The United States Women’s Mid-Amateur kicked off in 1987 because of a very vocal group of players. The U.S. Mid-Amateur, for men, began in 1981 and, very soon, fine amateurs such as Robin Weiss, Carol S. Thompson, Leslie Shannon, Lancy Smith, Helen Kirkland, Pat Cornett-Iker and others began raising the specter of a women’s Mid-Amateur with Judy Bell, who was pretty much the driving force behind USGA women’s golf in those days.
In 1985, Dena Nowotny of the USGA Women’s Committee appointed me to an ad hoc committee to determine if there was a need for a Women’s Mid-Amateur. I was just one of many and we never had any formal meetings but we began asking players about their desire for such a championship. The players were gung ho. By the time the 1986 U.S. Women’s Open rolled around, the Women’s Mid-Am was set. I recall a get-together after hours at a hotel during that Women’s Open and most of the conversation was about the upcoming championship, which would be played for the first time in 1987.
Dena was chairman of the Women’s Mid-Am Committee and a key to its inaugural success. She assembled a large committee, of which I was a member, and gave everyone a role in signing up players, then running sectional qualifying. The committee tried to tailor the new championship to this specific field, for example starting the championship on Thursday so players could take advantage of reduced air fare by staying over on a Saturday night, and having host clubs provide either a free players’ breakfast or one at a greatly reduced rates. Many of the players were working women on budgets, so we were always trying to help them save a buck.
Since the Women’s Mid-Am was in the autumn, there was concern that we wouldn’t be able to attract the school teachers, who make up a large portion of good players in that age group. I’m afraid we were never able to accommodate them with our dates.
But women came out of the woodwork to qualify for that first championship and we had 320 entries. At my club in Texas, I lassoed players who barely made the handicap limit, and even Polly Riley (six-time Curtis Cupper, then in her 60s). “I’ll play because it’s the first one, and the first new USGA championship for women in many, many years,” Polly said. This was no easy thing. Qualifying was in the Texas heat and competitors had to walk, something this age-group didn’t usually do. Polly practiced, but wouldn’t walk during her practice rounds.
“You need to walk to be in shape for the qualifying round,” I told her.
“Look,” she said. “I don’t need to practice. I know how to walk. Left, right. Left, right.”
Dena secured a great inaugural site, Southern Hills Country Club, her home club in Tulsa. We were all thrilled about the whole week. Adding to the excitement was knowledge that Judy Bell would be named to the USGA Executive Committee as its first female member at the 1988 USGA Annual Meeting. This had tremendous impact on the field and on the committee. Until that moment, I think many believed the USGA was a male-only preserve and this move by the USGA gave us all some hope that it was not.
The Mildred Prunaret Trophy was important. Mildred Prunaret, who was then elderly, was a greatly beloved former member of the Women’s Committee. She had been the 1960 USA Curtis Cup captain and many felt she was the perfect model for that role. Judy talked to Henri Prunaret, her husband, about donating a trophy. The Prunarets were also very influential in the world of beagle packs, and since Mrs. Prunaret’s father had been in the silver business, Henri Prunaret donated a beautiful trophy they had previously won in beagle trials. Janet Seagle, curator of the USGA Museum, also played a key role in the acquisition. Engraving was polished off the cup and new engraving declared it as the Women’s Mid-Amateur trophy.
I’ve never seen a more excited group of players than those at the Players’ Dinner at Southern Hills. They were as enthusiastic as if they were playing in their first U.S. Girls’ Junior. The prevailing mood was sort of, “Well, we did it. We did it! And Judy is going to be on the Executive Committee! Can you beat that?” What a spirited group. Anyway, Judy was to launch the trophy with a nice speech about its origins. The room was beautiful, with gorgeous flowers, candlelight and a lot of players wearing big grins. Judy began to speak and came to the part about beagling, and this cup had come from beagling, and many in the room began to titter. Distracted, Judy plowed ahead. The titters became giggles, then outright laughter. Many of us had heard the old story about Glenna Collett Vare being presented a similar trophy, one recycled from a dog meeting, and the cup was inscribed, “Best Dog in Show.” Judy never knew why we were all so amused. She still stews about it.
Then, the night before stroke-play qualifying a “Blue Norther” blew down and plunged the temperatures into the 30s. Winds howled. “That front came down from Canada with nothing to stop it but barbed wire!” said Betsy Clifford, a Women’s Committee member from Texas.
We all felt badly for the players. Frozen hands. Frozen feet. Deplorable conditions. There were state champions who didn’t break 100 in qualifying, really well-known players, and some of them never entered again. But we got through it, despite the weather, and the U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur became one of the most beloved USGA championships of all. Many in that original group that promoted it so highly have sort of faded out of competitive golf, but Robin Weiss still plays and went on to become Women’s Mid-Amateur champion in 1989, a nice touch since she was one of its instigators.
Rhonda Glenn, manager of USGA communications, was a member of the U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur Championship Committee from 1987-96 and qualified for the championship twice.