Marilynn Smith shines in Founders spotlight

Marilynn Smith at her home in Goodyear, Ariz.

Marilynn Smith at her home in Goodyear, Ariz.

GOODYEAR, Ariz. – The good-natured guard at the gate to Pebble Creek’s Tuscany Falls smiled at the name: “Marilynn’s our resident celebrity,” she said.

The golf course where LPGA Founder Marilynn Smith makes her home was packed on a gorgeous spring day. Bad knees, however, have kept Smith from enjoying the game these past 12 years. The right knee went bad due to golf, and the left one went south after she tried skiing for the first time (as a senior citizen). Smith, 82, is a gem.

The welcoming committee at the Smith house consists of Benny, a small white Poodle mixed with an unknown breed. He’s rightfully spoiled. After a 30-second conversation about dogs, Smith went straight to her prized possession: a trophy from the World Golf Hall of Fame. She was inducted in 2006. Right underneath it sits a baseball signed by Stan Musial, a gift from the LPGA.

“I used to want to pitch for the Cardinals,” she said. “That was my ambition.”

Instead, she and a dozen other female pros built the LPGA in 1950. Smith is one of only four living founders and will be on hand this week in Phoenix for the RR Donnelley Founders Cup, a tribute to those whose sweat and sacrifice paved the way for today’s global tour.

“I went to major-league ballparks like St. Louis and Cincinnati and Washington, D.C., and hit golf balls from home plate out to centerfield and then got on the microphone and told the fans about the LPGA,” said Smith, who won 21 times, including two majors.

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Smith spoke at length over a tasty salad at the community clubhouse about those early days on tour, when Spalding gave her $5,000, an expense account and a green Dodge to travel around spreading the gospel of golf. She asked them to throw in two mitts and a baseball so she could play catch with the caddies.

Known on tour as Miss Personality, Smith told the waiter on Sunday afternoon that she could hit a 3-wood off his hair: “It’s sticking up, just like grass.”

“I’ll tell you, you have to have a sense of humor in golf,” Smith said. “It’s such a humbling game.”

She also was robbed four times and nearly shot by a gunman over the course of her career, so the humor came in handy. The .45-caliber Magnum bullet crossed her path at a tournament in Florida in the 1970s. Smith’s journey never lacked excitement.

The Topeka, Kan., native feels blessed to have touched ground in all 50 states and 37 countries, giving more than 4,000 golf clinics around the world.

One clinic in New Zealand stands out. A 12-year-old girl with the same name (though one less “n”) sat in the audience, and after the session, told her father that she wanted to be a pro like Marilynn and play golf on the tour. Ten years later, Marilyn Smith of New Zealand joined the LPGA.

“She had to go by M.J. because I was still playing,” the elder Smith recalled.

Back at the house, Smith gave a history lesson in an office filled with memorabilia. She has four golf balls tucked away that bear the autographs of Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Babe Zaharias. She’d sell them for the right price.

Smith adored Ben Hogan and recalled a time when Hogan entered a room during the banquet of a senior event she organized.

“It was just like Jesus Christ had walked in,” Smith said, jokingly. “Everyone stopped talking.”

As for Babe, well, she was their ticket in those early days, the tour’s main attraction. When Zaharias died in 1956, Smith worried the tour might be buried right along with her. But the women rallied, putting an emphasis on PR and growing their fan base.

“A lot of people say, ‘Did you think it was going to be like it is today?’” Smith said. “No. We worked from day to day to keep it going.”

Today Smith has seven address books filled with names and memories. She began filling up the first one in 1950 when the tour started. The seventh one is falling apart, its pages fragile from constant use. Smith corresponds the old-fashioned way, sitting at her kitchen table, a small TV next to the stove and tuned to golf. Most of her time is spent trying to raise money for her scholarship fund.

How nice that this week, fans and players alike have the chance to personally thank a trailblazer such as Smith in Phoenix. It truly is an honor.

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