In her later years, Glenna Collett Vare spent her winters in a pleasant house in Gulfstream, Fla. A card table in the living room was piled high with letters and autograph requests and she attacked the pile almost daily.
“I never seem to get it done,” Vare moaned to a new acquaintance in 1987.
At 84, she was still upright of carriage and her chin had a confident little tilt. She had been a great champion, of which she was always proud. While her last national title had come 52 years before, the pile of mail attested to her enduring stature in American golf.
Vare won the U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship six times and with so few great women players remaining lifelong amateurs, it is one record that will no doubt last as long as golf is played.
August 31, 2010, marks the 75th anniversary of Vare’s victory in the 1935 U.S. Women’s Amateur, her sixth and last national championship. Her six gold medals from those victories are in the USGA Museum. Her other trophies were melted down and made into a silver tray, a very heavy silver tray, inscribed with each of her victories.
The 1935 championship marked a comeback of sorts. Vare had retired two years before in favor of caring for her little family; husband Edwin H. Vare Jr., daughter Glenna, or Glenny, born in 1933, and son Edwin, or Ned, born in 1934.
Glenna Collett, born June 20, 1903, in New Haven, Conn., was a child prodigy who gained fame as a swimmer. At 10, she was driving a car. At 14, she one day accompanied her father as he played golf. After watching for a while, she asked if she could try hitting the ball.
She “banged a beauty straight down the fairway,” wrote Herbert Warren Wind in The Story of American Golf. Glenna learned rapidly. One of her greatest inspirations came from watching Alexa Sterling in Red Cross benefit matches during World War I with Bob Jones, Perry Adair and Elaine Rosenthal.
At 16, she played in the 1919 U.S. Women’s Amateur for the first time and even won a match before losing in the second round. Films of the youthful Collett show a wisp of a girl with a full, flowing swing. Despite standing only 5-foot-6 with a slender build, she was a big hitter and once tagged a tee shot a measured 307 yards, a remarkable distance for that day. Glenna, said Betty Jameson, had “a dramatic” swing and lashed at the ball. With a brassie or 3-wood, she was dead-on.
In 1922, Glenna, 19, won the Women’s Amateur for the first time, ousting socialite Edith Cummings in the semifinals and defeating Margaret Gavin in the final, 5 and 4. She lost in the third round in 1923. In 1924, tennis champion Mary K. Browne upset her on the 19th hole of the semifinals when Browne’s ball caromed off Glenna’s ball and into the hole. Golf was still using stymies.
In 1925, Collett captured her second Women’s Amateur Championship and the players she knocked off on her way to the title were the best in the game: Veteran Mrs. Caleb Fox, Canadian ace Ada Mackenzie, young Fritzi Stifel in the quarters and Edith Cummings again in the semifinals. Then she dispatched her childhood heroine, Alexa Stirling Fraser, by a devastating 9-and-8 margin.
While she failed to win in 1926 and 1927 (losing to Fraser in the second round in 1927), she routinely won Florida tournaments, the Women’s Eastern Amateur and the North & South. For Collett, as for nearly every other woman, the expense of competitive golf strained the family budget. According to an article she wrote in 1931, during this period Glenna tried several business ventures. She produced two books, Golf for Young Players, in 1926, and Ladies in the Rough, in 1928.
“Friends wrote them for me,” she said in 1987, “and I know exactly which friend wrote what.”
She spent one winter trying to organize a golf magazine, but the effort interfered with her tournaments and she resigned. For two winters she worked in real estate in Pinehurst and liked it well enough but, again, golf’s lure was too great.
Rededicating herself to the game, in 1928 Glenna began a three-year victory march through the Women’s Amateur. Now 25 and in her prime, she hammered Virginia Van Wie in the 1928 final, 13 and 12. In 1929, she outlasted Californian Leona Pressler, 4 and 3, to win her fourth crown. And in 1930 at Los Angeles C.C., Van Wie was again the victim as Collett romped through the final match, 6 and 5.
With three championships in a row and five overall, Glenna Collett was the toast of golf’s golden age. She was clearly America’s finest woman golfer. Only a victory in the time-honored British Ladies Open Amateur was missing and only one player kept Collett from being hailed as the greatest woman golfer in the world: Joyce Wethered.
Wethered dominated golf in Great Britain and Collett would have to sail across the ocean to meet her. Collett’s only equal, Wethered admitted that the young American could be virtually unbeatable.
“If she is finding her true form, then there is little hope, except by miracle, of surviving,” Wethered wrote in her book, Golfing Memories and Methods.
Collett’s trip to Scotland in 1929 prompted one of golf’s greatest battles. The two rivals were similar in their playing ability but when competing, the reclusive Wethered holed up alone in a remote hotel room. Glenna traveled with a coterie of friends. “You could hear the champagne corks popping even before the championship began,” said noted British golf journalist Enid Wilson.
The 1929 British Amateur was played at St. Andrews, and Wethered – the three-time champion – had emerged from retirement because she loved the course. Like the lead characters in some long-ago fairy tale, Wethered and Collett advanced to the final. But there was to be no happy ending for Collett. After the American went 5-up through the first 11 holes, Wethered charged back to win the match.
While the two became good friends and corresponded over the years, that loss always irked Glenna. In 1987, 58 years later, referring to Wethered’s fans at that long-ago encounter, Glenna groused, “Hmph, they always left a car for her on the 16th hole.” In Scotland, the spectators loudly supported their heroine but let out hardly a peep when the American challenger played. For one of the few times in her career, Glenna was intimidated by the silence and privately said she believed she would have to have made a hole-in-one to get any cheers. Publicly, she said in 1975 that it had been her favorite match. “The match was so exciting,” Vare remembered. “There were so many Scots watching the match and in those days the crowds followed the matches very, very closely. I was lucky to have a few friends, strong ones, who linked arms to keep the gallery from getting to me. Even still, I was very lucky to ever see a shot land. When I was winning, the silence was deafening. When she started to win, there was a noise like I never heard.”
In 1931, Collett married Edwin H. Vare Jr., an engineering contractor and a fine golfer, and the couple settled in Philadelphia where Glenna lived what two-time Women’s Amateur champion Betty Jameson called, “a rather grand life.” Jameson later recalled visiting Vare during this period and finding a touching scene; a sunny room where Glenna was enjoying breakfast with her two beautiful toddlers.
In the Women’s Amateur, Glenna, still a feared competitor, was runner-up two years in a row, in 1931 to Helen Hicks and in 1932 to Van Wie, who squared accounts by smashing Mrs. Vare’s hopes, 10 and 8.
In 1932, Glenna exacted some measure of revenge when she and her foursomes partner Opal Hill defeated Wethered and Wanda Morgan, 1 up, in the first Curtis Cup match at Wentworth (England) G.C. But Wethered trounced Glenna in singles, 6 and 4. It was the last time the two met in a head-to-head duel. When the USA won the Match, 5½ to 3½, Vare’s foursomes point provided the margin of victory. If Wethered had won the point, the first Curtis Cup would have ended in a tie.
In 1933, with Vare on the sidelines raising her two children, Van Wie won the second of her three straight titles. Glenna re-emerged in 1934 but lost to Van Wie in the semifinals.
A year later Vare arrived at Interlachen C.C. near Minneapolis to give it another try. Only 32, she now had a more matronly look after having borne two children. In that era, a 32-year-old woman golfer was regarded as something of an old campaigner.
“If there is something a doting public loves to witness, it is to see a noble figure emerge from the shadows of the past and return to head the parade,” Bernard E. Swanson wrote in Golf Illustrated of Vare’s 1935 Women’s Amateur appearance, adding, “Mrs. Vare was not very far back in those shadows.”
When the week began, Vare fretted she wasn’t hitting the ball as far as she had, but friends assured her she was hitting it farther than ever. She did admit that her game was, otherwise, as fine as at her peak, yet steadier and more consistent.
The next generation of great young players made Glenna’s path to the title a rough one. Seventeen-year-old Patty Berg had played golf for only three years and while her iron play wasn’t sharp, she handled her putter like a champion. Berg was holing tremendous putts in tight matches. In the quarterfinals, the red-headed, freckle-faced Berg defeated Peggy Chandler with a 45-footer on the 18th green, from the same spot where Bob Jones had dropped the winning putt in the 1930 U.S. Open during his Grand Slam. The next day, Berg rammed home a 25-footer on the 18th to catch Charlotte Glutting in the semifinals, then won on the 21st hole.
Vare’s semifinal victory over another young local favorite, Bea Barrett, meant Vare would face Berg in a dramatic 36-hole showdown on Aug. 31. The press hyped the match as a meeting for the ages. They weren’t far off. Berg, a Minneapolis native, this week was “the kid” and the favorite of an excited hometown crowd. Vare was the finest woman golfer in American history, a near-hallowed figure now in a dramatic battle for her sixth title.
A reported 7,000 fans, most of them in Berg’s camp, tromped over Interlachen for the final in what Bernard Swanson called, “morbid weather.” It was a remarkable turnout for women’s amateur golf. Admission was $1 a ticket, and this during the depths of The Great Depression.
Vare was inspired. Before she married, Glenna Collett had won her fifth Women’s Amateur title just as Berg was beginning to play golf. She was determined to now win a sixth. “I wanted to put ‘Vare’ on the trophy,” she later told Jameson.
In the final, Berg struggled early on the greens as Vare took a 4-up lead. In the gallery, Berg’s brother Herman whispered to Berg’s father, “Boy, if she doesn’t putt, we won’t be here long.”
As vivacious and charming as Glenna was off the golf course, she was stoic in a match. Berg was intimidated. But four holes down after 27 and three holes down after the 32nd, Berg rolled in an 18-footer to take the 33rd hole and reduce Vare’s lead to 2 up with three to play. Then Berg’s great week came to a close. She was unable to match Vare’s 4 at the 34th. Vare had won her sixth crown, 3 and 2.
Years later, Berg said she was happy with the outcome. “I thought it’d be 8-and-7, or 9-and-8, or something like that. So I really felt that I did OK.”
Vare was as gracious in victory as she was in the rare defeat, remarking on how many fine young players were in the field and that Berg was foremost among them.
“It was as sentimental a triumph as you would care to observe,” Swanson wrote in Golf Illustrated.
Glenna had played in national championships for 15 years, winning six. In her last 38 matches, she had lost only three, and they were either in the final or to the eventual champion.
Vare and Berg remained good friends. Curtis Cup captain in 1936, Vare paired herself with young Berg in foursomes and they halved the match. Over the years they reminisced about matches when they met. When Berg was elected to the Women’s Sports Foundation Hall of Fame in the early 1980s, Vare accepted the honor in New York on Patty’s behalf.
Vare spoke as the first woman honoree at Jack Nicklaus’s Memorial Tournament in 1982. In her acceptance speech, Vare said she was honored to be recognized by The Memorial, “especially since I am still alive.” Comedian Bob Hope, seated at the dais, poked Berg in the ribs and whispered, “Pretty good!”
While she was charming and widely hailed as a great sport, Vare could be brusque in her later years. Carol Semple Thompson, the 1973 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion, told Golf World writer Bill Fields, “I always found her a little bit hard to talk to. She was older, sort of gruff, and sure of herself. She was wonderful, but she would have scared me to death if I had to play against her.”
Glenna addressed the topic herself in an interview with Golf Magazine in 1989, saying that while some thought she was fierce, she never thought of herself in that way. “People say I was intimidating, but I was not,” Vare said. “Let me tell you something. I lost matches because I tried to be too nice. It’s true. I’d start out on the first tee with a girl saying how scared she was of me. So I’d get kind of sentimental and want to put her at ease, and before I knew it I’d be five down and licked – just being nice!”
Vare was, however, very shy, which made her distant with people she did not know. In 1984, for the only time in her life, Vare, who hated to fly, made the plane trip to St. Andrews for the Curtis Cup Match.
“At St. Andrews in 1984, friends put Glenna and I together and we got along well,” said Judy Bell, former USGA president. “It’s amazing but all those years after the 1929 match with Joyce Wethered, people in the town recognized her. We spent time together and she was so retiring that when anyone asked her a question about her career, she’d demure and say, ‘Oh, ask Judy. She knows all about it.’ She was just terribly, terribly shy.”
Like many champions, Vare reached the point where she could no longer play golf up to her own standards so she quit playing the game. She enjoyed bridge, entertained friends at home and answered mail from longtime fans, but gave interviews very rarely.
In February of 1989, Vare invited a few friends to join her and her daughter Glenny for dinner at her Gulfstream home. She was in failing health with lymphoma. After dinner Vare asked a guest to turn on more lights. The room, she said, seemed so dark. She died during the night. She was 85.
Judy Bell encouraged a writer to do an obituary on Vare for Golf World. “Tell them she was our Bobby Jones,” Bell pleaded.
Jameson and her friend Mary Lena Faulk took Glenna’s dogs. Former USGA Women’s Committee member Peggy Runnette and her husband Bob eventually bought Glenna’s Gulfstream house. Vare’s old friend Maureen Orcutt, the many-time member of the USA Curtis Cup team, asked teenage girl golfers of the 1990s if they knew about Glenna Collett and was peeved when they did not.
Glenna Collett Vare won the U.S. Women’s Amateur six times during America’s golden age of golf. Celebrated both here and abroad, Vare was a great champion, a terrific sport and a fine friend. She never considered turning pro.
“I have no regrets,” Vare once told The Providence Journal. “I got to travel all over the world. I don’t think I would have if I hadn’t played golf. I think I would only have been a merry little housewife.”
Some housewife. Some golf.
Rhonda Glenn is a manager of communications for the USGA. E-mail her with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.