Betty Jameson, 1919-2009: USGA Champion and LPGA Co-founder
Hall of Famer won two U.S. Women's Amateurs and 1947 U.S. Women's Open
February 8, 2009
By Rhonda Glenn, USGA
Betty Jameson, 89, one of the game's greatest characters and the 1939 and 1940 U.S. Women's Amateur champion and 1947 U.S. Women's Open champion, died Feb. 7 in Boynton Beach, Fla. She was a founder of the Ladies Professional Golf Association and a member of the LPGA Hall of Fame.
Alternately imperious, autocratic and kind, Jameson made a lasting impression on her fellow players as she put her unique stamp on the record book.
Her flowing golf swing was as memorable as the qualities that made her one of golf's more eccentric personalities. Jameson's swing was noted for its rhythm, a grace so identifiable that players said they could close their eyes and identify Jameson by the sound of her swing. She was a true student of the game.
|Betty Jameson captured the Robert F. Cox Cup, center, twice as the U.S. Women's Amateur champion in 1939 and 1940 before embarking on a Hall-of-Fame professional career. (USGA Museum)
Contacted on Sunday, four-time Women's Open champion and Hall-of-Famer Mickey Wright reminisced about Jameson's game.
"She was a wonderful putter and had a very delicate short game," said Wright. "She believed in playing the ball off the right foot. She never hit the ball very long. She had a rather narrow swing but it was a repeating swing and, of course, she absolutely adored [professional golfer and pioneering swing teacher] Tommy Armour. Everything she did came from Tommy."
"Betty Jameson is far and away the sorority's most knowledgeable technician, an honest-to-goodness scholar who can weave her way through theory with the likes of Tommy Armour," an unknown author wrote in a 1956 issue of Sports Illustrated.
About Jameson's swing, Herbert Warren Wind wrote that "all you are conscious of is how perfectly the left hand does what the left hand is supposed to do, and, as she moves into the ball, an acceleration which keeps building so smoothly that it is hardly perceptible."
The late Patty Berg once said she thought of Jameson as a stylist. "She had wonderful feel, and she worked hard on her game. She's one of our greatest players. She had one of the best swings, along with Mickey Wright."
Born in Norman, Okla., on May 9, 1919, Elizabeth May Jameson began playing golf at the age of 11 after her family moved to Dallas. As a youngster she became a star, winning the 1932 Women's Texas Public Links at the age of 13. At 15, she won the Women's Southern Amateur and the first of four straight Women's Texas Amateur Championships. She attended the University of Texas for two years, where she was a student of famed instructor Harvey Penick.
She was 20 when she defeated Dorothy Kirby, 3 and 2, in the final of the 1939 U.S. Women's Amateur at the Wee Burn Club in Darien Conn. In 1940, she defeated Jane S. Cothran, 6 and 4, before a gallery of more than 1,000 spectators at Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Links to again win the championship.
In 1940, she accomplished a rare "triple," winning the U.S. Women's Amateur, the Women's Western Amateur and the Women's Trans-Mississippi. Patty Berg had been the first to accomplish the feat, in 1938, but it wasn't repeated again until 1998, when Grace Park won all three.
When most tournaments were suspended during the war years, Jameson held a variety of jobs, and as the daughter of a newspaper publisher she worked at the copy desk of The Dallas Times-Herald. After a sterling amateur career during which she won three of the professional war-time tournaments, the 1938 Women's Texas Open and the 1942 and '44 Women's Western Open, Jameson turned professional in 1945.
She joined the fledgling Women's Professional Golf Association with a contract from the Spalding Company to perform clinics. In an era of few women professionals and fewer tournaments, the WPGA inaugurated the U.S. Women's Open in 1946. Jameson was runner-up to Berg in the only Women's Open conducted at match play.
Only about a dozen full-time professionals played the WPGA tour in those early days, and when Jameson won the 1947 U.S. Women's Open, amateurs Sally Sessions and Polly Riley tied for second. But Jameson's score of 295 at the long Starmount Forest C.C. in Greensboro, N.C., marked the first time a woman had broken 300 for 72 holes. The two amateurs finished six strokes back.
In 1951, Jameson was part of a famed travel team that played in England and defeated male candidates of the Great Britain and Ireland Walker Cup Team at Wentworth. Also on the winning side were Babe Zaharias, Berg, Betsy Rawls, Peggy Kirk and Betty Bush. The defeat embarrassed the men and garnered headlines in the British press.
In 1952, Jameson presented the Glenna Collett Vare Trophy to the Ladies Professional Golf Association. The trophy honors her friend Vare, who won a record six U.S. Women's Amateur championships. It has subsequently been given annually to the player with the LPGA Tour's lowest scoring average.
In 1957, Jameson inadvertently initiated one of golf's most sadly bizarre moments. As the scorer for Jackie Pung in the final round of the Women's Open, Jameson mistakenly marked down a five on the fourth hole when Pung took a six. Pung signed the card, thinking she had won the championship, but was disqualified for the incorrect score. The title went to Betsy Rawls.
Fellow professional Betty Hicks believed the error came about because of the confusion surrounding Pung after she finished. "There was no scoring tent. A player just walked off the green and would put her scorecard on somebody's back and go over it. Jackie was inundated by friends congratulating her, and they never gave her an opportunity to really deliberate over her scorecard," Hicks said.
"Jameson could be quite non-communicative when you were playing with her. She had put down a five on a hole, and I don't think she had asked Jackie what she shot on it," recalled Hicks. "It was just a very sad time for women's golf."
Jameson officially retired after the 1963 season, although she played in scattered events, the last in 1970.
Tall, stately and long-striding, Jameson usually sported a sparkling white visor and was never seen without her treasured string of pearls. The pearls became a sort of trademark and she was seldom photographed without them.
A savvy competitor, she could make the best of a bad situation. Playing in an event with professional rookie Mary Ann Reynolds in 1959, they approached the final hole, a longish par 3. Jameson had just bogeyed the 17 th . She was furious. She slammed her putter against the ball washer and the shaft snapped, with the putter head falling to the ground. Reynolds was aghast, "Oh no! What are you going to do?"
Jameson never said a word. The tee shot called for a fairway wood, but Jameson chose an iron and hit it to a spot well short of the green, then proceeded to nearly chip in, sending the ball to within inches of the hole. She holed the putt with the edge of her sand wedge for a par.
In the LPGA tour's earliest days in the 1950s and '60s, barely 35 players made up the tournament fields. It was a closely knit little group, bonded by loyalty and pursuit of a common dream. "We get along real well. Some of the girls I won't have dinner with for a whole year," Betsy Rawls once famously said.
Early players whiled away the hours between rounds by playing cards; the tour was nearly equally divided between the bridge players and the poker players. Jameson was a poker player, and by all accounts, a good one. She wore a green eye shade and, even with the pearls, could resemble a tough-talking Las Vegas gambler.
Jameson was one of the tour's most difficult competitors. Players who were paired with her had mixed feelings. There was the advantage of watching that rhythmic golf swing time after time, and hopefully absorbing some of its grace. But Jameson was just so difficult.
Paired with Jackie Pung, who chewed gum on the course and occasionally popped it, Jameson paused while standing over a putt. "Would you puh-leeze stop chewing that gum," she shouted.
Hicks recalled an incident when Jameson was again paired with Pung, who was heavily built. The two had just mounted the crest of a hill and Pung was huffing and puffing when Jameson prepared to play her shot. "Jackie, would you please stop breathing!" Jameson said.
In early days, the tour was a sort of nether planet of individuality. Babe Zaharias, the slightly spoiled uber heroine and Margaret "Wiffi" Smith, who once trotted up to a golf clinic on horseback were examples. But, more than most, Jameson listened to her own drummer.
Jameson's death must have bought a smile of fond reminiscence to her fellow players. For them, time had a way of dulling any inconveniences Jameson might have caused, and they smile about the antics of her glory years, the 1940s and '50s.
Jameson was "a character," Louise Suggs, the two-time Women's Open champion, related in the USGA's Oral History Project a few years ago. "A little flaky, but she [was] alright. I never knew what was going to happen, and I don't think she did either, half the time."
"I don't think she probably was as emotionally stable as some of the other players," said four-time Women's Open champion Rawls in the Oral History Project. "She was a very, very moody person but a good golf swing and certainly had a lot of ability. But she didn't win a whole lot; not nearly as much as she should have."
The LPGA officially began in 1950, and Jameson, Suggs, Zaharias and Patty Berg made up the tour's "Big Four." Jameson never reached the career heights of the other three. While they won dozens of tournaments, she won just 12 overall. Although she won four times in the 1955 season, she was uninspired by the professional game. These were her last tour victories.
Jameson always believed that she may have made a mistake leaving amateur golf. "I love my career, though I think it was a little time-wasting," Jameson said in the Oral History Project after she retired. "I didn't dream that without match play the whole essence and drama of golf would disappear. I didn't realize how humdrum it is, playing hole after hole and not daring to take chances."
In temperament and talent, Jameson was an artist, but according to her later statements, she essentially wandered into the professional ranks. In her heart, Jameson would have liked to make her living as a painter. She pursued the interest with dedication, producing paintings that showed real talent.
In the 1980s, Glenna Collette Vare, a close friend of Jameson's, was showing a reporter around her house in Delray Beach. She pointed to a painting in the hallway. "And that, " Vare said, "is a Jameson, " as if she were unveiling a Chagall.
Sometimes referred to as one of the tour's first glamour girls, Jameson was also its first diva. Her regal presence was nearly always dramatic. She had a wide, generous smile and blinding charm but her artistic temperament and creativity were accompanied by a short fuse. She demanded total silence when she hit shots and complained about the slightest noise. Easily distracted, she was famous for waving off players standing 35 yards away before she would play.
At an LPGA tournament at Ponte Vedra (Fla.) Golf Club, Jameson and Babe Zaharias were accompanied by a large gallery. Throughout the round, Jameson stalked her shots, and would then stop to ask Zaharias or spectators to move out of her peripheral vision. By the 18 th hole, a par 3, Zaharias had had enough. Jameson was addressing her ball when Babe began walking toward the green, urging the gallery to follow. When they finally circled the green, Zaharias turned and yelled, "Is this far enough away, Betty?"
One of those rare athletes who was well-remembered long after retirement, Jameson did numerous interviews. In 1994, the USGA was preparing a film of great moments and great players to recognize the Association's centennial.
A film crew was assigned to interview Jameson at her small house in Delray Beach. The crew showed up at the appointed time and Jameson, then 74, answered the door wearing a bathrobe. Bobby pins held the slight waves in her white hair.
"I'm not ready yet; why don't you set up," she said.
Three small dogs barked at her feet as the crew entered the house. The film's sensitive sound system made the dogs a problem.
"We'll put them in your car, drive to the end of the street, and park the car there," Jameson said. It seemed a brilliant solution.
While the crew set up, Jameson emerged from her quarters. Her slip showed slightly and the hem of her dress was torn, but the lustrous pearls graced her neck. She gave the reporter a short tour. An ancient photograph of Beatrix Hoyt in mid-swing was thumb-tacked to a book case. One of Jameson's still-life paintings stood on an easel. She pointed to a small print hanging on the wall. "I filched that," she whispered loudly. "The lady in the shop didn't see me. I wanted it, so I took it. Isn't it lovely?"
Jameson was seated for the interview. "Betty, the bobby pins," the reporter whispered.
"Oh, yes," Jameson chuckled, and they removed the pins and smoothed her hair.
Jameson held forth for more than an hour, energized by the fact that she was once again being treated a star. But there was no order to her answers and she seemed to lose track of her thoughts. When asked about Vare's game, she cried and talked about Vare's death. Her rambling answers, unfortunately, were nearly incoherent and unusable in the end. But after the interview, she went into her kitchen. She had known the reporter's brother 25 years before when he was a boy working at a golf course where she often practiced. Jameson had not seen him for many years, but she knew that he had since suffered a severe disability.
She put together a bright package of biscuits and guava jelly. "I have these for John," she said. "I thought he might enjoy them."
Mickey Wright recalled a 1995 visit from Jameson. Wright was preparing to play in her last senior event, a ceremonial appearance that nonetheless called for grueling practice and mental preparation.
"Betty got in her car and drove up here [to Port St. Lucie, Fla.] by herself," said Wright. "I heard this pounding on the back door and looked out. It was Betty. When I came out, she picked up her putter and proceeded to show me just exactly how the putting stroke should be executed.
"I loved watching the way she put her hands on the club," Wright said. "I thought it was a wonderfully kind thing for her to do."
Jameson's last years were a struggle. In 2004, Delray Beach Golf Club conducted "Betty Jameson Day." It was a tournament to honor her career, but it was also designed to raise funds to support the 84-year-old Jameson in her later years.
Betty Jameson could be gracious or antagonistic, charming or infuriating, but she was a wonderful player and her qualities - bound up in the dark and light sides of individuality - made her an American original.
Rhonda Glenn is manager, Communications for the USGA. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.