2006: The LPGA’s ‘Miss Personality’ - Marilynn Smith
Thursday, June 30, 2011
Marilynn Smith is a lover of words. Indefatigable – a mouthful of an adjective that means incapable
of being fatigued – happens to be her favorite.
It’s fitting for the LPGA pioneer, who worked tirelessly for decades to get the word out about
a group of ladies with a wealth of talent. One of 13 founders of the LPGA in 1950, Smith served as president from 1958-60 and played a significant role in setting up the LPGA Teaching and Club Professionals division.
Smith, 77, enters her eighth Hall of Fame Oct. 30 in St. Augustine, Fla. The decorated Kansan gets emotional when asked what the World Golf Hall of Fame means to her and quickly deflects praise to the countless women who have offered a hand along the way.
Those who worked in the trenches with “Miss Personality,” however, have little trouble coming up with words to express what she has meant to the women’s game.
“That’s what stands out most to all of us, her energy and tireless promotion of the LPGA,” said Hall of Famer Kathy Whitworth. “It was hours and hours of midnight oil you might say.”
Said fellow co-founder Shirley Spork: “If it wasn’t for her, there wouldn’t be an LPGA.”
Whitworth says Smith was the best public relations person the tour has ever seen. It wasn’t unusual for Smith to show up at Major League ballparks before the start of a baseball game and hit golf balls from home plate to center field, then grab the microphone and tell fans to come out and support the tour.
Truth be told, baseball was Smith’s first love. Growing up, Smith was the pitcher, coach and manager of a boys’ baseball team, hoping to one day pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals.
When she came home from a game one afternoon her mother, Alma, inquired about her pitching. A 12-year-old Smith hurled her mitt against the wall and let a four-letter word fly. Her mouth was promptly washed with soap and her baseball career cut off at age 12.
“Dad said, ‘We better take her out to Wichita Country Club and teach her a ladylike sport,’ ” said Smith.
In 1949, while playing for Kansas, Smith won the Women’s National Collegiate title and turned pro. She joined the Spalding staff and received a $5,000 salary, a car and her own line of clubs. She also asked to have a baseball and two gloves included in her contract so she could play catch with caddies and Spork, her traveling companion.
A consummate professional prone to kind words and thank you notes, Smith often searched for perfection on the course. Spork recalls Smith seeking out an instructor at every tour stop. While she never discovered the elusive secret, her mechanical swing did produce great ball-striking. In 1971, Smith became the first LPGA player to record a double eagle.
It’s no wonder then that Smith developed a love of teaching. She estimates she has put on 4,000 clinics over the years. The game has put her in the presence of five U.S. presidents, taken her to 50 states and 36 countries.
Smith says the most common swing flaw she has noticed over the years among women is an inability to hold the finish.
“It’s just like dancing,” says Smith, “you go from one foot to the other. Golf is rhythm and balance.”
Bad knees worsened by a skiing accident have kept Smith from playing golf in the last 10 years but she’s “busier than ever,” staying heavily involved in the Marilynn Smith EWGA Golf Classic in Dallas that benefits the Marilynn Smith Scholarship and LPGA-USGA Girls Golf.
Smith won 21 titles over the years, including the 1963 and ’64 Titleholders Championship, then a major. Nothing was more thrilling for Smith than slipping on the green Titleholders jacket. Every year she looked forward to the party players put on that week. Babe Zaharias brought out her harmonica, accompanied by Betty Dodd on guitar. Patty Berg and Smith would stand up and sing off-key while Hawaii’s Jackie Pung danced the hula.
Smith bubbles over with pride when telling tales from her beloved tour. In 1987 she organized the first senior women’s professional tournament, the Marilynn Smith Founders Classic. Smith lowered the age requirement to 45 so that Whitworth could play. The game’s all-time winningest player took home the trophy that year but by 1989 support in the Dallas area had dwindled and the tournament died.
Another “first” footnote for Smith came in 1973 when she became the first female television commentator for a men’s tournament at the U.S. Open.
“I was ahead of my time again,” Smith said with a chuckle.
Listening to Smith go on about LPGA road caravans, Sports Illustrated modeling stints and John F. Kennedy’s tendency to slice, the conversation took an abrupt turn when she began talking about the perils of travel.
“You know I’ve been robbed four times and shot at by a sniper,” said Smith.
At a tournament in Florida in the 1970s – “I’m not going to tell you where” – Smith says she backed off a 5-iron to realign and watched a .45 Magnum bullet cross where she was standing and almost hit the foot of a walking scorer.
Everyone hit the deck and stayed put until a tournament director told them it was safe to finish playing. A shaky Smith can’t recall what she shot that day but she does remember an official telling her after the round that it was a case of target practice gone awry.
Six months later at a tournament, that same official told her the real story was that multiple shots were fired on the course that day and he saw a man run out of the nearby woods, leap on a motorcycle and drive away. Smith says officials didn’t want the real story to get out to the media.
“Sometimes I have to pinch myself,” said Smith.
She has played with her idols – Ben Hogan and Stan Musial. She has traveled the world, lived on the edge and kept her generous heart intact.
Marilynn Smith says she wouldn’t change a thing about her adventurous life. And the LPGA is better off for it.