The Triumph Of Her Life

Babe Zaharias’ last great march to the U.S. Women’s Open title inspired a nation

By Rhonda Glenn, USGA
June 26, 2011

Babe Zaharias, who would have turned 100 on June 26, inspired many with her U.S. Women's Open victory in 1954 at Salem C.C. (USGA Museum)

Sunday, June 26 marks the 100th birthday of Babe Zaharias. 

At last it was dusk in Peabody, Mass. Dark descended, leaving the golf course to the lightning bugs and night birds. A lamp glowed in Babe Zaharias’s hotel room, the shadows making her profile even more angular. Her nose was strong and straight and her mouth a thin slash that often spouted furious pride as easily as humor.

Babe leaned back against the headboard, bone tired, and swung her legs up to a pillow on the end of the bed.

It was July 2, 1954 and she picked up the telephone and dialed the number in Findlay, Ohio. The second round of the 1954 U.S. Women’s Open was over and she wanted to talk to Peggy Kirk Bell. They talked every night and Peggy was one of the few real friends she had.

Most thought the flamboyant woman who gave golf a kick in the pants had friends all over the place but while men enjoyed her joshing and liked her well enough,  few women got close to her.

“I never understood how she had the strength to overlook the snubs and the slights and the downright venom of a lot of women,” said Bertha Bowen, Babe’s close friend in Fort Worth. “I never understood how she could be so forgiving of people. In many cases people would try to keep her out, really keep her out, but she would never hold a grudge. She was really too busy to be bothered with grudges.”

George Zaharias lumbered around their hotel room opening windows, which meant they’d sleep under blankets tonight. Man, this weather! When it was hot in Texas, it just plain sweltered all the time. Up here, you nearly froze to death at night and burned up during the day.

George was here for moral support. They had been married for 16 years. The big guy had been a wrestling star and a successful businessman and now he was weary of the tournaments. He’d walked hundreds of holes with her, but husbands were like a fifth wheel out here, virtually useless, relegated to handling the luggage and making hotel reservations. That wasn’t enough for George and he  had begun skipping tournaments, but this was the U.S. Women’s Open, the championship that could prove she’d beaten her worst foe, and she needed him.

The telephone rang in Ohio and Peggy Kirk Bell, who had withdrawn from the Women’s Open because of impending childbirth, answered.

“Hey, I’m killing ‘em out here!” Babe chortled into the receiver.

Bell smiled. Babe’s old swagger was intact and she had a 7-stroke lead over Betsy Rawls, but Peggy knew and, more importantly, Babe knew, the lead could evaporate into mist in tomorrow’s double round.

“Who you paired with tomorrow?” Peggy asked.

“The kid,” said Babe. “Mickey Wright.”

 

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Everyone in golf’s small world knew of Mickey Wright, the 1952 U.S. Girls’ Junior champion. A studious-looking amateur from San Diego, Wright was singled out for her flawless golf swing and power. Some said she would be the next Babe. This wasn’t likely, not in a personal sense. Without doubt, Wright would be a big winner but she couldn’t match Babe’s razz-ma-tazz with galleries, nor was she interested in trying.

It was a good pairing. Mickey wouldn’t try to outshine Babe. Just as well, Peggy thought. Babe had so much on the line. Doctors who had diagnosed Babe’s colon cancer the year before, who said she may never play golf again, would all be proven wrong if only Babe could play another 36 good holes.

Joe Dey, executive director of the United States Golf Association, ran the Women’s Open. Dey had once considered studying for the ministry and carried with him a copy of the New Testament and since Dey didn’t believe competitive golf should be played on Sunday,  USGA championships ended on Saturday with 36 holes in one grueling day.

Players claimed you never won the Open; you survived it, which in the summer heat of eastern Massachusetts was pretty much the case.

Zaharias believed she could climb up the long hill to the 18th tee twice more, but she was so tired. And she was a little overweight. She had visited her brother Louis and his wife for a few days and had looked so frail they had stuffed her with cornbread, barbecue and vegetables and now, instead of the lithe athlete she had always been, she looked like a hefty 40-year-old matron. All right, 43. She’d lied about her age since her name first started to appear in the papers.

In the heat of the day at Salem Country Club, the crowds had nearly engulfed her. Her big lead prompted nearly everyone to expect her to win, to give them hope and to tie up their happy ending with a nice, big bow. Expectations. 

Most women spectators this week wore calf-length skirts. Hell, she’d wear shorts if she could, but  she was The Babe, the star, as she had so often reminded her fellow professionals. Besides, the Ladies Professional Golf Association was just four years old and the players had to make a good impression, observe  some... what was that word, decorum?

Skirmishes 

Bertha and R.L. Bowen would want her to look like a lady. She was too tired to call them tonight and they had probably already checked with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram to get her scores. The Bowens, high in the Fort Worth social order, were fiercely protective. She had gone to them when the USGA declared her a non-amateur after the 1935 Women’s Texas Amateur. Bertha was on the state board and the Bowens had tried to have the decision rescinded, asking their friend George Thompson, a lawyer, to wire the USGA. That moment, a key one in her career, had seemingly mattered little to Babe.

“Babe just pulled out her harmonica and started playing,” said Bertha Bowen. “She just dismissed the whole thing.”

The USGA wouldn’t budge. Babe was a pro, only able to regain her amateur status years later.

When the Zahariases married in 1938, the Bowens embraced George and they were now all so close that Bertha had even become involved in their marriage. Bertha believed tension grew from their frequent separations and constant travel and the marriage had become like the clash of two titans. During one falling-out, George telephoned Bertha from Galveston.

“You’ve got to come down here and help me,” George pleaded. “Babe has asked me for a six-month separation and I can’t handle it. I can’t handle it. Will you come?”

R.L. flew Bertha to Galveston on his plane and she took a cab to the hotel. Babe had given George a deadline and he was supposed to leave by 6 o’clock. When the hour came, he walked to the bed where Babe was lying and dramatically took her hand. “Goodbye, Babe. I’ll go on.”

“Hail, Columbia!” Bertha cried. “Oh, come on, you ‘durn fools. Come off of it!”

Babe began to laugh, and then Bertha laughed. Finally, George joined in and that was the end of it.

They were still together in 1953, when after months of mysterious pains, Babe had finally scheduled a physical examination in Fort Worth, and the couple stayed with the Bowens.

“Babe was rough in spots, but she was modest too and didn’t like physical examinations,” Bertha said. “She should have been to a doctor long before she went. She waited too long, that was her big trouble.” 

 When they returned from the exam, Babe’s face was ashen and Bertha trailed her into the guest room, where Babe tossed her purse on a chair, flopped on the bed and covered her eyes. “B.B., I’ve got it and it’s the worst kind,” she said. “Grade three. I’m not worried about myself, but what’s going to happen to George?”

The four of them had been sickened by the diagnosis and the Zahariases prepared to leave Fort Worth. Babe had pulled her golf clubs from the car and shoved them at her host.

“Here, R.L.,” she said. “I won’t be needing them anymore.”

“Yes, you will, Babe,” George said in a strangled voice. “You’ll play again.”

In April, surgeons removed the tumor and re-routed her colon. It would be a long and tortured road back.

The year before, Bertha had asked Babe to look after Betty Dodd, a rookie pro from San Antonio. Bertha thought Betty was the first beatnik she had ever known, hauling that guitar around the country, but Betty reminded Babe of her younger self, not caring how she looked or what she said. They’d had fun playing guitar and harmonica duets and Betty was a card. When George began to spend more time away from the tour, Betty roomed with Babe, which George didn’t care for very much.

The friendship was often painful and, at times, Babe acted as if she didn’t even know Betty. Then Babe had been stricken with the cancer and Betty had slept in her hospital room to help dispel the depression that followed surgery. Most importantly, Dodd knew nursing tricks to help with the colostomy. Despite Babe’s swagger, the possibility of having “an accident” in public terrified her.

Salem 

Now it was just past dawn on Saturday, July 3, 1954, and George drove Babe to Salem Country Club. Her freshly-pressed linen dress to wear to the presentation ceremony hung in the back seat.

Betsy Rawls, the defending champion, was seven strokes back in second place. Babe liked Rawls and had often instructed LPGA tournament director Fred Corcoran to pair her with the quiet Texan. Only Babe could get away with that. Of course, she got away with a lot, making sponsors lengthen courses to give her an advantage and demanding appearance money, which no one else dared to do. As the LPGA’s biggest draw, Babe enjoyed privileges and the other players could do nothing to stop her.

Rawls had roomed with Babe when a team of six LPGA players went to England in 1951. It had been a return to the site of one of Babe’s greatest victories. Four years before that, she had been the first American to win the British Ladies Open Amateur, “a crushing and heart-breaking opponent,” the Manchester Guardian said. At the time, three elderly women had approached Mrs. A.M. Holm, one of England’s top players, telling her the American was crass and lacked in refinement. Holm drew herself up and retorted, “You are speaking of the finest woman golfer that has ever been seen here.”

In England, Rawls got a kick out of her roommate. “Always wisecracking, she was a very funny, funny person. She was obviously well-accepted in Britain and felt appreciated and so she was very, very nice to be around. In those cases she could be very thoughtful and very sweet.”

This had been shortly after World War II and food, especially delicacies like eggs or candy, was scarce. Rawls noticed that if supplies were limited, Babe was always the first to claim more than her share. Rawls also saw the woman’s insatiable drive.

“Her self-worth was based on winning, on beating people at something,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody that took losing less gracefully than Babe did.”

Now at Salem Country Club, Louise Suggs was another three strokes down the Women’s Open leader board. She was Zaharias’ greatest rival. After a glowing amateur career, Suggs had turned pro and won a host of tournaments, creaming Babe by 14 strokes at the 1949 Women’s Open. These days, Suggs couldn’t hide her disdain for Zaharias but their bitter rivalry seemed to bother Suggs more than Babe. Louise barely backed off from calling her a cheat, and she deplored Babe’s actions, such as when Zaharias, playing badly, convinced tournament officials to cancel a round after a light rain. Suggs thought Babe was a bully.

“Babe had to win and she didn’t give a damn how,” Suggs said.

Redemption 

In 1953, after her surgery, Babe had slowly built up her strength and just three months later teed off in George S. May’s circus, the All-American at Tam O’Shanter Country Club, near Chicago.

Weakened, she was deathly afraid that if she hit the ball hard, her artificial intestinal tract might pull apart, and at her request, she was paired with Betty Dodd. During the third round when she three-putted the fifth green from four feet, Babe sat on a bench, put her head in her hands and sobbed.

Dodd urged her to walk in.

“No, no,” said Zaharias. “I’m no quitter.”

She had resumed play, but finished far down the list of finishers.

In 1954, a stronger Zaharias won the Serbin Women’s Open in February. In March she won the Sarasota Women’s Open. The U.S. Women’s Open was three months away.

“That was the goal,” said Bertha Bowen. “Down deep, I didn’t think she’d ever play again. She was too weak and run-down. She was building up to the Women’s Open and it was just pure spirit that got her through it.”

Oblivious, Babe was locked in a losing battle. The cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. This was a death sentence, but one that was kept from her at the recommendation of her surgeon.

Now, on the July morning in 1954, Salem Country Club was alive with players and spectators and Babe hit warm-up shots on the Women’s Open’s longest day. People watched from behind the practice tee but the attention on Zaharias on this morning wasn’t limited to the men and women standing awe-struck as she pounded out one long drive after another.  A couple of time zones west in Colorado Springs, Babe’s dedicated fans were also paying attention.  Ella Engle, 58, a small, bird-like woman, scurried through the ladies locker room of the Broadmoor Golf Club placing stacks of fresh towels in the showers. Engle was the longtime locker room attendant and she paused and opened a newspaper to scan the Women’s Open scores. When she saw Babe’s name heading the list, she smiled. Engle had seen Zaharias win the Broadmoor Ladies Invitation three times but she had also seen women look down their noses at Zaharias and had heard them say shameful things about her muscular carriage and confidence. Babe had been kind to Engle and now she prayed that the great athlete could show them all her undaunted spirit.

A few blocks away, teenager Judy Bell tossed the sports page to the breakfast table in her parents’ home and grinned. Bell had been 10 years old when Babe won the 1947 Broadmoor tournament and, entranced by Babe’s big game and personality, had followed her every step of the way. Oddly, Babe had worn the same sweater every day and Judy had told her mother that when Babe had walked near her, “Mrs. Zaharias smelled funny.”

Mariam Bell patiently told her daughter that perhaps Mrs. Zaharias was wearing the sweater for good luck.

Prelude 

Charles Bartlett leaned against a tree near the first tee of Salem Country Club, pushed his hat to the back of his head and scribbled on a notepad. A veteran reporter for the Chicago Tribune, Bartlett had written about Mildred Ella Didrikson Zaharias when she first streaked through sports like a comet. He’d written about her Olympic victories, her basketball prowess and her dominance of women’s golf. He’d written about her illness and now he wrote what he hoped would be her greatest story, her comeback. Sportswriters generally liked Babe but she was closest to Bartlett, who called her, “Mildred.”

Waiting on the first tee, Mickey Wright was nervous. “That was the most wonderful, scariest round of golf I’ve ever played,” Wright said years later. “She was such an imposing figure, such a gallery favorite.”

The 19-year-old had never played with The Babe, had never even seen her swing a club and now she waited with anticipation and the fearsome butterflies that sometimes preceded a big round. Babe emerged from the crowd to a burst of applause and shook Mickey’s hand. While Wright towered over her by a couple of inches, Babe was an imposing figure and, to Mickey, larger than life.

Attention was also being paid in California that morning. Barbara Romack, 21, checked the scores in The Sacramento Bee. “How about that!” she muttered when she saw Babe’s rounds. Romack had been paired with Babe in the 1951 Sacramento Women’s Invitational Open. More than 3,000 spectators had shown up to watch them slug it out and after the round, Zaharias had tagged Romack as the finest young amateur in the country. .

Babe had lit up like a firecracker when she stepped onto the first tee, playing to the crowd, but on the first few holes the diminutive Romack crashed her drives past the professional.  On the fifth tee Babe sauntered over and whispered, “It might be better if you didn’t outdrive me, honey. Just take it easy. Settle down.”

Romack’s next tee shot was going to be the drive of the century. “It’s still bounding down Fulton Boulevard,” she laughed, years later. -. “After that it was Mary-out-the-window for me.”

The next winter Romack had played in the Tampa Women’s Open, but her father, Aubrey, had to return to Sacramento and dreaded leaving his young daughter alone in Florida. George Zaharias offered, “Let her stay at our club. We’ll watch out for her.”

Barbara stayed at Tampa Country Club until the Florida winter amateur circuit began. Most nights the Zahariases took her to dinner at a Cuban restaurant in Ybor City and while Babe talked and laughed on these occasions, the ebullient George clearly ran the show, ordering their food and joking with the waiters.

In October, Barbara met Babe in a semifinal match at the Women’s Texas Open at Fort Worth’s Rivercrest Country Club.

“Hi, Kid,” Babe said on the first tee. “We’re gonna have some fun today.”

At the 13th, Babe went 4 up when she hit a 143-yard 8-iron shot into the hole on the fly for an eagle, the ball wedging so tightly against the flagstick that George called for a hammer from the clubhouse to extricate it.

On the 15th Romack faced a 7-foot birdie putt. If she made it she’d be two holes down with three to play.

Babe walked behind the young player and said, “Honey, you look like you want to make that putt.”

“Yes, m’am, I sure do,” Barbara said, and holed it. By the par-5 18th, Romack had squared the match but their contest ended when Babe hit the green in two shots, two-putted for a birdie and won.

A few weeks later Babe pulled up to Aubrey Romack’s plumbing shop in Sacramento in a taxi and then for a few hours lounged behind the counter, chatting. Aubrey drove her to the airport in his truck. She had to meet George in Texas. She was having medical tests, she said.

The Longest Day 

Now at Salem Country Club, the starter called, “Mrs. George Zaharias. Play away please!” Applause rolled over her and she raised her hand in a salute. The morning mist had lifted and brilliant sunshine glazed the spectators. It was 8:30 a.m.

Wright was intimidated from the start, amazed at how hard Zaharias hit the ball, ripping it and then falling back with the effort.

“She had no intention of having a youngster do as well as she did,” Wright said.

Lush fairways meant there was little if any roll and Salem was playing longer than the advertised 6,393 yards. Zaharias started uneasily, making bogeys on the third and sixth, missing the greens on both par-3s. Her power gave her an advantage on the par-5s and she reached the long eighth and the 15th with two long pokes and a chip, making birdie putts both times.

Babe worked the crowd to her advantage and within a few holes they were cheering every shot, awed by Babe’s power and spurring her on.  Mickey, however, was more impressed with her short game and the soft hands that produced delicate finesse around the greens.

Despite a light breeze, as the round progressed Babe became soaked with perspiration and in the middle of one fairway she pulled down her half-slip, taking  it off as easily as she’d once removed her warm-up suit before a track meet.

Astonished, Wright rolled her eyes. She loved the game’s fine manners and was offended by Babe’s nonchalant disrobing. Babe had no such propriety, so if  displaying her lingerie made the kid uncomfortable, so what?

Charlie Bartlett winced as Babe tossed her slip to a friend in the gallery. Lordy, Mildred could be crude!

Mickey came in with a 79 that morning but Babe was impressed with the youngster. “She’s a real comer,” she told Bartlett.

Babe had shot 73  and was now 12 big strokes ahead of Rawls and Betty Hicks. In an hour, she would begin the final round and she loped into the ladies locker room. During the break, Betty Dodd helped her syringe and dress the colostomy and, exhausted by the long day on the golf course, Babe lay down to rest.

Crescendo 

Thousands of fans lined the first hole that afternoon in a crowd stretching all the way to the green. Women wore long skirts and hats, while in the heat men in shirtsleeves and neckties carried their jackets over their shoulders.

Refreshed, Zaharias went striding down the fairway with Wright for the fourth and final round. For awhile her game was up to the strain and she fired 36 on the front nine and then nearly holed a wedge shot for an eagle at the par-5 10th. Spouting quips as she played, she doffed her straw hat with a flourish after every good shot.

Gradually, however, it became evident that her ailing body and intense struggle against the scorecard were eroding her concentration. On the 13th, fatigue took its toll and she was short with her approach shot and made a bogey. She faltered again on the 16th when she drove into the right rough and bogeyed.

Swinging the club became an effort. Her legs were weak and felt heavy,  lifeless. At the 17th, she hooked her drive and then hit her second shot over the green. Another bogey.

Finally she staggered up to the 18th tee, her 36th hole of the day, and emerged from the crowd, a middle-aged woman leaning on her driver, a woman who had walked more than seven miles that day and who now lunged at the ball, seeking flagsticks that seemed far away and stroking putts to holes that seemingly had shrunk to the size of thimbles. On the sidelines, Charlie Bartlett wondered at her courage.

Babe’s last drive bounded into the trees. Characteristically, she took a bold route, pitching through a tiny opening, and then pitched to the green. She narrowly missed the first long putt and then stroked the short putt for a bogey that would seal victory.

The putt fell.  Fans standing 10 deep around the green and the hundreds more sitting on the shady green hillside below the clubhouse stood and cheered. Babe slowly swept off her hat and made a slow, deep bow.

After she had showered and put on the linen dress, elation  got her through the presentation and she stilled the exuberant crowd with her remarks.

“For the first time since the operation, I feel like the same old Babe again,” she said.

Haggard, a matronly figure clutching a trophy, she spoke of her illness even as the disease stealthily flowed through her lymphatic system in a clear, deadly stream, locking the once great physique in its relentless grip. She had 26 months to live.

Battle’s End 

In less than a year, she would be in a Texas hospital. A few months later R.L. Bowen flew the Zahariases into Fort Worth for what the four of them knew would be Babe’s last Christmas. Disembarking from the plane, she pulled her cotton robe around her and hugged Bertha desperately.

When she asked to be taken to a golf course the Bowens drove her to Colonial Country Club. Near the second green they helped her from the car and she walked slowly up to the green, knelt and rubbed the grass.

“I just wanted to see a golf course one more time,” she said. She would be dead in nine months.

At the Titleholders the following spring, Babe huddled in a heavy coat on the sidelines and, one by one, the players came to shake her hand. The once wondrous eyes that had glittered like brilliant aquamarines speckled with gold were now vacant. The amazing light was gone. It was nearly over.

In the summer, surgeons severed her spinal cord to end the pain and her once-great physique shriveled to 80 pounds.

Babe Zaharias died on September 27, 1957 at age 45. That morning, United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower came striding into his White House press conference, brisk and business-like but his face was grave. Ike stood behind the podium. The reporters were hushed.

“Be seated,” he said brusquely.

Many issues were in the air. Ike was campaigning for a second term and reporters had questions about financing. The world trembled on the brink of the Cold War. Important subjects would be addressed.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the President said. “I should like to take one minute to pay a tribute to Mrs. Zaharias, Babe Didrikson. She was a woman who, in her athletic career, certainly won the admiration of every person in the United States, all sports people over the world, and in her gallant fight against cancer she put up the kind of fight that inspired us all.

“I think that every one of us feels sad that finally she had to lose this last one of all her battles.”

The last generation to know and love Babe Zaharias is now fading away. Ella Engle didn’t talk about their relationship until 1989 and died five years later at the age of 98.

In 1985, Betty Dodd wandered through the rough at a course in Austin, Texas, watching Mickey Wright and Kathy Whitworth partner in The Legends senior tournament. Pale and gaunt, Dodd introduced herself to a woman in the gallery. “Yes,” the woman said. “You were a friend of Babe’s.”

“Yes,” Dodd mumbled. She stood silently for a moment, then ducked her head and ambled away through the trees. She died in 1993 at the age of 63.

Bertha Bowen was in her 90s when she died in Fort Worth.

Peggy Kirk Bell and her husband had three children. Their Pine Needles resort in Southern Pines, N.C., hosted the Women’s Open three times. Barbara Romack won the 1954 U.S. Women’s Amateur, played the tour, and then retired to teach.

Betsy Rawls won four U.S. Women’s Opens in her Hall-of-Fame career and became one of golf’s most respected Rules officials. Louise Suggs won three Women’s Opens, the same as Babe’s final total, and announced she was leaving her money to the LPGA in her will.

Mickey Wright followed Zaharias as the greatest attraction on the LPGA Tour. She won the Women’s Open four times and most knowledgeable observers claimed she was the greatest woman golfer of all. In 1996, Judy Bell was elected as the first woman president of the USGA in its 102-year history.

When Babe Zaharias died, I was too young to know of her. I was 10 years old that autumn and the only sports team for girls in my Florida town was for swimmers. My childish heart desperate for heroines, I often rode my bike to the Lake Worth Public Library and checked out four books to read during the week. Louisa May Alcott was a favorite and the sports biographies, which were slender orange books about Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Christy Mathewson, stood at eye level on a shelf near the north wall. I had read them all.

One day, a new book appeared on the shelf. “Babe Didrikson Zaharias,” was the title on the orange cover. I remember sitting in the quiet gloom beneath the great murals of Spanish conquistadors, reading that book to the end. The story was heroic and I turned the pages, reading about Babe’s basketball feats, the Olympic Games and her triumphs in golf. It was late afternoon when I put the book back on the shelf, pushed open the heavy door and ran down the library steps.

Babe Zaharias! Imagine that!

Elated and feeling somehow free, I jumped on my bike and furiously pumped the pedals with my skinny little legs, heading home.

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

 

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