The Greatest Athlete of All

Babe Didrikson Zaharias was an Olympian Before She Excelled At Golf


By Rhonda Glenn, USGA
August 7, 2012

Cleveland – Everything looks the same: The players and caddies walk down a sun-struck hillside. The course sparkles with greenness in the light, and puffy white clouds scud along the horizon.

But since that day in 1946 when Babe Didrikson Zaharias, the two-time Olympic gold-medal winner, captured the U.S. Women’s Amateur, nearly everything has changed. Golf equipment, grass mowers, golf swings, Olympic high-jump rules and the status of women have all been altered.

Here at The Country Club, the television in the players’ locker room is tuned to the Olympic Games in London all day. The golfers seem excited to watch other female athletes put everything they have on the line. Many players know Babe’s name. She is, after all, the finest woman athlete of all time and is usually listed among history’s top dozen or so women golfers.

What they may not know is that her name is on the Robert Cox Trophy, which stands on a table downstairs. The trophy was donated in 1896. If you run your finger down the list of winners, there’s a slight gap after 1941, the year Elizabeth Hicks accepted the trophy on the clubhouse porch at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., because the club did not allow women to enter.

After 1941, the USGA suspended championships for four years during World War II. The Women’s Amateur resumed in 1946 and Zaharias defeated Clara Sherman, a tall, cheerful Californian, in the final with an 11-and-9 thrashing. After the war, the status of women had improved, and at Southern Hills Country Club, in Tulsa, Okla., they were allowed in the clubhouse.

Many players here don’t know that Babe Didrikson was a star of the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Fourteen years before she won the U.S. Women’s Amateur, at age 21, Babe won the 80-meter hurdles. Her time was 11.7 seconds, a world mark which stood for four years. She won the javelin with a record throw of 143 feet, 4 inches, a world standard that lasted until the next Olympics.

She lost the high jump because of a ruling. After jumping 5 feet, 5 inches, the same height as American Jean Shiley, Babe was deemed to have finished second to Shiley. She was given an odd half-gold, half-silver medal, the only one of its kind. Olympic officials ruled that on her finest jump, she had used the “Western Roll,” which was illegal at the time. The rule was changed a few years later.

After Zaharias became a golfer, she never talked about her track-and-field career and kept her Olympic medals in a dish in her kitchen.

“She never mentioned her Olympic medals or what she had done in the Games,” said famed golf instructor Peggy Kirk Bell, 90, one of Babe’s last surviving friends. “She only talked about golf. She said the game had lifted her up.”

Some of Babe’s records have never been broken, such as being named Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year six times between 1931 and 1954.

The trophy in The Country Club lobby here is a replica of the prize presented to Zaharias at the Women’s Amateur in 1946. It’s a little smaller than the original, which is displayed at the USGA Museum in Far Hills, N.J.

After more than 100 years, the original is too delicate to be sent on the road. After all, it was held in the loving embrace of many great champions, including Babe Didrikson Zaharias, and it is a hallowed piece.

Rhonda Glenn is a manager of communications for the USGA. Email her at rglenn@usga.org.

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