Events this past season have made it unmistakably clear that women's golf in America is on the threshold of a genuinely golden age. It has been a long time since there was anything at all like the present proliferation of excellent and engaging players—in fact, one has to go back to the '20s, when the sports public was forced to take notice of the skill and flair attained by Glenna Collett and her now half-forgotten contemporaries, Edith Cummings, Virginia Van Wie, Edith Quier, Maureen Orcutt, Helen Hicks, Miriam Burns Horn and the rest of the girls.
Today, however, there are signal differences. The number of talented players is considerably larger than in the '20s. Their technique, much closer to the men's, is advancing all the time. And, largely due to the USGA's institution of the Girls' Junior Championship some seven years ago, the stars are now blooming at astonishingly young ages. Wiffi Smith, the reigning French and British champion, is 19. Anne Quast, the victor in the 1956 Western Amateur, is 19 also. The National Women's Open was won by Kathy Cornelius, 23, after a playoff with Barbara McIntire, 21. The top money winner on the pro circuit has been Marlene Bauer Hagge, now all of 22.
In the last major event of the 1956 season, the National Women's Amateur, the rush of youth reached its peak. In the final, opposing the eventual winner, Marlene Stewart, the 22-year-old Canadian champion, was JoAnne Gunderson, an extremely impressive 17-year-old. Today, in truth, a veteran is anyone over 20. And the spirit the young competitors have added to the game is eloquently shown on the following pages.
New Amateur champion, Marlene Stewart, is a petite (5 feet 1 inch) Ontarian who also took the 1953 British title at 19.
Youngest player in modern history to reach Amateur final, JoAnne Gunderson is rangy (5 feet 8½ inch) Girls' Junior champ.
THE STEWART-GUNDERSON FINAL
Amazingly relaxed throughout the morning round of the 36-hole final, JoAnne repaired to the clubhouse (where flowers awaited her from her home town, Kirkland, Wash.) holding a 1-up lead. On the 24th she went 4 up when she holed a 30-yard chip. Her inexperience then began to tell, and Marlene, rallying stoutheartedly down the stretch, won on the 35th, 2 and 1. As a golfing competition, it had been a superb match, comparable to the Ward-Kocsis final in the men's Amateur.
The finalists presented contrasting "fairway" personalities and techniques, and this added a decided punch to a championship that is annually a sporting, flavorful affair. Marlene, christened "Little Miss Hogan" by the Canadian press because of her coolness under fire, makes up for her lack of power through the accuracy of her wood play and a very precise short game. Her head always remains "down" well after she has stroked a putt or a chip. JoAnne, a sprawlingly natural girl (especially when she is earnestly lining up a putt), is a very strong player who averages a tremendous 230 yards in her drives off the tees.
At the presentation ceremonies, the runner-up, as refreshing and spontaneous as ever, makes a spread-arm speech as she receives her medal (above), joins in the applause as the beaming new champion accepts the trophy (below), the first Canadian-born queen of the Women's Amateur in the 60-odd years that the tourney has beckoned the best.