Patty 'Dynamite' Berg Leaves Mark On Golf And Life


February 11, 2005

By Rhonda Glenn, USGA

Patty Berg, the indomitable matriarch of women's golf who recently was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, celebrated her 87th birthday on Feb. 13. Over the past seven decades, those who write and cover the game certainly have developed favorite stories or anecdotes on this Hall of Famer who helped found the LPGA Tour. Here are some of my favorites:

Patty Berg had reason to smile in 1938. Not only did she win the U.S. Women's Amateur, but she also avenged her 1937 loss in the final against Estelle Lawson Page. (USGA Photo Archives)

Hearing Patty Berg's speech, "What It Takes to Become a Champion," is a near transcendental experience. It's a dialogue I've heard on many occasions over the last 40 years and the experience is always the same.  She receives a glowing introduction and a standing ovation, then with perfect comedic timing she cracks a few jokes and tells stories about Babe Didrikson Zaharias. After the laughter, Berg gets down to business.

With a ringing shout, she elaborates on championship qualities: The will to win. Inspiration. Never giving up. Desire. Self-control. Determination. Heart. Courage.  Striving for perfection. Faith. Aiming for the top.  Using your mind.  At the end she shouts, "God love you, God bless you, and God bless America!"

Then she sits down.

The speech, which she wrote herself, is one of the most inspiring in sports.  I get goose bumps every time. While Berg has all of these qualities and used them to become a great champion, winning the first Women's Open among her 15 major championships (along with the 1938 U.S. Women's Amateur), she left out a few.  What about her loyalty, caring for others, honesty, dynamism and sense of fun that make her one of the most unforgettable women of her time?

Like others of her age she is a bit stooped now and walks with the aid of a cane.  Her inherent plumpness has given way to a seeming fragility but her outsized personality remains intact.

On Jan. 5 she wrote to her beloved Ladies Professional Golf Association, of which she was the first president, that the beginning signs of Alzheimer's disease would restrict her future appearances.  On Jan. 26, however, she attended a junior golf fund-raiser at her club, Cypress Lakes C.C. in Fort Myers, Fla.

Hundreds of well-wishers thronged around her that day and she was clearly pleased.  "I'm doing good," she said.  "How 'bout you?"

A Friend To All

Seventeen years ago, I began helping her with her speeches when she was honored by the USGA at the U.S. Women's Amateur at The Minikahda Club in her hometown of Minneapolis.  It was the 50th anniversary of her victory in the 1938 U.S. Women's Amateur.  Friends, Wilson Sporting Goods Company and members of Interlachen Country Club, her home club, had commissioned a portrait of Berg that would hang in the museum at Golf House.

The portrait was unveiled at the players' dinner.  Judy Bell, then a member of the USGA Executive Committee, introduced Berg as "the feisty fireplug from Minneapolis; the former quarterback of the 50th Street Tigers."

Berg's former teacher, Les Bolstad, then in his 80s, attended and the room was crowded with friends and family.  It was the only time I ever saw Berg break down.
           
Throughout the week she followed the matches, frequently stopping to sign autographs.  "Shake a hand, make a friend," she likes to say.

One afternoon Bell, Barbara McIntire and I drove Berg to Interlachen, the wonderful old course where she had learned to play so many years ago.  It had been a long week and Berg at first seemed tired.  The sight of her old club revived her and her eyes darted around the clubhouse as she walked briskly to the pro shop.

McIntire had been in a severe slump and was thinking of quitting competition.

"She can't quit!" said Berg.  "Anyone who won the U.S. Women's Amateur twice and the British Amateur and was runner-up in the 1956 U.S. Women's Open has to keep playing!"
           
Berg was about to give her longtime friend the lesson of her life.  The August afternoon was steamy hot and there was concern that the conditions might be too much for Berg to take, but she dumped three buckets of practice balls on the grass.  Bell and I would not be allowed to just observe.

Berg roamed up and down the tee.  She teed up each ball and squinted at us through her spectacles, picking out flaws in our grips, shouting instructions like a drill sergeant.
           
"Drive with those legs!  Hold tight with that right hand!  Clubhead square at address!  Take it straight back!  Drive with those legs!"

We had to laugh, which only spurred her on.  After more than two hours we were slurping each other's iced tea, ignoring whose cup belonged to whom.  Storm clouds rolled over the practice tee and the wind nearly knocked us down, but we weren't allowed to stop.  "Drive with those legs!" she yelled.

Berg transcends generations:  She was a good friend to Babe Zaharias and a mother hen to Kathy Whitworth.  One of her fans is Nancy Lopez.  More than that, she is a wholesome, fresh-faced woman of great kindness and, without doubt, a special player with one of the most sound and powerful swings in the history of the game.

'Hello, Dynamite'

At the time I was helping her with speeches, I drove to Fort Myers and checked into a motel.  Berg arrived to lead me in her car to her club for dinner.  After giving me a sack of quarters to pay the tolls, she backed out of the parking lot and grazed the bumper of a parked car. She jumped out of her car, moaning: "Oh, no.  What am I gonna do? I'll go to jail for this!  I'll go to jail!"

The inimitable Berg went on to become a founding member of the LPGA.

I inspected the car's bumper, then the bumper on Berg's car.  Not a scratch.  Berg insisted that we leave a note on the other car anyway, giving the owner her name and phone number.

We walked into the Cypress Lakes clubhouse that night, entering a foyer filled with her trophies, medals, memorabilia and portraits.  Leaning on her cane, she charged down a hallway like a small locomotive.  A beautiful oil portrait of Berg hung at the end of the hall and as she approached it, I heard her whisper, "Hello, Dynamite."

Dynamite.  Patty "Dynamite" Berg.  The nickname was bestowed on her years ago when she began traveling the world for the Wilson Sporting Goods Company, for which she would give, by her own estimate, more than 10,000 golf clinics.

During the next few days after we worked on speeches, we went visiting.  It's a largely forgotten yet charming custom to pause for a little late-afternoon conversation with friends.  Berg and I would get out of her car and as we approached the various front doors she would say to me, "Mr. and Mrs. Smith.  Bob and Jane." or "Mr. and Mrs. Phillips, Wayne and Sue."

I felt as shy as her Wilson staff members Betsy Rawls, Betty McKinnon, Mickey Wright, Carol Mann and Kathy Whitworth must have felt when she trained them in the ways of professional golf and gracious behavior when they were young.

At that same time, Berg was caring for her stepmother, Vera Berg, in Fort Myers, Fla.  The elder Berg was in her final stage of illness and it was a tremendous worry for her daughter.  A very fine golfer in her own right, Vera was the widow of Patty's father, Herman Berg, a successful grain merchant who was on the Chicago Board of Trade.  She had long been one of Patty's closest friends but Vera was failing rapidly and Patty sought ways in which to cheer her.  One day, she insisted that I bring my bearded collie for a visit and she marched Rose into Vera's bedroom.  She leaned over the bed, speaking softly to her stepmother and Vera, a dog lover, lit up a bit as she stroked Rose's head.

Through the years, I was amazed at the number of speaking requests she received: the dedication of the Patty Berg Cancer Center of the Southwest Florida Regional Medical Center; the University of Minnesota where she was a member of the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority; the USGA Senior Women's Amateur; and on and on.  She would telephone and we'd discuss the topic, the stories she wanted to tell and the people she needed to thank.  One of her strongest characteristics is that Berg is grateful.  She truly believes that people are good, life is wonderful and that the pleasure of living it is all hers.  There was the added bonus of her interest in my own life and she would advise me on my career, send cards to my family when someone was ill, and bought an oak tree for my yard, one of many trees that she has given to friends over the years.

In 1994, the USGA was preparing a film for the Association's Centennial the following year and I was assigned the pleasant task of interviewing some of the game's most notable women, foremost of which was Berg.

In front of a camera in the Cypress Lakes clubhouse, I prompted her to tell some of my favorite stories.

"In 1951, Babe, Betsy Rawls, Peggy Kirk, Betty Jameson, Betty Bush and I went to England to play some matches," she said. "One of the matches was against candidates for the British Walker Cup team.  In the morning foursomes matches, we lost nearly every match and trailed 2½ to ½.  Babe and I had a good chance to win our match against John Beck and another player.  On one green, Beck was preparing to putt and Babe yelled, 'Time out!' 

"'Time out?'" I said. "'Babe, you can't call time out!  This is golf!' 

"Babe said, 'I think we're away.  I want a measurement.'
 
"The putts were measured and Beck was away, but Babe had rattled him so much that he missed the putt.  We lost the match anyway.

"At lunch, our table had little American flags on it.  I said, 'All those who expect to win their singles matches follow me!'

"Babe said, 'Come on. Follow Napoleon!'  We went out and won all of our singles matches and beat the men, 6½ to 2½."
 
After the interview, the film crew wanted some action footage of Patty and took her to a nearby green. The then-76-year-old struggled a bit walking up the slope, wearing, incidentally, an eye-popping pair of patriotic red, white and blue golf shoes.  The crew positioned the camera and asked her to make a 12-foot putt.  It was a very difficult uphill putt with about a 10-inch break to the left.
 
She squinted down the line, hit the putt and the ball went in the hole.  She raised her fist in triumph, saying, "Yes!" The crew, however, didn't like the camera angle, moved to another position and asked her to make the putt again.  She stroked the putt and again the ball went into the hole.  Once again Berg raised her fist.  "Yes!"
           
We were all nervous when the crew asked her to make the putt a third time.  She made a few small practice strokes and again squinted down the line and knocked the ball in the hole.  Again, a raised fist.  "Yes!"  Onlookers cheered this remarkable woman as she walked off the green.

That was some putt.  Some player.  Some heart. 

Some memories.

Rhonda Glenn is a manager of communications for the USGA. E-mail her with comments or questions at rglenn@usga.org.

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