125 Years of Golf in America: Oklahoma February 6, 2019

The USGA was founded on Dec. 22, 1894. With the 125th anniversary coming at the end of 2019, every week throughout the year we're highlighting how all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, make the game we all love a great one in the United States. 

Next Week: Virginia  125 Years of American Golf Home

Watch: A chat with five-time PGA Tour winner and Edmond, Okla., resident Scott Verplank, who enjoyed a stellar amateur career that included winning the 1984 U.S. Amateur at Oak Tree Golf Club.

Runaway Colt Spurred Berning’s Decorated Career

By David Shefter, USGA

 

A runaway colt and a benevolent Oklahoma City golf pro helped pave the way for Susie Maxwell Berning's career in the game. (USGA/Jason Miczek) 

As the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. It turned out to be a good thing that the colt a 13-year-old girl was caring for got scared by a train and ran wild over Lincoln Park Golf Course on a summer day in 1954. And it’s a good thing that U.C. Ferguson, the longtime professional at the Oklahoma City, Okla., course didn’t cast off a terrified Susie Maxwell Berning.

Instead, the benevolent Ferguson encouraged Berning, the start of a relationship that led to a Hall-of-Fame golf career that produced 13 professional victories, three of which were U.S. Women’s Open titles.

That’s how Susie Maxwell Berning’s passion for golf began.

When her family first moved to Oklahoma City from Southern California, they rented a house across the street from Lincoln Park. The family had little money, so two of Berning’s three brothers started caddieing at Lincoln Park. Susie inquired as well, but Ferguson politely told her that girls didn’t do such things.

So Berning turned to equines when her father was asked by a co-worker to tend to a pair of horses.

On the periphery of Lincoln Park were bridle paths, and one day while she tended to one of the colts on the bridle path, a train conductor sounded his whistle. The scared colt broke free and ran wild on the golf course, damaging a couple of greens. With the help of maintenance workers, the colt was corralled, but Berning was summoned to the pro shop. She expected a thorough tongue-lashing from the head pro.

Berning was crying and petrified when Ferguson approached. He recognized her as the girl who wanted to caddie, and he asked if his rejection was the reason Berning let the horse run wild. She quickly said no.

In lieu of punishment, Ferguson asked Berning if she would teach his two young children to ride. She agreed. So every Saturday during summer vacation she showed up for lessons. One day, Ferguson asked Berning if she was interested in playing golf. “That silly game?” she replied.

When Patty Berg came to town for a clinic, he asked Berning again about golf. This time, she showed up and was mesmerized by Berg’s humor. “Oh, that’s what golf is about,” she remembered saying. “I would like to try that.”

Ferguson provided free lessons, equipment and rounds at Lincoln Park for Berning, an admitted tomboy. A few years later, smitten with golf, she sold the horses for $150 and bought a used Ford.

Berning wasn’t the only Oklahoman to benefit from Ferguson’s generosity. He helped create Golf Inc., a fund that provided area golfers with scholarship money for college. Berning, future U.S.  Amateur champion Bob Dickson, Mark Hayes and many others were beneficiaries.

“He was a gentleman and a half,” Berning said of Ferguson, whose Golf Inc. had raised more than $400,000 in scholarship money by the time of his death in 1999. “I wish to this day we had more professionals like U.C. He loved the game and he loved to teach the ladies.”

Susie Maxwell Berning claimed the first of her three U.S. Women's Open titles in 1968. (USGA Archives)

Berning received $500 a semester to attend Oklahoma City University, where she competed on the men’s team. Abe Lemons, the school’s legendary basketball coach who also oversaw the golf team at the time, listed her in the lineup as S. Maxwell. Berning said Lemons called her Sam at competitions.

Playing with and against the men prepared Berning for a future 33-year career on the LPGA Tour. She had grown up competing with her brothers and playing with Ferguson, so the adjustment wasn’t all too difficult.

“I know some of them were shocked that ‘Sam’ was a girl,” said Berning, who now resides in Palm Springs, Calif., but still has family in Oklahoma City. “I know a couple of them said they didn’t want to play against a girl. But for the most part, I was accepted well.”

Berning’s exploits came a decade before the passing of Title IX, which required schools to offer the same opportunities for females that were afforded to their male counterparts.

Her decision to turn pro came after she saw two of her chief Oklahoma rivals, Beth Stone and Betsy Cullen, join the LPGA Tour. She had defeated both in Oklahoma amateur events and figured if she could beat them, she could join them. Berning was named the LPGA Tour’s Rookie of the Year for 1964 and a year later, she claimed her first major title, the Western Open.

She won the first of her three U.S. Women’s Opens in 1968 by three strokes over Mickey Wright at Moselem Springs Golf Club in Fleetwood, Pa. A year earlier, she and Stone had come up two strokes shy of amateur Catherine Lacoste at Virginia Hot Springs Golf & Tennis Club.

Berning went on to win consecutive Women’s Open titles in 1972 and ’73 at Winged Foot Golf Club and the Country Club of Rochester, respectively.

When she retired from the tour, she became a noted instructor at several facilities. She has since been inducted into several halls of fame, including the Oklahoma Golf Hall of Fame.

None of this would have occurred had it not been for a scared horse.

“If I hadn’t gone out and asked to caddie, if my horse hadn’t run on the golf course, I would never have gotten to know U.C.,” she said. “If my father hadn’t been asked to take care of the horses, I never would have taken to the game either. Nobody in my family knew how to spell golf.”

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.