Partially obscured by the prosperous clamor that emanates from the men's professional golf tour is the significant fact that the ladies of pro golf are enjoying a newfound success of their own. The two golfing caravans are about as similar as Bermuda shorts and Bermuda onions, but it is precisely this contrast—and an ability to exploit it—that has suddenly swelled the popularity of the game played the way the ladies play it.
Up until two years ago The Ladies Professional Golf Association—which has no connection with the men's PGA—was down on its collective knees begging someone, anyone, to put on its tournaments someplace, anyplace. Today the LPGA, like the wallflower who discards her spectacles, shakes down her hair and becomes something to see, can greet its growing list of suitors with new confidence. At least 31 tournaments will be played this year, as compared to 24 in 1961, and they are scheduled in an orderly geographic progression so that the girls do not leapfrog around the country like so many golfing airline stewardesses.
The total prize money for 1963 will be about $280,000—up from $186,000 in 1961—and a lot of attractive, talented young women, like the five pictured on the following pages, are moving out on the pro circuit. The future, with its promise of still more tournaments, more prize money and more fresh faces, is even brighter, especially since women's golf is growing at a faster rate than men's.
The LPGA tour has always had considerable potential as a sporting showcase. Its fields are small, so its tournaments are more compact than the sometimes unwieldy men's events that must schedule dawn-to-dusk action. The women are also able to offer their galleries instructional opportunities as well as competitive thrills. Mickey Wright, the finest player in the history of women's golf, gets her tremendous distance and accuracy with a swing as uncomplicated as a breath of air. Lacking the physical strength of their male counterparts, all the women are forced to rely heavily on basics to play the game well. Since their swings generally have a much slower tempo than the men's, it is easier for spectators to see exactly what it is the players are trying to do with a given shot.
June 2, 1963
But perhaps the most important reason of all for the current popularity of the ladies' version of the game is that the tour literally has a new look: the pleasant, charming look of young girls at play. "A few years ago only an outstanding amateur like Mickey Wright could take the chance of turning pro," says Betsy Rawls, a South Carolinian who earned a Phi Beta Kappa key and a degree in physics at the University of Texas and has been playing golf professionally since 1951. "But now the younger players see the prize money we are winning out here. They see the 10 leading money winners driving around in new Oldsmobiles, and they figure their chances of making a living are pretty good. As a result, we are now getting quality players in depth."
One of the best examples of this is Shirley Englehorn, a slight, hotly competitive youngster from Caldwell, Idaho. She had won only a few regional titles as an amateur when she came out on the pro tour late in 1959 at the age of 18. But last year she won two LPGA tournaments, made $14,324 in prize money and picked up another $6,000 from various endorsements and teaching jobs—which isn't a bad income for a 22-year-old girl.
"Shirley keeps the ball in play about as well as anyone out here," says Mickey Wright, "but the most impressive thing about her is her competitive temperament. She just never gives up. The gallery can sense this and likes it. It shows in everything she does." Shirley is bringing to the tour, in fact, the same kind of spirit that once kept her alive. In March of 1960, immediately after playing in the Titleholders tournament in Augusta, Ga., she went horseback riding and galloped into an overhanging tree limb. The shocking blow to her head and the subsequent fall caused a brain concussion and five broken vertebrae. She was unconscious for two weeks. "When I came to," she recalls, "I didn't think I was alive. There had been snow on the ground when I fell. Now I could see it was warm and sunny outside. Besides, I was surrounded by nuns."
So successful has Shirley been that she and her contemporaries are now in the majority on the tour, and the older, established stars are finding it harder and harder to beat them. Long-hitting Kathy Whitworth, 23, won two tournaments last year and was second only to Mickey Wright in money earnings, with $20,052. Little Sandra Haynie was 5 feet 1 and weighed only 95 pounds when she joined the tour in 1960. She has since grown three inches, gained 20 pounds, won two tournaments and displayed the most natural swing in women's golf. Mary Mills, a 23-year-old who handles every club with equal skill, was voted Rookie of the Year in 1962 and won more than $9,000. Judy Kimball, 24, won the Ladies PGA championship. Twenty-four-year-old Clifford Ann Creed (SI, Sept. 3, 1962), an amateur sensation in 1962, turned professional late in the year and was able to finish third in the first tournament she entered.
The good looks of girls like Lesbia Lobo, a Texas country-club professional's daughter who is seen increasingly often on the tour, the buoyant puckishness of teen-agers like Judy Torluemke and the competitive balance created by matching the energies of youth against the skill and experience of its better-known names has done a lot to improve the LPGA's status. So has good promotion. Much of the credit for bringing this vitality into a group that was looking more like a corpse than a corps every year goes to a man, the LPGA's new tournament director, Leonard Wirtz. A 5-foot-5 tornado of activity who doubles as one of the Midwest's best college basketball officials during the winter, Wirtz assumed his present duties during the 1961 U.S. Women's Open at Baltusrol in New Jersey. Though accustomed to the brawling of basketball, Wirtz—as any normal man would—felt some hesitation about trying to control the athletic and financial destinies of three dozen career girls. So he decided to apply to his golfing activities the rules of behavior he had long used to survive on the basketball court.
"I try to treat every girl the way I would a basketball player during the heat of a game," Wirtz says. "In other words, everyone, from Mickey Wright to the least important kid on the tour, gets strict and equal treatment."
This policy has worked well. So have two of Wirtz's more tangible arrangements. One was persuading Oldsmobile to loan showroom-fresh Starfires to the leading money winners. What woman would want to look this kind of gift horsepower in the mouth? The other was his success in getting complete authority over everything involved with the LPGA and its tournaments.
"But I wouldn't be so stupid as to put through anything really important without consulting the players," admits Wirtz, a husband and father of five who presumably knows all about hell, fury and a woman scorned. He took all the risks he cared to in that direction when he sweetly, kindly, quietly and firmly ordered the girls to improve their personal appearance on and off the golf course. The chubby ones were asked to slim down a little or, if they could not, to refrain from wearing shorts. Frequent permanent waves were suggested, and playing outfits were to be kept neat and well-pressed. The players took his manly suggestions to heart, and the change proved to be good for morale, as well as for the LPGA's public image.
Wirtz also extended his authority into the field of decorum. He felt temperamental outbursts looked bad enough coming from a Tommy Bolt, and were absolutely boorish when displayed by a lady. So he imposed a $50 fine for club-throwing. A club is considered thrown if it leaves a competitor's hand and hits the ground. The women are considerably less blasé about money than the men, and this fine has provoked a number of amusing incidents. Last year at the Cosmopolitan Open in Rockton, Ill., Mickey Wright hit what she thought would be a superb nine-iron, only to see the ball take a big hop and bounce over the green. She gave her club an exasperated flip into the air, then realized that she had not felt $50 worth of rage. She attempted a diving catch, but could not come up with the club in time. So long, $50. Jo Ann Prentice, however, produced one of the memorable athletic moments of 1962 when she hurled a club into near-orbit at Beaumont, Texas after a bad shot. Sensing in a flash of thrift that immediate action had to be taken, she managed a catch worthy of Willie Mays.
Thus Wirtz has done much to improve the tour he is selling, and potential tournament sponsors are finding good reasons for buying his package. Its small size, for instance, is one. The LPGA has only 30 regulars on its tour. The men have more than 100. Thus the LPGA's prize money average of $9,000 per event goes a long way.
"You get a lot for your money with the Ladies PGA," says Stan Sousa of Carvel Franchise Systems, which will direct the Carvel Ladies' Open on Long Island late this month as a benefit for two New York charities. "You get a four-day tournament that is good promotion for the sponsor, is easy on the golf club that hosts it and can make some nice money for charity as well."
"We can't compete with the men and we don't want to," says Lennie Wirtz. "We are trying to promote women's golf on a completely different basis. I like to put our tournaments into the small metropolitan communities that will want to get behind the event year after year and make the promotion a kind of family affair. We have to think in long-range terms. If our philosophy was 'make a quick buck now and to heck with next year' we'd be dead. I'd like a 35-tournament schedule and I'll be happy with an average purse of $10,000 per event."
This is not being overly optimistic. To bring it about, Wirtz will travel 100,000 miles and make calls in at least 42 states this year. "I'll knock on doors anywhere," he says of his increasingly successful attempts to line up tournament sponsors. His ladies, meanwhile, are playing golf at a competitive level and for stakes not dreamed possible just two years ago. The LPGA is becoming a glamour girl at last.