Blalock on Wirtz: 'Our biggest supporter'
Within the small, but fiercely competitive world of ACC basketball, opinions ran a wide gamut when it came to Lenny Wirtz.
Adored by many, reviled by plenty, he etched out a substantial reputation as one of the NCAA’s most heralded officials who plied his trade for more than three decades.
But in the aftermath of Wirtz’ death Oct. 11 at the age of 85, there seems to be no difference of opinion when it comes to that other slice of his flavorful life that consumed him. “He was a counselor, he was a friend, he was our biggest supporter, but mostly he was a big-time promoter,” said Jane Blalock, who was just breaking onto the LPGA Tour in the late 1960s when Wirtz was winding down his tenure of tournament director.
Blalock knows her history and is acutely aware that the LPGA Tour didn’t name its first commissioner – Ray Volpe – until 1975, but to her, Wirtz “was a commissioner; he just did everything.”
In the month since his death in Boca Raton, Fla., Wirtz has prompted an internet flood of memories, virtually all built around the high-octane, high-profile world of college basketball. But it’s his devotion to the LPGA Tour in the 1960s that former players remember – and they are still thankful for all he contributed.
“He treated all the players, from Patty Berg and Louise Suggs to the rookies, with the utmost respect as career women,” said Rhonda Glenn, who played competitively as an amateur in those days and went on to be the foremost authority on women’s golf in America. “I miss seeing him.”
When March would roll around in the 1960s, Wirtz would put down the whistle and jump into his duties with women’s professional golf. Though Blalock wouldn’t arrive on tour until 1969, she came in knowing of Wirtz’ work on their behalf.
“He took them from beyond a band of women golfers to showing that they were marketable,” said Blalock. “He was tough and he was disciplined, but he was exactly what (the women golfers) needed.”
Coming along at a time when the tour had a bonafide superstar, Mickey Wright, Wirtz told the women that they deserved bigger purses and more money. Then he went out and produced. In 1966, for instance, Wirtz took the game’s six best to Springfield, Ohio, for what he called the Ladies World Series of Golf. Thirty-six holes later when Wright won, she accepted a check for $10,000. The sixth-place finisher earned $2,500.
As for Wirtz, he earned even greater admiration from the women.
“It scares me to think that there is that much money to be spent on sports purses,” Kathy Whitworth, one of the six players, said to a Sports Illustrated reporter that week. “I certainly wouldn't have the nerve to ask for it.”
Wirtz did, though, and it was because he believed in the players, a respect that seemingly was mutual.
“Nearly all of the players liked Lenny,” said Barbara Romack, so accomplished a player that she beat Wright to win the 1954 US Women’s Amateur. After several more years of distinguished play as an amateur, Romack turned professional in 1958 and later served as the LPGA Tour’s acting president when Shirley Englehorn was in a car accident.
It was in that role that Romack came to appreciate Wirtz.
“I thought Lenny did an outstanding job, considering everything he had to deal with,” she said. America’s sports culture wasn’t very accepting of women professionals and sponsors were difficult to woo, but Wirtz met both challenges head-on.
To many, though, it was the way in which he handled the sensitive situation involving the legendary Althea Gibson that earned their everlasting respect.
By the 1960s, Gibson had traded in her iconic tennis career (five majors, including two Wimbledons and two US Opens) to play professional golf. She was competitive and a draw, but she was also an African-American. “Tournaments at that time wouldn’t let her play, for fear that she might become a target of violence,” Romack said.
Writing a salute to Gibson for the USGA’s Museum, Glenn remembered those tense days. “Lenny rose to Gibson’s defense. In one city, the host club refused to let Gibson play, so Wirtz withdrew the tournament and moved it to a public course.”
Sadly, Gibson agreed to stay on the sidelines for a season to defuse the situation, but with Wirtz championing her cause, she returned the following season and played without incident. “She not only played,” said Romack, “(but) two of the sponsors invited her to stay in their homes.”
Though he stood about 5 feet 4 inches, Wirtz was a flamboyant personality on the basketball court and generated a lot of press for himself. He was featured in some lengthy stories in Sports Illustrated, but they were built around his officiating persona.
There was one SI story regarding golf in 1964, however, that mentioned Wirtz prominently. It was a Gwilym S. Brown feature on Wright and her desire to walk away from the game at the age of 29. “You can’t,” Wirtz protested. “There’s a lot you haven’t done yet. You don’t even hold the record for the lowest 18-hole score.”
Brown wrote that a short time later, Wright – having won the Tall City Open – walked from the 18th hole at Hogan Park Golf Course in Midland, Texas, found a pay phone, and called Wirtz. “You know that scoring record?” she said. “I’ve got it now.”
Having shot 62 in yet another dominating victory, Wright went through with her plan to retire from the LPGA Tour and in 1965 she played sparingly.
A year later, though, Wirtz was his dogged self. Persuasive as ever, he told Wright that the Tour needed her and connected with the great woman’s competitive spirit. She returned to tournament play and from 1966-68 she won 15 more times.
Again, Wirtz had prevailed on behalf of the LPGA Tour.