The golf world is full of stories about the pioneers of golf, men such as Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazen. Movies abound about their exploits – Bagger Vance, The Greatest Game Ever Played. But notice it’s all about the men. Do women golfers even have any pioneers whom they can look up to and thank for the game they so love today? Do we women even know who they are?
Here are the thirteen names we should all know and revere:
- Alice Bauer
- Marlene Bauer Hagge
- Patty Berg
- Bettye Danoff
- Helen Dettweiler
- Helen Hicks
- Opal Hill
- Betty Jameson
- Sally Sessions
- Marilyn Smith
- Shirley Spork
- Louise Suggs
- Babe Didrikson Zaharias
They are the founders of the LPGA and the subject of a fairly recent film “The Founders” produced by Stacy Lewis and Kari Webb through Mighty Fine Pictures. We sat spellbound through a screening of the film on August 1st here in Sacramento, but it is also available on iTunes, Amazon, etc.
The film begins with an old clip featuring a gentleman looking into the camera, smiling, and saying, “Competitive athletics tend to destroy all that is natural in women and all that makes them attractive to men.” By the end of the film, the audience is amazed at the accomplishments of the Founders but acutely aware that the misogynist culture surrounding golf may not have changed all that much since 1950 when the LPGA was founded.
The film tells the story of the 13 founders “through rare archival footage, historical re-enactments and current-day interviews with surviving founders and leading players” (as described on “The Founders” website). However, the audience’s emotional involvement stems from two conflicts, one cultural and one personal. Because of the existing prejudices against female athletes, the thirteen founders were forced to plan their own tournaments, create the original LPGA by-laws, set up the golf courses they played, and even hand out tickets. They received no help from existing golf organizations. They might have failed altogether had it not been for the big-name draw of member Babe Zaharias, perhaps the greatest female athlete of all time.
Equally as compelling a conflict is the rivalry between Zaharias and Louise Suggs. Their ill-will toward each other unfolds dramatically in the film through emotional interviews with Suggs. The fact that all is not fun and friendship in competitive golf makes these founding women seem more human and therefore much more interesting.
The film brought back a personal memory for me that now has a new significance. As a very young girl in the late 1950’s just starting to play the game, I accompanied my mother to an LPGA tournament in Spokane, WA. I was so impressed with all the women who participated and I remember deciding that Louise Suggs was my favorite. I rooted for her with great passion from then on. In retrospect, I realize I was a witness to the great existing inequality in the game. The women played their tournament on what was perhaps the worst golf course in Spokane at the time. The image I have of it in my mind is flat, brown, and almost treeless. It was not a very welcoming venue for either players or galleries.
The film ends with a crucial point. Have times changed? Women are still not seen as athletes. Do women’s professional tournaments have the same prize money as men’s? The answer is an overwhelming no. Are women pros playing their tournaments on the same top-notch golf courses as the men do – Pebble Beach, Olympic Club, Augusta? No. Have we come a long way, baby? The film leaves the audience wondering.
This film is beautifully put together. It combines a documentary style with a tension-filled and compelling human story. These tough, pioneering women golfers deserve our admiration and gratitude. A good way to honor them is to see this inspirational film.