always talk around the LPGA about leaving it better than you found it," said Whan. "I can think of nobody that can walk into whatever is next with a greater sense of accomplishment than Marilynn because not only did she leave women's golf better than she found it, not only did she leave the sport better than she found it, she left the world better than she found it.
"Nobody would have wanted us to enjoy this day more than Marilynn. And most importantly, live in the moment of knowing that Marilynn might not be with us but I think she's inside all of us now and the good news for us at the LPGA is that she's always going to be the soul and the breath we breathe at the LPGA. I think she died knowing that what was important to her and her 12 other Founders became important to us and 70 years later we are still living the life that they created for us."
Smith's golf pedigree is impressive. She established herself among the biggest names in the game and ended a glittering professional career with a total of 21 victories on the LPGA Tour, the first coming at the 1954 Fort Wayne Open and the last of them at the 1972 Pabst Ladies Classic. Included in that tally were two major championship crowns, the 1963 Titleholders, where she edged out fellow Hall of Famer Mickey Wright in an 18-hole playoff, and the 1964 Titleholders, where she beat Wright by one stroke to successfully defend her title. In 1973, Smith became the first woman to work as a television broadcaster at a men's event, and in 2006 she was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Her impact on the game as one of the 13 pioneering women who founded the LPGA in 1950 is immeasurable, as was her impact on every single person she met during her remarkable lifetime.
Very few people knew Smith as well as fellow LPGA Founder Shirley Spork, the two having first met at a national intercollegiate tournament in 1947.
"Marilynn was always with conversation, she never met a stranger," said the 91-year-old Spork, who was the first person to come up on stage to pay tribute to Smith. "We shared life's challenges and were best friends for 72 years. What I will miss most about Marilynn is our bi-weekly phone calls. We would have discussions of what had or what would be happening in our world that day.
"Most of us have been touched by Marilynn in one way or another. We might have received a writing pen, a thank-you note, a thank-you note for your thank-you note, a magnet, a birthday card, Marilynn's picture with her beloved dog Benny, named after Ben Hogan. Marilynn had the largest heart and was the most generous person in the world of golf. We will miss her Christmas card, her smile, her hugs and her thankful compliments," said Spork, who played a pivotal role along with Smith in establishing the LPGA's Teaching Division.
"Her greeting will long be remembered: 'My name is Marilynn with two 'n's, LPGA Founder. What is your name? Do you play golf?' Marilynn will be deeply missed by everyone who had the opportunity to know and love her. I have lost a very special and dear friend."
EARLY SMITH IMPACT
Betsy King, the winner of 34 LPGA Tour titles, including six major championships, spoke about the impact Smith had on her when she was aged just 13.
"In 1968, I met Marilynn at a clinic she did at a local department store in my hometown of Reading, Pa.," said King. "Marilynn was there as a representative of Spalding and also to promote the Women’s U.S. Open, which was being held that week at Moselem Springs Golf Club not far from Reading. I remember Marilynn as being very friendly, always smiling, as she hit shots into a net and answered questions from the audience. It was easy to see why Marilynn was nicknamed ‘Miss Personality’. That week I spent a lot of time watching Marilynn and the other LPGA players compete at the U.S. Open which Susie Berning won. It was then I knew I wanted to be like Marilynn and become a player on the LPGA Tour. What I most admired about Marilynn is that she committed her life to making this world a better place for girls and women."
Gloria Ehret, who turned professional in 1965, finished fifth at the LPGA Championship in her rookie season and then won that major championship the following year, will never forget Smith's ultra-friendly nature.
"Marilynn only needed to meet you once and she was your friend forever and your name went into her address book," said Ehret. "I think she had at least five or six address books, names from all over the world. When I talked to Shirley (Spork), she told me there were two places that will really miss Marilynn. One was Walmart, where she bought her cards, and the other was the post office, because of the stamps!"
LPGA and World Golf Halls of Fame member Judy Rankin, a mere 15-year-old when she first met Smith at the 1960 U.S. Women's Open, was unable to attend the Celebration of Life in Phoenix but was determined to share her memories of Smith so sent in a letter to be read out on her behalf.
“She and I laughed more than once in the past years about one thing,” wrote Rankin, a 26-time winner on the LPGA Tour. “From the beginning she always called me young lady. I was convinced it was a little syrupy and that she didn’t know my name! It took some years for me to realize that she did know my name and was so very sincere.
"There has never been an ambassador for the game like her, nor do I think she can ever be replaced. "She was a happy spirit and tried to make it contagious! Thank you, Marilynn."
Another absentee on Saturday who asked for a tribute letter to be read out on his behalf was veteran golf writer Ron Sirak, a longtime supporter of the LPGA and a recipient of the LPGA Media Excellence Award.
"That fight – the fight for the game, the fight for women – defined Marilynn’s life,” Sirak wrote, before heading off to Pinehurst to cover this week's U.S. Senior Women's Open. “And never was there a more gentle warrior, a more decent combatant, a more honest adversary and yet a more ferocious fighter than Marilynn Smith. If Marilynn was on your side, if Marilynn was on the side of your cause, she stood loyally with you for life.
"And she was an advocate for more than the LPGA, for more than golf, for more than women. She was an advocate for life. She was the perfect example of how good we all can be if we allow ourselves to be guided by feelings of love for those around us, for causes greater than ourselves, for a belief that all people are created equal by the ultimate Founder."