Volunteer Spotlight: Lew Ellen Erickson

Oklahoma resident revels in shared commitment, connection to championship golf

By Ron Driscoll, USGA
September 15, 2011

When Lew Ellen Erickson discovered she didn't want to make golf a professional vocation, she got involved as a volunteer and the Tulsa, Okla., resident now serves on the USGA Women's Committee and chairs the Senior Women's Amateur Championship Committee. (Steven Gibbons/USGA)

Much of USGA Women’s Committee member Lew Ellen Erickson’s summer of 2011 was mapped out long ago:

  • The first week in June helping out at the NCAA Men’s Division I Golf Championship at her alma mater, Oklahoma State;
  • The first week of July at the U.S. Women’s Open in Colorado Springs, Colo.;
  • The second week of August at the U.S. Women’s Amateur in Barrington, R.I.;
  • The second week of September in Chattanooga, Tenn., where she is serving as the chairman of the USGA Senior Women’s Amateur Championship.

Then again, the path that led Erickson to spending much of her time organizing and administering golf championships was laid out long before these events were scheduled – it began in Erickson’s childhood, when she was introduced to the game.

“I was so lucky growing up,” said Erickson, of Tulsa, Okla. “I had great mentors as a junior golfer. I was always surrounded by people who wanted to see me succeed. I guess I just knew that this was something I wanted to do because somebody did it for me.”

Erickson’s involvement with the USGA began in 1993 when she was asked to serve as a member of the Girls’ Junior Championship Committee. Her responsibilities have ramped up considerably over time – she joined the Women’s Committee in 2009 and became chairman of the Senior Women’s Amateur last year. Family ties have also played a major role in her relationship with the USGA.

“My mother first started playing golf because of her big brother, Lew,” said Erickson. “I am named for my Uncle Lew. He is the husband of Martha Martin, who served for many years on the USGA Women’s Committee. And Maggie (Martin) Giesenhagen and I are first cousins. She is probably the most accomplished golfer in the family, having played in nine Women’s Amateurs, three Women’s Opens and finishing as runner-up in the Girls’ Junior.”

Giesenhagen was a director of regional affairs for the USGA for many years, then worked as the staff person in charge of the U.S. Women’s Amateur, the U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur and the Curtis Cup before retiring last year.

“One of the reasons I got involved with the USGA was that I figured I would get to see my cousin more,” said Erickson with a laugh. “We didn’t live near each other and I rarely got to see her, and golf was a great shared passion. I looked up to my cousin and my Aunt Martha, and seeing some of the things they were involved in – I went to the Curtis Cup at Prairie Dunes in 1986 and that was really something to see.”

Erickson remembers following her mother, Pauline “Polly” Erickson, when she played competitively. Polly Erickson won the Madison (Wis.) city championship seven times in eight years, and she was a five-time runner-up in the Wisconsin Women’s State Amateur. At the time, Erickson’s father, John, was the head basketball coach at the University of Wisconsin, where he coached the Badgers for eight seasons.

“My mom taught me how to play golf,” said Erickson. “We had a par-3 course in Madison and my mother would give me and my friend a ball and a club and say whoever could get around the course first would win. It wasn’t about score; it was about hitting the ball and getting around quickly. I am still a pretty quick golfer; I just stand up and hit it.”

Erickson remembered having to play the first three holes at Westmoor Country Club in Brookfield, Wis., in under 30 strokes for the right to play nine holes. In sixth grade, she graduated to the 18-hole level. “There wasn’t really a score you had to shoot,” Erickson recalled with a laugh. “They would just look at you and say, do you think you can do it? Well, my little friend and I went to the 10th hole and we made it all the way to the end.”

Erickson’s family moved to Kansas City when she was in eighth grade, and she began to play competitively. Stan Thirsk, the longtime pro at Kansas City Country Club who taught Tom Watson as a youngster, ran a girls’ junior program.

“Every Monday, he and his wife Audrey would arrange for us to play these courses,” Erickson said. “The clubs wouldn’t even be open, but they would arrange to get a cart and start us off. They would be with us every Monday.”

Doyle Thames, the pro at Brookridge Country Club in Overland Park, Kan., “was so accommodating about getting me on the golf course,” Erickson said. “We would allow me to bring someone with me because he knew the importance of having someone to play with.”

“Also, where our club was located we could be members of the Kansas Women’s Golf Association as well as the Missouri Golf Association,” Erickson said. “I remember the women in those associations being active, giving their time. It has just been a natural transition for me, because golf has been such an important part of my life, with friendships, education and even with my job. My lifelong friends, most of them come from golf. Those times on the golf course, they stick with you.”

Erickson went on to earn a golf scholarship to Oklahoma State, where she played with Val Skinner, an All-American player who went on to star on the LPGA Tour and now works for the Golf Channel. Erickson earned a B.S. in organizational administration, with minors in management and marketing – “and lots of golf,” she said, chuckling.

“I didn’t think about what the next step would be,” Erickson said of her post-graduate plans. “Everyone asks if you are going to turn pro. Well, I did know that I wasn’t going to do that – I wasn’t that good. But I didn’t really think about what was going to happen next.”

Tulsa Country Club needed an assistant pro, and they hired Erickson out of college. But she realized after three years that golf was more of a passion for her than a vocation.

“Being a golf professional is a hard job,” Erickson said. “That was back in the early 1980s, and when I went to PGA business school there were probably 200 men in the class and two women. In everything I was doing, I was either the only woman, or one of just a few. There has been a shift in the game since then.”

Erickson went into the banking industry, and she is now a senior vice president at Stillwater National Bank in Tulsa. As she established herself in the new career, she also became very involved in an organization called Young Life. “I worked with kids in high school, taking them to camp and meeting with them weekly,” Erickson said. “That was probably 15 to 20 hours a week.”

A few years later, the USGA came calling (“They were looking for someone in Oklahoma for the Girls’ Junior Committee,” Erickson said), and her involvement with golf was stepped up further when the 1994 PGA Championship was held at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa. She and Fred Daniel III, a member of the USGA’s Junior Championship Committee, co-chaired volunteer recruitment for the 1994 PGA, and Erickson stayed involved when the Tour Championship came to Southern Hills the next two years.

When the PGA Championship returned to Southern Hills in 2007, Erickson worked as one of six captains coordinating the hole marshals, a first for her. Two years later, the U.S. Amateur Championship landed at Southern Hills, and provided one of Erickson’s favorite championship experiences.

“I worked on the committee for marshals, and I also served as a Rules official,” she said. “And I was the starter on the 10th tee for the first two days of the championship. The marshals wore red shirts, and when I was the starter I wore my blue jacket, so I had to think every day, what am I today, red shirt or blue jacket? That was really fun to be so involved. I just loved it.”

Immersion seems to be a pattern in Erickson’s efforts. Take the Girls’ Junior Committee.

“When I first started in 1993, we didn’t have qualifying,” she said. “It was 1995 or 1996 when we started sectional qualifying, and to see how the championship has evolved and to be part of the implementation has been great. I remember that meeting in Great Falls, Mont., when we said, OK, this is going to happen.

“We had never run sectional qualifying and now we had to be the officials in charge: learn about course setup, notices to competitors, evacuation plans, contacting clubs, finding other officials, educating the juniors in our area on how it was going to work… We were carrying the flag of the USGA – that’s how the volunteer thing works. We are the face of the USGA.”

Two things became readily apparent to Erickson as she delved deeper into her USGA service: the camaraderie and the historical significance.

“It’s amazing how often a committee member will jump in their car and drive a couple of hours to be there,” she said. “I worked the U.S. Amateur qualifier [on Aug. 1] – we had 73 players who played 36 holes in 108-degree heat, and we had a great group of volunteers who worked from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Isn’t that amazing? Where else do you have a group of friends who would stay someplace together for 12 hours to help each other?

“It’s really all about the players, and giving them the best chance and making it fair across the board. But the players have no idea how much fun the volunteers are having – we do have a great time. I think you have so much in common when you serve on a golf committee together. You have that immediate shared commitment.”

Erickson attended her first Senior Women’s Amateur in 2002 at Mid-Pines in Southern Pines, N.C.

“I had just been at a collegiate tournament to watch Oklahoma State play, and I came to the [pre-championship] dinner,” Erickson said. “It was one of the most amazing fields – they had won every USGA championship and represented the United States. They’re friends who have competed against each other for a long time. It was really an eye-opener. Going back to the Girls’ Junior after that, I realized what those girls had to look forward to – it’s just the beginning, and seeing that made me realize how great this game is.”

Erickson still plays to a 7 handicap at her home club and she gets together whenever possible to play golf with her sisters. All three played in high school, and youngest sister Kim Abbott played at the University of Missouri and later won the 1995 South Carolina State Amateur. She has also coached women’s golf at Dartmouth and the University of South Carolina and is currently the athletic director at Columbia (S.C.) International University.

“Although my middle sister, Kelly, did not play in college, she is the most competitive of us,” said Erickson with a laugh. “If we go out and play, she will find a way to get the best of us.”

Erickson has found a niche that she enjoys immensely.

“I have hit my jackpot,” she said. “Watching some of the girls play in the Women’s Amateur, they are phenomenal, and my talent didn’t take me there. I’m still a good woman golfer, but I’m not at that level, so this is my way of being involved. Golf is my passion and this has allowed me to continue to pursue my passion – I can’t play championship golf, but I can be a championship Rules official.”

Ron Driscoll is manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at rdriscoll@usga.org. 

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