Museum Moment: Legacy Of Patty Berg

Minneapolis native became one of golf's greatest players

By Rhonda Glenn
February 13, 2011

Not only was Minneapolis native Patty Berg a great champion, but she also had plenty of personality. (USGA Museum)

In 2006, Patty Berg died at the age of 88. For some 75 years, Berg had led a very public life and in that great span of time she was like America itself, part of its vast, heaving 20th-century landscape when so much changed. Like other Americans of that era she pitched in during wartime, suffered sorrows and was rendered resilient. Hers was an extraordinary American life.

What most people remember about Patty Berg is her role as a performer. We remember her last golf clinics when she was white-haired and stooped with age.  We remember her jokes, her collection of wild hats and her last brave efforts to hit balls while she reeled off her spiel at full roar. In those last years, golf fans treated her with care and a bit of awe, but her legend had started long ago.

Patty Berg was born in Minneapolis on Feb. 13, 1918 (she would have turned 93 today)  before the end of World War I and two years before American women won the right to vote. From the start, her career transcended contemporary mores. She won sports fame in her native Minnesota, most notably in speed skating and, oddly, football. She played quarterback for a children’s neighborhood football team, the “50th Street Tigers,” which featured Bud Wilkinson, the future coach for the University of Oklahoma. A photo of the motley little squad made the newspapers.(View video of Berg's legacy to the game). 

Berg won track and field competitions in high school and played ice hockey and baseball. She won the state midget speed skating championship and placed third in the national competition. Then she ran into St. Paul’s Edna Schwartz.

“It seemed to me as though she just was skating around the circle twice when I was going around once,” Berg recalled in 1994. “I thought, well, I better get another sport. Edna’s too tough.”

A key to her athletic career was support from her mother, Theresa, sisters Helen and Mary, and her brother, Herman Berg, Jr. But it was her father, Herman Berg Sr., a grain merchant and a member of the Chicago Board of Trade and the Minneapolis Board of Trade, who was the single greatest influence on Patty’s career. Years later she would write that their “golfing partnership” was the most treasured experience of her life.  In a time when girls were usually lured into elocution or piano lessons, Herman Berg encouraged her keen interest in sports and had the means to finance it.

A member of Interlachen Country Club, he sent her to professionals Jim Pringle, Willie Kidd and, later, Les Bolstadt, who taught her solid golf fundamentals. Bolstadt won the 1926 U.S. Amateur Public Links title.

In 1934, at 16, she won the Minneapolis City Women’s Championship, a victory she claimed was a defining moment of her career.  The year before she had shot an 18-hole score of 122, lost 10 and 8 in the last flight, and resolved to practice and improve. Her 1934 victory proved the work paid off. And so began one of the most astounding amateur careers in history.

Berg achieved so much after age 30 that her amateur days are largely forgotten but they were the foundation for everything to come. In 1935, at 17, she won the first of three Minnesota State Match Play Championships.

Away from home, Berg signed up for events on the Orange Blossom Circuit, a winter tour for the nation’s top female amateurs. She entered the Miami Biltmore tournament (which later became the Helen Lee Doherty Championship) in Coral Gables, and lost in the quarterfinals to Lillian Zech in an extra-hole match. She would never lose in that tournament again. Berg’s precocity now had a new arena. In the era before any professional tour, women’s amateur golf was the big time. Medalist in the vaunted Palm Beach Championship the following week, she lost to the fine Kentucky player, Marion Miley, but the teenager was off to a great start.

Reporters loved the budding golfer. Patty was golf’s cheery moppet; chunky, red-haired, freckle-faced and feisty.

“I was fascinated by the attitude of this amazing little redhead toward the game,” wrote famed golf journalist O.B. Keeler, who watched her play in Florida. “The youngster’s attitude, even more than her game, then somewhat on the rough-and-ready plan, set me to writing about Patricia Jane Berg.”

In August, there was as lot to write about. The 1935 U.S. Women’s Amateur was played at Interlachen, Berg’s home club, and during the championship the diminutive fireball wielded a hot putter. In the quarterfinals, she holed a curving 45-foot putt on the 18th green to beat Peggy Chandler, a matron from Dallas, 2 up. In the semifinals she faced a twisting 25-footer on the 18th green against Charlotte Glutting to send the match to extra holes. The putt was from the exact spot where Bob Jones had holed a putt to win the 1930 U.S. Open as the third leg of the Grand Slam. Berg holed the putt and went on to win on the 21st.

Minneapolis was a great golf town. Despite a short playing season, thousands of avid players enjoyed the game and just five years before they had watched Jones win the Open. Now a local favorite, a 17-year-old hot shot, would play five-time champion Glenna Collett Vare for the Women’s Amateur title.

Bernard Swanson, of Golf Illustrated, wrote that an unheard-of 15,000 spectators turned out for the final. 

Now a wife and mother, Vare had captured five titles and 35 of her 38 matches in her 15-year quest at the Women’s Amateur.  She had won her fifth championship four years earlier when Berg was just beginning to play. In the final Berg sank putt after long putt, thrilling the gallery.  At the 33rd, Berg was 3 holes down when she rolled in an 18-footer to take the hole.  But the fairy-tale ending had to be postponed when Vare won the match, 3 and 2.

In a telling statement, Vare later ranked the new youngsters in the game.  “By all means, Patty Berg first,” Vare said.  “In fact, quite a distance ahead of the rest and they were all good.”

Only 5-foot-2, Berg was powerful, driving through the ball with her sturdy little legs. And in those early years she was putting better than she ever would again.

Now a nationally-known figure, Patty headed to the 1936 Florida circuit and won the first of five straight Doherty titles. She won the Women’s Invitation at Charlotte Harbor and narrowly lost the Florida East Coast in a 21-hole final against Lucille Robinson.

In March, Keeler watched her play at East Lake Country Club in Atlanta. “I tell you she’s got the competitive spirit,” Keeler said. “That’s what counts. She’s a good bet to back to the limit.”

Her name was in headlines and spectators adored her but at 18 years of age, Berg was still very young and the excitement around the state of her game made her nervous. She was often sick before a match and her father worried that she was taking golf too seriously.

Her nervousness had surfaced two years before when she played in an exhibition match with Walter Hagen, Horton Smith and Johnny Revolta. During that round, she was all over the lot.

“I had one bad feature in competitive golf,” Berg said 60 years later. “I had a weak stomach. I didn’t feel good through the exhibition or even three weeks before it.”

The morning after her terrible play in the exhibition, Berg said to her father, “Daddy, I don’t think I want to play competitive golf anymore...I was sick all the way over to this thing, all the way back, all last night and I don’t feel too good today.”

Herman Sr. said, “They’re little butterflies and they’ll go away.”

“If they don’t, I won’t live past seventeen!” said Patty.

Her father then shared this advice: “I don’t care if you’re a teacher, an athlete, or whatever you may be in, that challenge is always going to be before you. So, remember this, if you don’t want to accept the challenge, that’s up to you. You’re always going to have some nervousness. That goes with everything if you want to win.”

“After he left, I thought it over and I finally said, well, I think I will accept the challenge,” Patty said.  

In May 1936, now 18, she was the youngest player in the history of the USA Curtis Cup Team. Her emotions again got the best of her. “Patty Berg Suffers from Stage Fright,” said one headline in Scotland, where the Match was played. “The Match chiefly featured the almost total collapse of two of America’s most notable golfing figures, Patty Berg, 18-year-old from Minneapolis, and Mrs. Opal Hill. Patty said she was nervous. She could scarcely see the hole when putting…”

USA captain Glenna Vare paired herself with Patty for foursomes and they managed to halve the match, but Berg lost to Helen Holm, former British champion, in singles, 4 and 3. The Americans narrowly retained the Curtis Cup with a 4½-4½ draw.

Berg recovered to have a good summer. She was runner-up in the Western Derby, won the Minnesota State Match Play and in September won the Mason-Dixon Championship at White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., defeating Virginia Guilfoil in the final by a crushing 12-and-11 margin.

She began 1937 as she had ended 1936, sweeping to a 10-and-9 victory over Jean Bauer in the Doherty final. Berg won the Palm Beach and the Aiken Invitational. She captured her first Titleholders Championship in Augusta, Ga., with professionals Helen Hicks and Babe Didrickson, in the field, she edged runner-up Dot Kirby by three strokes. At the U.S. Women’s Amateur, she advanced to the final against Estelle Lawson Page, but lost, 7 and 6.

She had seven runner-up finishes and was medalist four times. As sometimes happens, the year of so many near misses predicated a truly great year in 1938.

Berg won 10 of the 13 championships she entered in 1938. It was a year like no other. She started with a victory in the Doherty. “I got a good start there,” Berg recalled. “Everything, I could see, was going my way.”

Berg believed she often had the luck of the draw in match play. When she was slightly off her game, her opponents played poorly, she said. Berg’s game would eventually include a variety of shots, high and low, draws and fades, the short-game expertise and exquisite bunker play. But for now she had power, putting and the will to win. It was enough.

To start, she won the Titleholders, now 72 holes of stroke play, by 16 shots over runner-up Marian McDougall. She beat Jean Bauer in the final of the Championship of Championships in Punta Gorda, Fla., 10 and 8. She beat Jane Cothran Jameson in the 36-hole Doherty final, 4 and 3. She was 2 holes down after 13 to Mrs. William Hockenjos in the South Atlantic final, but won. Four wins in February.

In March, she was medalist in the Florida East Coast but failed to win and she was runner-up to Miley in the Belleair Championship, but on the 23rd she broke the tournament scoring record in winning the 54-hole Mid-South Championship (224).

That summer, she won the Trans-Mississippi by defeating four-time champion Opal Hill, 6 and 5, in the final before 3,000 fans. “…the vim and fire of chunky, freckled Patty, whose personality has made her the gallery favorite,” said one reporter.

She lost to Hill on the 19th hole in the quarterfinals of the Women’s Western Open, then at match play. She smashed the Western Derby scoring record in August, shooting 308, 12 under women’s par and 10 strokes ahead of runner-up Marion Miley. She won the Women’s Western Amateur and then captured another Minnesota State Match Play Championship.

Patty was riding a wave, and it crested in September at Westmoreland Country Club in Wilmette, Ill.

She was now 20 years old and in the U.S. Women’s Amateur she avenged her loss to Estelle Lawson Page the previous year to win the one title that had eluded her.

 Berg waded through fine players on her way to victory, including Great Britain & Ireland Curtis Cup players who were in the field.  She beat Jean Bauer in the second round, and narrowly edged Eva Shorb (who would later become the mother of professional Tom Weiskopf), 1-up, in the third round.

In the quarterfinals, she was 3 down after five holes against the stolid Californian Dorothy Traung before recovering for a 5-and-3 win. Berg then scored a 2-up win over Miley, the Women’s Southern champion, in the semifinals. Now she would play Page, who had beaten her in the 1937 final. In high winds, Berg was even with women’s par and took a 2-up lead after the morning 18.  She was three under men’s par for the match and won, 6 and 5.

In The New York Times, William Richardson pointed to Berg’s skill on and around the greens as the key to her win, singling out her “miraculous” chip shots.

She thus became the first to win the Women’s Western Amateur, the Trans-Mississippi and the U.S. Women’s Amateur in the same year. In the next 70 years it would happen only twice, in 1940 and 1998 when Betty Jameson and Grace Park won the three most important titles in American women’s amateur golf.

After her most compelling year, 1939 was marred by illness and tragedy. Berg began the year by winning the Titleholders, the Doherty, the Florida East Coast, the South-Atlantic and the Trans-Mississippi. But an emergency appendectomy that summer landed her in surgery and she was hospitalized for several weeks, unable to defend her Women’s Amateur title. She was now a student at the University of Minnesota, but her illness kept her out of school and off of the golf course for seven months.

In December, the worst happened. On Christmas day, Patty’s mother Theresa died. In Patty’s idyllic world, unmarred by anything more difficult than playing superior golf, it was a huge blow. She lost interest in the game, seldom picking up a club. Finally, in January, her father took her to Florida to play in a few events as distraction from the pain of their loss.

“Daddy had Laddie Irwin (another fine amateur) join us,” Patty said. “Before she got there it was tough going because I really just didn’t have any enthusiasm for anything. I just didn’t care much. Finally, when Laddie came there with Dad, and with a lot of friends around, I got to playing again. I played with the girls, Dorothy Kirby, Jean Bauer, Marion Miley and Betty Jameson. They were all very kind and good to me, and they got me out of it. So, I went on and played pretty well.”

In the 1940 Doherty, she persevered and, with blistered feet, was the equivalent of six under par in her 5-and-4 win over Miley to advance to the final. Some 2,000 fans followed the encounter between Berg and Jameson. “They were the best in the nation, these two,” said The Associated Press. In the 36-hole match, Berg was 13 under women’s par with 14 birdies and an eagle and Jameson had 16 birdies. Berg won the glorious match on the 38th hole.

 A gallery of 1,000 watched her defeat Clara Callender, 1 up, in the final of the Mid-Florida Championship. She beat Betty Hicks in the final to win the Florida East Coast. In June, she met her rival Jameson in the Trans final, losing 2 up.

Patty Berg’s amateur career was coming to an end. On June 30, she answered questions about it from the press, saying she hadn’t yet signed a contract but was “awfully interested.”

Turning pro was a risky move. There was no professional organization for women golfers and only two tournaments to play in, the Women’s Western Open and the Titleholders. Only five women were well-known pros at the time; Helen MacDonald, who ran a golf school in Chicago, Babe Zaharias, Helen Hicks Harb, Opal Hill and Helen Dettweiler. They represented equipment companies, giving golf clinics to push the merchandise.

But it was Berg’s future. “It’s the only thing I know how to do,” she had told fellow amateur Maureen Orcutt earlier in the year. 

On July 10, Berg, a sophomore at the University of Minnesota, signed with Wilson Sporting Goods for $7,500 a year. Charles Dunkley of The Associated Press called it, “quite a gob of dough for a girl 22 years old and taking her first job.”

It was a six-year deal. It lasted 66 years.

Berg became one of history’s greatest players. In 1941 she suffered a double compound fracture of the knee in a terrible automobile accident in Corsicana, Texas. There were rumors she would never play again. She spent months in an Alabama athletic training center being coached through rehabilitation by boxer Tommy Littleton. On June 27, 1943, she won the Women’s Western Open.

That same year, with America at war, she enlisted in the Marine Corps and served as a lieutenant with recruiting duties until the war ended in 1945.

In 1949 she helped kick-start the Ladies Professional Golf Association and was its first president. Over the years Patty Berg took a back seat to more glamorous players and played second banana to Babe Zaharias’ dramatic act. Today, Mickey Wright says that Berg knew how to play more golf shots than any woman before, or after.

She was such a familiar figure on the LPGA Tour. She would stick the peg into the ground and stand behind her ball, gripping the driver, feet close together, and peer down the fairway. She tugged her visor, stepped into her stance and gave a quick tug to adjust her long skirt. After two decisive waggles, she swung the club back quickly with a full turn, her left heel leaving the ground. “Whack!” and the ball screamed off into the sky with such power you expected it to leave a vapor trail.

During her professional career, she won 60 official tournaments and a record 15 major championships, including the inaugural U.S. Women’s Open in 1946 (it was a match-play event that year). She was named The Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year in three different decades. She performed at more than 10,000 clinics. She won every award worth mentioning and made more friends for golf than anyone can know.

But it was her amateur career, when she overcame so much and achieved heights others can only dream of, that set Patty Berg on her true course. 

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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