Suggs, 90, recalls highlights of fruitful career
Sunday, October 20, 2013
Editor's note: This story first appeared in Golfweek magazine ahead of Suggs' 90th birthday.
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ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – Louise Suggs remembers the first time she played in a golf tournament. She shot 92 to qualify for the championship flight but was practically in tears.
“Dad said, ‘What’s the matter with you?’ ” Suggs recalled. “ ‘Well, they’ve got a thing out there called a sand trap.’ I’d never seen one before.”
Suggs survived that tournament by chipping out backward from the bunkers, but her father soon built a sand box with a granite boulder behind it and said “get over it.” The most lofted club in her bag was a 7-iron.
Fast-forward several decades to Pine Tree Golf Club in Boynton Beach, Fla., where Suggs was a member along with JoAnne Carner, Karrie Webb, Meg Mallon and Beth Daniel. They were all out practicing one day when Suggs bet them each $1 she could get closer to the pin from a practice bunker with her 7-iron than they could with wedges.
“Of course they jumped on me like fleas on a hound dog,” Suggs said. “Being the senior, they said, ‘Go right ahead, Louise.’ I stoned it like this, about a foot away,” she said, using her hands to frame the distance. “They didn’t come close.”
The group called for a playoff, but Suggs took their money and ran.
Suggs turned 90 on Sept. 7, and to listen to her talk about her eight decades in golf is to take one of the game’s great history lessons. The proud Georgian would sit for hours watching Bobby Jones hit balls, creating in her mind’s eye a similar swing based on rhythm and balance. Suggs, an LPGA founder, won 61 titles and considered Babe Zaharias a rival. She gave lessons to then-first lady Barbara Bush and partnered with Ben Hogan.
In 1961, Suggs won the Royal Poinciana Invitational at Palm Beach Golf Club, an oceanside par-3 course, alongside some two dozen top male and female professionals. Playing from the same tees, Suggs beat the likes of Sam Snead, Cary Middlecoff and Dow Finsterwald.
“Bob Hope called her ‘Miss Sluggs’ for her long, tremendously classic swing,” said golf historian Rhonda Glenn.
Suggs now lives within shouting distance of the World Golf Hall of Fame with Damit, her over- protective poodle. She is as stubborn, frank and opinionated as ever, and her mind can recall the details of a 60-year-old story with incredible ease. Emily Post’s landmark book, “Etiquette,” resides on an office shelf along with a hymnal and the prestigious Bob Jones Award. She has given away much of her memorabilia, but the published swing sequence of a young Suggs that hangs in the main hallway of her home is still used as a point of reference. She is and forever will be a student of the game.
Suggs was born into a baseball family: Her grandfather owned the Atlanta Crackers, and her father, a left-handed pitcher, was cut by the New York Yankees in 1923 when manager Miller Huggins opted to keep Herb Pennock instead.
“Dad said, ‘If I take off this uniform, I’ll never put it back on again because I’ve got a baby on the way,’ ” Suggs said, pointing toward herself. She was born the night the old ballpark in Atlanta burned to the ground. Her father helped design a new steel and concrete structure before leaving baseball to build a golf course with no bunkers.
Lithia Springs Golf Course opened in 1932, in the middle of the Great Depression, and Johnny Suggs charged 25 cents for nine holes, and 75 cents for 18 on Saturday and Sunday. “When he went up to a dollar,” Louise said, “Everybody raised hell with him.”
“Dad had a bunch of wooden-shafted clubs and sawed off some to fit me,” Suggs said. “He used bicycle tape for the grips.”
Lithia Springs, which sits on a flood plain, no longer exists. The city of Austell, Ga., bought the property’s 70 highest acres and made it the Louise Suggs Memorial Park.
“I thought people they did that for were dead,” Suggs said jokingly.
Suggs worked as a file clerk for Gulf Oil just out of high school and built an enviable amateur record over her vacation days.
She took her first plane ride, to Dallas at age 17, to take part in an exhibition for charity with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, filling in for the Babe, who had asked for an appearance fee that organizers couldn’t pay.
Suggs, “starstruck as hell,” was the first to hit and caught a drive “right on the screws,” sending it 250 yards.
“Bob jumped up and said, ‘Whoa!’ ” Suggs recalled. Bing asked where he was going.
“ ‘I’m going to get a skirt. Where do you think?’ ” Hope replied.
It wasn’t long after that Suggs literally bumped heads with the love of her life in a rain shelter at Bobby Jones Golf Course in Buckhead, Ga. Howard McCracken, the son of a country doctor, was an Army Air Forces pilot, and the two quickly hit it off. They planned to wed in September 1946, but Mac’s plane went down somewhere over the Himalayas. He was never found. Suggs threw herself into her golf career, trying to forget.
“People don’t always know everything about you,” she said.
Suggs won the 1947 U.S. Women’s Amateur followed by the 1948 British Ladies Amateur, and she turned pro not long after.
Marilynn Smith served as secretary when Suggs was LPGA president in those early years. Smith credits Suggs’ strong business mind for keeping the tour afloat after Zaharias’ death in 1956. Glenn, the golf historian, said Mickey Wright often heard Suggs pounding on typewriter keys through the thin motel walls. She always was good about thanking sponsors.
Suggs keep tabs on the modern game with a sleek flatscreen TV in her living room, Damit sitting nearby on the couch. She marvels at today’s equipment, calling her latter-day clubs the equivalent of a “knot on the end of a stick.”
“I’ve actually hit golf balls and seen them go out of round in the air,” she said. “Like a goose egg.”
And the money the men now play for? Nothing short of obscene, she says.
But there’s great pride behind those old stories, knowing that she helped lay the foundation of a tour that would plant dreams in the hearts of generations to come.
“I’ve been blessed, I really have,” Suggs said. “I’ve had a good life.”