Note: Judy Bell, USGA president in 1996 and 1997, was a noted amateur and a member of the USA Curtis Cup Team in 1960 and 1962. She contributed these thoughts on golf’s friendships for a new monthly USGA series, “It’s About the Game.”
The game of golf is all about people. So much about this game has to do with personal contact and that’s where friendships come in. Most of the people I’ve befriended over the years have been fellow competitors, but this circle also includes volunteers, caddies, green superintendents and people who work in the game. Those friendships are all about our mutual love for golf.
Golf is an individual game. That’s what makes it so special. It’s up to you to put your measure out there as compared to other people and it’s where friendships have the opportunity to blossom. We’ve all heard that you can learn a lot about a person on a golf course. That knowledge comes through how you see a person handle situations where there’s a little leeway and how they respect the rules and their fellow competitors.
Most of my abiding friendships are newsContented in playing the game. In Wichita, where I grew up, only three girls my age played golf. My mother was president of the Kansas State Women’s Golf Association and gave me the opportunity to play, but she expected a certain behavior. Period. Because there were so few junior girl golfers, I mostly played with older people who probably didn’t particularly enjoy playing with me, despite my perfect deportment!
At that time, only at the national level did I realize there were girls all over the country who, like me, played golf seriously. Our main link was that we just loved to play. We really enjoyed it, worked at it and played nearly every day. Whether it was at public or private courses, we all faced the same challenge. We were always seeking other girls to play with. We’d find them at a junior tournament and stay in touch by writing letters, keeping tabs on each other and sharing plans for the summer.
Jean Ashley from Chanute, Kan., who called me a few minutes ago, is one of my longtime friends through golf. We’ve been friends since I was 16, a friendship of nearly 60 years duration. When we were kids, Jean came to Wichita to take lessons from my pro, Mike Murra. She’d stay at my house and we played all the time.
Barbara McIntire, my business partner and pal, and Mickey Wright, the great professional, were 17 when we all played in the 1952 U.S. Girls’ Junior. I was just 15, but at the championship we all became friends and we’re still friends today.
Our parents got to know our golf friends too, because junior girls didn’t travel alone as they do today. It wasn’t that our parents didn’t trust us, they wanted to be there. That was fine with me because they took care of transportation, hotels and a lot of things I didn’t have to worry about.
As I grew up, I met more friends at women’s amateur tournaments where we competed against each other. Some you liked better than others, so you became close. At tournaments I might ask, “Do you want to stay together at the Western?” or, “Let’s play a practice round at the Women’s Amateur.” So we got to know each other better.
Some I got to know on the winter Orange Blossom Circuit in Florida. That was another circle of pals because we were all down there playing in seven or eight tournaments. The same group drove from tournament to tournament, beginning at the Doherty in Fort Lauderdale and ending at Pinehurst for the North & South Women’s Amateur.
At that time, we socialized with other players perhaps more than today’s players do. We’d go to the movies, go bowling, or do whatever there was to do in that town. In Ormond Beach, site of the South Atlantic Championship, we’d walk the beach. We stayed in cottages and my dad would send steaks down from Wichita and we’d have a big cookout at our cottage, which was always fun. We were with the same people all the time and strong ties developed.
Last night I had dinner with Barbara McIntire, Tish Preuss, Ann Casey Johnstone and Barbara Romack. If you added up the length of my friendships with each of them, it would amount to more than 200 years, which indicates just how longstanding the bonds among golfers can be. All of us were Curtis Cup players. When we played on Curtis Cup Teams in the 1950s and ‘60s, there were no college teams so we didn’t have the team experience that men had at their colleges. Making the Curtis Cup Team was a very big deal. We respected the players of both sides because we all had struggled to accomplish the goal of making the team. We tried as hard as we could because it was important to us and we made it. I think that’s where our special ties come from. When you play with someone on a team, you really get to know them.
Our 1960 Curtis Cup Team traveled to England for the match. None of us had ever played overseas and we were all just green as green. We had no idea of what to expect. We were interviewed by Lincoln Werden, the fine reporter for The New York Times. He was asking questions of Mildred Prunaret, our American captain, and I was listening to the answers. When he asked Mrs. Prunaret how we’d do, she said she had every confidence that we would be successful. I remember exactly what she said. I thought okay, that means we’re going to win, but she was so gracious in how she phrased it.
My friendship with Mildred Prunaret and her husband, Henri, was one of the most meaningful of my life. They became like second parents to me and I visited them until the end of their lives.
Many friends are from The Broadmoor Invitation. Because I ran that amateur tournament, I was able to keep up with many current professionals. Amateurs who were at the top of the game and perhaps later turned professional played in The Broadmoor. I was able to watch them play and stay in touch with the contemporary game. It was such a unique event and we shared a lot of good times. A steak fry was our version of the players’ dinner and everyone loved it because it was casual, festive and a lot of fun.
Not all of my friends have been competitive golfers. Friendships with golf’s volunteers, including USGA committee members, came about through administrating the game and being involved outside of the ropes. Officiating at USGA championships throughout the country I also got to know people who worked at our host clubs, for whom I have a lot of respect.
Most of the people I’ve mentioned play golf. Players have a certain respect for the game and a feeling about how it should be played. Certain things, having to do with respect for golf, the course and other players, I would never think of doing on the golf course. It would be a violation to me, although it may not be a penalty and I’m drawn to those people who feel the same way.
This week some of the competitors from my playing days drove nearly a thousand miles to visit. I’ve been dealing with health issues and it’s easy to get down in the dumps, so to have them visit is very, very refreshing. These are people I’m close to and it happens to be through golf, but it’s the closeness that works for me. Our great conversations take us right back down memory lane. In the days when we went to the first tee, we were competitors, but at the same time we were all friends. Our friendships happened through the game. If you took the game away, that closeness probably wouldn’t be there.
I’ve always believed that playing golf is truly a great honor. Bob Jones once wrote of his friends and how he would miss competition, how he would no doubt read of their tournament exploits and yearn to once again be with “the boys.” It indicates just how strong our friendships in golf can be. The friends I’ve made through playing and volunteering in golf are some of the most meaningful bonds I have, and I’m grateful because I have the greatest love for this great game of ours and eternal optimism for its future.