Helen Hicks, a dynamic woman with a smile as big as the sun, may be largely forgotten today, more than 30 years after her death. In the 1930s, however, Hicks was the professional whom many great women players aspired to be.
Babe Zaharias, Patty Berg and even Mickey Wright can trace the roots of their trade to this stocky player from Long Island. It was Hicks (not to be confused with Betty Hicks, a fine player in her own right) who pioneered the role of what was then called, “the businesswoman golfer.”
In Depression-era America, a small headline saying, “Helen Hicks is Coming to Town,” could attract several hundred golf-hungry spectators. Although she was a national champion, it wasn’t her skills that stirred up a crowd. It was that bright personality, the patter, and a natural warmth that pulled people in.
In 1934, there were no women earning a living playing the game. Women pros were few. Helen MacDonald was a popular instructor at her Chicago studio, and Bessie Fenn ruled the roost at The Breakers G.C. in Palm Beach as head professional, but that was about it. Then Hicks came along to pioneer the role of women paid to promote golf equipment, the first woman to make her living performing in the golf exhibitions that would one day make Patty Berg a star.
Berg, who turned such exhibitions into an art form, remembered as a youngster watching Hicks perform. “I watched her give clinics and exhibitions, and Helen Hicks had a tremendous personality, in addition to being a great player,” Berg said in 1991. “And she was just a very lovable lady and a fun person. “
Hicks seemed to have no detractors. Glenna Collett Vare wrote of her, “Debonair, blithe, happy-go-lucky and fearless, she enters into everything she undertakes with the same splendid, joyous spirit.”
Born into a jovial and athletic family on Feb. 11, 1911, in Cedarhurst, N.Y., Hicks, like many girls, was introduced to golf by her father. Young Helen began playing at the age of 15 and improved rapidly. She won the Metropolitan Women’s Golf Association Junior Girls’ Championship at the same time she was starring as a basketball player for Lawrence High School.
Soon she leaped to the top. In 1929, she won the Canadian Women’s Open Amateur, beating Vare on her way to the final, and captured the prestigious Western Derby. After a successful foray in the Florida tournaments, she captured the Women’s Eastern Amateur in the summer of 1931. That same year she would score her biggest triumph.
At the 1931 U.S. Women’s Amateur, Hicks marched to the final to face Vare, the winner of five Women’s Amateur championships. Hicks defeated the great champion, 2 and 1. She was 20 years old.
Hicks was now linked to Vare, Maureen Orcutt and Virginia Van Wie as one of the “Big Four” of women’s amateur golf, but Hicks was no stylist. According to Orcutt, Hicks “had a flat, baseball-type swing.” She was an extremely good iron player, but it was her power that attracted attention. In 1931, Gene Sarazen said, “She can match the best of the men in length of drives and second shots, and her short game is improving daily.”
Lawrence Robinson wrote in the New York World-Telegram, “Helen now rates as the longest wood-shot woman player in the country.”
As Women’s Amateur champion, Hicks was drawing a lot of attention. She made the 1932 USA Curtis Cup team and the following year was runner-up in the Women’s Amateur to Van Wie. Then, in 1934, Hicks answered her true calling – public appearances. It was a career which would suit her perfectly. Vare had written of Hicks’ breezy approach to life, where she sailed into editorial offices in New York and was assigned magazine articles which she wrote with an entertaining style. Or dashed to Central Park to give a speech about sportsmanship to Girl Scouts or, as Vare recounted, had lunch with distinguished visitors from abroad, charming them with her personality.
Hicks just had a natural way with folks and she got great press, prompting Lincoln Werden of The New York Times to praise her by writing, “She is one of the greatest shotmakers in the game.”
With Hicks getting so much attention, L.B. Icely, president of Wilson Sporting Goods Company, devised a plan. He would sign Hicks and send her around the country to give golf clinics and promote the sale of women’s clubs named for her, the Helen Hicks Autograph line. It was a first. In 1934, Helen Hicks became what Wilson termed “a businesswoman golfer.” Interesting choice of words.
“Miss Helen Hicks was given the title ‘business woman golfer’ rather than ‘golfing professional,’ the latter being considered an undesirable appellation in those days. Indeed, women aspiring to become professional golfers were accused by their playmates, both men and women, of being somehow traitors to the purity of the sport and had to deal with considerable harassment when they made their choice,” wrote Elinor Nickerson in Golf: A Women’s History.
Other professionals, all men, had previously played exhibitions and promoted equipment sales. Harry Vardon, Ted Ray and Wilfrid Reid were among those who came from England to tour the states and give exhibitions. Gene Sarazen performed on the Wilson Company’s behalf throughout the nation. Now, a woman was about to hit the road for Wilson. And Hicks was widely accepted. Her brilliant smile lit up her face and crinkled her eyes. She had great rapport with crowds, an easy way that included frequent humor, and she could hit the ball a mile. Spectators were charmed.
Hicks barnstormed with the veteran Sarazen, at times in the company of Babe Zaharias, who had lost her amateur status. Babe was something of a wallflower in those days, shy and awkward, a beginning golfer who nonetheless wowed crowds with her tremendous, if erratic, power. The three melded into a nice little routine, hitting shots as they chatted on the practice tee and then playing an exhibition match. Hicks was soon so proficient that she was given a tour of her own, pushing those Helen Hicks Autograph clubs.
Women professionals had few places to compete, but the Western Women’s Golf Association conducted the Women’s Western Open, which was open to everyone. In 1937, Hicks became the first professional to win the title.
Seeing Hicks’ popularity, Wilson in 1938 signed Opal Hill, wife of an attorney from Kansas City, Mo., and in 1939 signed Helen Dettweiler, a former WWII pilot, to travel the country promoting and selling clubs. Patty Berg signed on in 1940. The women were more than salesmen, they were players and their love for competition eventually led to the foundation of women’s professional golf. First the Women’s Professional Golf Association was formed in 1944 to promote tournaments and female golf instructors, then the Ladies Professional Golf Association was formed in 1950. Wilson Sporting Goods, no doubt with an eye toward keeping its stars happy, was the LPGA’s financial booster.
In 1938, Helen Hicks, 27, married widower Whitney Harb, president of a North Little Rock, Ark., automobile agency. She continued her tour for Wilson and played in the limited tournaments available to women, winning The Titleholders in Augusta, Ga., in 1940. Whitney Harb was 18 years older than his wife and died in 1948 at the age of 55. Helen now had time on her hands and she began to quietly promote a new women’s professional tour to replace the failing WPGA. In 1950, Helen Hicks Harb became one of 13 founding members of the LPGA.
Hicks’ influence was vast. Berg referred to her often and Zaharias mentioned her on her first early professional efforts, saying, “I have decided to become a business woman golfer, following the example of such outstanding golf stars as Joyce Wethered (the English star who turned professional) and Helen Hicks.”
Over the years, the clinic and exhibition program Hicks initiated with Wilson Sporting Goods prospered. Berg estimated she gave more than 10,000 golf clinics in the USA and Japan in her colorful career. New Wilson recruits, including Betsy Rawls, Mickey Wright, Carol Mann and Kathy Whitworth, augmented their tournament winnings with checks from Wilson for promoting clubs.
In 1957 and 1958, Wright, who many regard as the greatest woman player of all, gave a total of 256 golf clinics, driving from town to town during her off-weeks from the hectic schedule of the LPGA Tour.
Helen Hicks lived to see some of this. She died of throat cancer at the age of 63 on Dec. 16, 1974. Had she lived, she would have seen the modern stars of women’s golf give occasional ball-striking exhibitions. Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa come to mind among recent players. But no one did it better than Helen Hicks, the first charming champion to take her act on the road.
Rhonda Glenn is a manager of communications for the USGA. E-mail her with questions or comments at email@example.com.