Professional Pioneer, 1941 Women's Am Champ Hicks Dies

By Rhonda Glenn
February 22, 2011

Betty Hicks won the 1941 U.S. Women's Amateur before becoming a pioneer for women's professional golf. (USGA Museum)

Elizabeth “Betty” Hicks, 90, 1941 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion, a dedicated pioneer of two women’s professional golf circuits, journalist and flight instructor, died Feb. 20 in Aptos, Calif., of Alzheimer’s disease.

One of golf’s earliest feminists, Hicks co-founded one women’s professional golf tour and worked hard to keep another one alive. She wrote pointed articles for national publications, and feuded with Babe Zaharias. Her love of teaching extended from golf to flight instruction, which she pursued well into her eighties.

Born in Long Beach, Calif., on Nov. 16, 1920, Hicks began studies at Long Beach City College at 16 and that same year began playing golf in a school golf class.

 In 1938, Hicks won her first tournament, the Long Beach City Championship. She reached the semifinals of the 1939 U.S. Women’s Amateur at Pebble Beach, losing to Betty Jameson, the eventual champion.  In 1940, she won two of the five tournaments in which she played on the Florida winter women’s amateur circuit.

The year 1941 was one of the most eventful of her life: She won the Doherty and the California Women’s Amateur, married and became Elizabeth Hicks Newell, won the U.S. Women’s Amateur and was named the Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year.

Prior to the 1941 Women’s Amateur at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., Hicks visited Helen Hicks (no relation) and three-time Women’s Amateur champion Virginia Van Wie. When Betty complained of woes with her golf swing, Hicks and Van Wie took her to Women’s National G.C., where she met and worked with Ernest Jones, the famed golf instructor. Jones put a record of the Blue Danube waltz on the phonograph, told Hicks to swing the clubhead, and to forget everything else. It was a propitious pairing and Hicks forever after subscribed to Jones’s swing theories.

In the semifinals of the 1941 Women’s Amateur, Hicks was one hole down to Estelle Lawson Page going to the 18th. She faced a 15-foot putt for a par to win the hole and stay alive. “I was thinking, ‘This is MY tournament, so it’s got to be MY match, so it must be MY putt,’” Hicks recalled in 1992. She made the putt and won the match on the 19th hole. In the final she met Helen Sigel from Philadelphia, “but I swung to the Blue Danube Waltz all the way through it,” she remembered.

She defeated Sigel, 5 and 3, and was presented with the trophy on The Country Club’s clubhouse porch, since women were not allowed to enter the clubhouse.

Hicks assessed herself as a streaky putter with a great sand game who enjoyed practicing. She admittedly had a terrible temper on the golf course when she was young.

Following the trophy presentation at the Women’s Amateur, Hicks immediately announced that she would entertain professional offers, which was unusual in that day. “I was being pushed by my then-husband on the issue because neither one of us made much money, needless to say,” Hicks said. “I think I would have preferred to remain amateur because the war had already begun and there wasn’t going to be much competitive opportunity... That would have been my preference, to remain amateur and see what developed after the war.”

 

 

 Betty Hicks Tournament Wins 
Southern California Women's Amateur (1939)
Palm Springs Invitational (1939)
Western Women's Stroke Play (1939)
Palm Springs Invitational (1940)
Southern California Women's Amateur (1940)
South Atlantic Championship (1940)
Palm Beach Invitational (1940)
Western Women's Stroke Play (1940)
U.S. Women's Amateur (1941)
California Women's Amateur (1941)
Miami-Biltmore Invitational (1941)
Chicago Victory Open (1943)
All-American Open (1943)
Chicago Victory Open (1944)
Portland Open Open (1943)

Hicks got some offers, but they were not the lucrative sponsorship offers of today because there was no women’s professional tour. Her first job was as an assistant pro at Recreational Park Golf Course in Long Beach, where she gave lessons and repaired clubs for $83 a month. An equipment contract with J.A. Dubow Company, which also made the famed bomber jackets for airmen during the war, provided some royalty income.

 

During the war, Hicks joined the U.S. Coast Guard as a public relations officer and played in a few tournaments.

At the time, George S. May sponsored tournaments for pros and amateurs at Tam O’Shanter G.C. in Chicago, but there was a great disparity in prize money. “Byron Nelson won the All-American Open in 1943 and got $14,000,” Hicks said. ”I won the women’s division and received $500.

“We decided we’d form our Women’s Professional Golf Association to try to deal with sponsors on a more equitable basis,” she said. “At that point, the disparity was so great that I think we didn’t really recognize it… Many people had the attitude that we shouldn’t be out on tour in the first place.”

So in 1944, Hicks took a step that would influence the future of women’s golf: With Hope Seignious and Ellen Griffin, she founded the Women’s Professional Golf Association, the first professional tour for women, and was its first president.

“A very important part of our objective was to promote golf in schools and colleges,” Hicks said.

There were few WPGA tournaments for pros to play in but the school division got off the ground promptly because it needed little financial backing. The WPGA dissolved after only three years because of financial difficulties.

By 1949, when Babe and George Zaharias, Patty Berg and sports promoter Fred Corcoran formed the Ladies Professional Golf Association, the WPGA had given the new organization a foothold with the Women’s Open and Tampa Women’s Open.

“I think some of these people just don’t want to recognize there was a WPGA, which I resent a little bit because we were the pioneers,” Hicks said.

Hicks became part of the LPGA retinue that drove some 35,000 miles per year, staying in motels, where Hicks sometimes cooked meatballs in the bottom of an electric coffee pot.

"We couldn’t skip one tournament,” Hicks said. “If one or two people dropped out of a 30-player field, it could be disaster. The competition was still there, and Babe could be extremely difficult at times. There wasn’t a great deal of love lost among the top players, no matter what the TV documentaries claim. It was competitive, and yet at times, the camaraderie was quite excellent.”

In 1954, after Corcoran resigned as LPGA tournament director, Zaharias held the post for two months, then Hicks became tournament director for $200 a month, “which just about paid for my electric typewriter and postage,” she said.

“(Betty) was a lifesaver, until we could get somebody else,” said Mary Lena Faulk in 1992. “When the big three sporting goods people dropped out as sponsors, they dropped us just like that.”

Beginning in 1939, Hicks had written sports stories for the Long Beach Press-Telegram. Now she taped player interviews to give to radio stations and took all of the tour’s photographs. She wrote magazine articles about the players for Sports Illustrated and The Saturday Evening Post.  One series of player profiles she wrote for ThePost caused a furor.

Zaharias ranted about “that terrible article” Hicks wrote and temporarily resigned from the tour, saying she would start her own tour if Hicks didn’t resign as publicity director. The resulting contretemps prompted large galleries to turn out for the Tampa Open. Hicks said she thought she knew where the “feud” started. In 1940, Zaharias had said to Hicks, “Why don’t you and me start a feud, and then we can go on an exhibition tour, and make us both a bunch of money,” Hicks recalled.

The feud, however, had triggered new interest in the professional personalities and “Babe knew how to milk the publicity cow,” Hicks said.

“Betty wrote some controversial things about the tour,” said Louise Suggs in a 1992 interview. “Were they accurate? They weren’t far from it. They really weren’t.”

With fellow player Carol Bowman driving from town to town, Hicks pounded out stories on her portable typewriter, which rested on her lap.

Hicks, with all of her extra-curricular duties, never became a big winner on the professional circuits, although she captured a few tournaments. She played in her last LPGA tournament in 1965. After retiring from the tournament trail, she became a flight instructor and an FAA Written Test Examiner, having logged 6,000 hours in total pilot time. She coordinated the aviation department of Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, Calif., and coached the college’s women’s golf team.

She was a productive journalist, writing more than 300 magazine articles that appeared in some of the nation’s top publications, from Sports Illustrated to Atlantic Monthly. With Ellen Griffin, Hicks wrote, “Golf Manual for Teachers,” which became a bible of sorts for golf instructors in the 1940s and ‘50s.

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

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