CHAMPIONS
Women’s Am Champs Gloried in Their Feats, Camaraderie March 18, 2013 By Rhonda Glenn, USGA

At the time of the 1949 U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship at Merion Golf Club, few players turned professional and the bonds they formed over years of competing, and even the rivalries, prompted many to stay in contact. Someone, somewhere, nearly always knew how to get in touch.

Occasionally, a reunion brought them together again. It was as if they had never been apart.

After the 1950 Curtis Cup, Grace Lenczyk returned to Connecticut, where she painted, rode horses and got married. As Grace Lenczyk Cronin, she went to occasional get-togethers of champions.

Lenczyk caused universal hilarity at the USGA’s 100th birthday dinner at the 1995 Women’s Amateur. Introduced as the 1948 champion, she lit up the ballroom.

“At the time I thought, this was so easy I’ll win 11 or 12 of these things!” she said.

The USGA vice president, Judy Bell, had helped organize that celebration. With others, Bell was nervous about its success. Were too many champions going to speak? What would they say? Would they be boring and say inconsequential things?

After the dinner, Bell drove back to her hotel and turned to her passengers in the car. “We needn’t have worried,” she said. “After all, they’re all champions. “

In the years after the 1949 championship, Helen Sigel and her husband, Charlie Wilson, opened two famous restaurants in Philadelphia. She remained a lifelong friend of Peggy Kirk Bell, who played the LPGA Tour for a while and with her husband, Warren “Bullet” Bell, opened the Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club in Southern Pines, N.C.

Helen Sigel Wilson had a great record, winning a total of 25 Philadelphia and Pennsylvania titles. She won the Women’s Eastern in 1952 and 1962, and added another Curtis Cup berth to her resume in 1966.

Admittedly, she never recovered from the 1975 death of her daughter, Kirk, who was 21 when she was fatally injured in a horseback riding accident.

“The stuffing was knocked out of Helen and Charlie,” a friend recalled.

Wilson’s sense of humor gradually returned. She sometimes telephoned friends and spoke “French,” conducting entire conversations in a language she did not know. At a celebration honoring her 80th birthday in 1998, Helen was given a glowing introduction, and stepped from behind a curtain to do a lengthy tap dance, hoofing away in a pair of noisy tap shoes.

I saw Dot Porter for one of the last times in 2000, when the USGA invited champions to Waverley Country Club in Portland, Ore., to honor the 100th playing of the Women’s Amateur. On Sunday night, they each spoke at the Players Dinner. Most recalled funny incidents from when they won. Dot Porter leaned casually against the lectern, her navy blazer draped in perfect folds. At 76, she was still a handsome woman with a broad smile, and her expressive eyes gazed kindly at the young players in the audience.

“I’ve been thinking,” she said, “of how very lucky we all are to be here together and to play this game.”

After dinner, the champions assembled in the dark bar of their old hotel, standing or sitting on bar stools around a long table, and they were noisily elated even before drinks arrived. Porter and Beverly Hanson Sfingi, who won in 1950, were the acknowledged leaders. To pan a camera across the faces of those champions – Jackie Pung (1952), Barbara Romack (1954), Pat Lesser Harbottle (1955), Anne Quast Sander (1958, 1961, 1963), Barbara McIntire (1959, 1964), Martha Wilkinson Kirouac (1970), Mary Budke (1972) and Thompson (1973) – was to see a panorama of entire eras of American women’s amateur golf.

The chatter was cheerful and fun.

“Dot Kirby showed me that chip shot off hardpan. Play the ball back in your stance, beyond your right foot. Kirby said she used to drive Suggs crazy with that shot!”

“She didn’t!

“They never got along too well.”

“Hand me a dinner knife. I’ll show you Mickey’s backswing. See, she had a sort of lag when she took it back. Like this at the top. Right, Bev?”

“Well, you’ve almost got it but the face is closed. A little more bend in that left wrist. There!”

The younger women gave way to the striking Sfingi, who regaled them with stories of her early years on the pro tour and the contract with the MacGregor Golf Co. that beefed up her finances.

“I had more money than I knew what to do with!” Sfingi said. “I was golden!”

Their powerful personalities were without ego that night as they laughed and raised their glasses. And then someone said, “Let’s go see Pam.”

Pam Emory, a member of the USGA Women’s Committee, was dying of cancer. She knew it, everyone knew it, but Emory was a fine historian and writer and she was not about to miss the 100th celebration. Exhausted by the dinner, Emory had retired to her hotel room. It would not be long before her next surgery, which could not cure her but might give her a little time.

The champions crowded into an elevator. Emory, wide-eyed, opened her door to the jolly group and they trooped into her room, sat on the bed or the floor, toured Emory’s wardrobe and admired the shoes she had bought that day. They said funny things and were generally raucous and then it was time to leave. They filed through the door yelling, “Good night, Pam!” and Emory beamed.

They were somber in the elevator. Surely, we are all equal, but they had a strength of character, thoughtfulness and quiet dignity and, at that moment, I would have belted anyone who disparaged any of them.

No, they didn’t want another drink and they exchanged soft good-byes on the landing and walked down the hallway to their rooms.

Beverly Hanson Sfingi returned to the Palm Springs area, becoming busy again with a farming cooperative. A short while later, Bev’s husband, Andy, was killed in an automobile accident. We never heard much from her after that.

Pam Emory died in surgery a few months later. Mary Budke, who was a physician and Pam’s close friend, called the USGA to share the sad news. Pam and I barely knew each other but on that last merry night in her hotel room, she had fished through her luggage and presented me with a pencil from The Masters. The pencil, unsharpened, stands in a coffee mug on my desk. I pick it up occasionally.

Dot Porter remained a popular and fierce competitor. After she raised her family she won the USGA Senior Women’s Amateur four times for a total of five USGA national championship titles.

The legendary Mickey Wright was a youngster when she was paired with Porter and Wright said that Dot was one of her favorite people to play with.

One veteran amateur scoffed, “Dot won all of those tournaments, so she couldn’t have been that sweet. Winners are tough, you know.”

Porter served on the USGA Women’s Committee and in 1966 captained the USA Curtis Cup team, which featured the older Helen Sigel Wilson. She did charity work and was an elder at her church. In her later years she traveled to other countries to help doctors inoculate children against disease.

Dot visited Helen four days before Wilson died, at 83, in the spring of 2001. Porter then commented: “When I started playing big-time golf, I felt like it wasn’t any different from playing at home. Helen and I had played so much against each other, we were used to that kind of competition.”

Dorothy Germain Porter died in 2012 at the age of 88, having led an honored life.

Dorothy Kielty was never defeated in Curtis Cup play. She won the 1950 Women’s Canadian Open Amateur then drifted out of golf’s spotlight. Her clothing store was a success and she traveled extensively, but never again did she give competitive golf everything she had.

Kielty remained something of a mystery. In 1964, a veteran amateur strolled into a gambling casino in Monte Carlo. There, like an elegant apparition, sat Dorothy Kielty, smoking a cigarette and playing chemin de fer. Recognition was instant. The two players were almost a generation apart and never great friends, but they chatted for a few moments, were very careful to make no plans, and went their separate ways.

Kielty’s name seldom came up after that. She died in 1990, just short of her 72nd birthday, in Santa Cruz, Calif. Like the others, she had played in a sort of cusp of women’s golf, when there was enough glory to go around for both professionals and amateurs. And as we know, glory never dies.

Rhonda Glenn is a manager of communications for the USGA. She has played in 11 USGA championships. Email her at rglenn@usga.org.