The Adventure Of Being Marlene Streit

The life of the four-time USGA champion has taken extraordinary turns, in and out of golf

By Rhonda Glenn, USGA
October 17, 2011

World Golf Hall of Fame member Marlene Streit of Canada has won golf titles in four different countries. (USGA Museum)

Use your imagination: Two screenwriters meet a film producer. Screenwriter One explains a concept. “It’s Jim Thorpe - All-American meets The Perils of Pauline!”

“A baby girl is clasped to her mother’s breast in a harrowing wagon trip into the Canadian wilderness,” says Screenwriter Two.

“A plague of locusts wipes out the family farm!” says Screenwriter One.

“Now she’s a college student on a plane. The plane crashes!”

“Flames! Smoke! She leads the passengers to safety!”

“Through the snow. Barefoot!”

“She grows up to win the golf championships of four countries!”

“There’s a big fat close-up as she’s inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame!”

“And, get this; she’s only 5 feet tall!”

The producer yawns and looks his watch. “Nobody will believe it. Sorry, guys. I’ve got another meeting.”

But it all happened to Marlene Stewart Streit. After a life more dramatic than most, her only dilemma today is figuring out how she missed the cut at the USGA Senior Women’s Amateur.

Streit’s mother, the late Mary Stewart, once famously said, “Marlene was so determined that if there was a wall of fire and she wanted to go to the other side, she’d walk right through it.”

That determination was useful even in the peaceful little world of golf, where Streit won national titles over more than 50 years. From the 1951 Canadian Women’s Amateur to the 2003 USGA Senior Women’s Amateur, she won 22 national championships. Today, at 77, she still expects to play well and when she missed the cut in September in the Senior Women’s Amateur at The Honors Course in Chattanooga, Tenn., she ruminated over what went wrong.

“I guess I should have practiced more,” Streit said. “Those last three holes on the front nine were horrid. I had two doubles and a bogey. Yuck!”

The three-time Senior Women’s Amateur champion went to the sidelines. The next morning, Streit had breakfast in The Honors clubhouse, and missing the cut was still a bitter pill.

“Maybe I shouldn’t play next year,” Streit said, glumly stirring her grits.

It’s hard not to win when you’ve won so much. For the last couple of years, Streit has speculated that she ought to quit. Friends have scotched that, saying, “What else would be doing? You’re playing serious golf on a great course with your friends. What could be better than that?”

Streit is unsure. Maybe she’ll play again. Maybe she won’t.

Streit’s history is unique. She was born March 9, 1934, in Cereal, Alberta, a small town on the Canadian plains where she lived on a farm with her parents and older sister, Dolly. In 1935, hordes of locusts rattled through the fields and cut crops to the ground.

Mary Stewart harnessed a horse to the buggy, put the infant Marlene beside her and drove through the fields, shoveling poison over the crops. It was a losing battle. When the locusts returned the following year, Harold and Mary Stewart left Cereal for good.

For six days they rode in a wagon pulled by a team of horses, heading for the irrigation district. At the Red Deer River, Mary clutched Marlene and Dolly as they forded the swirling currents. When the wagon trundled up a narrow, rocky path to the top of a cliff, Mary held Marlene under one arm and a log under the other. If the horses jumped, she would throw the log under the wheel to keep the wagon from sliding over the cliff.

At the top, the Stewarts saw vast fields of waving green oats in the irrigation district, where they would live. For a time, it was a hard but peaceful life and then the sand storms blew in, shutting out the sun. Sand buffeted the window frames and crept under the doors of their farm house. It ruined the mechanisms of the tractor in the barn.

The Stewarts left farming forever and Harold Stewart opened an electrical shop in Fonthill, near Niagara Falls. As a youngster, Marlene caddied at Lookout Point Golf Club to earn extra money. Barely 4 feet tall, she carried golf bags. Two years later, she wanted to play.

The teenager learned a long backswing and a fine shoulder turn from Lookout Point professional Gordon McInnis, who rewrapped her grips to make them small enough for her tiny hands.

“She got everything out of her little old body that was possible,” McInnis once said.

When Streit wasn’t in school, she was hitting golf balls. For a time, McInnis, his wife and Marlene’s parents were the only believers, but in 1951 Marlene broke through, winning an Ontario championship. Before Harold Stewart made the financial commitment to Marlene’s amateur career, he consulted McInnis.

“I knew what she could do, how she could concentrate, how much stamina she had,” McInnis remembered. “She could go the limit. She could be the best.”

Streit won three Canadian national titles in 1951 and 1952. During her sophomore year at Rollins College in Florida, she boarded a plane with 16 passengers to fly home for the Christmas holidays.

The accident was later judged “pilot error.” Eight miles short of the runway, the plane crashed in a field. Streit was thrown from an aisle seat into a window. She pushed at the hot glass, suffering severe burns on her left hand. When she saw a hole in the fuselage she scrambled for the makeshift exit, calling to the other passengers to follow. In the confusion, she lost her shoes. The passengers got out safely and huddled under the wing in the snow. But Streit, fearing an explosion, urged them away. She spotted a light in the distance and walked barefoot through the snow, leading the little group toward the light. It was a farmhouse, where they received help.

After all of that, competitive golf was a walk in the park. Streit played in everything she could, winning Canadian national titles. In 1953, she became an international star as the first native-born Canadian to win the British Ladies Open Amateur. She was a national heroine and 15,000 people turned out in Toronto to watch her ride by in an open convertible.

Streit reached the highest level when she won the 1956 U.S. Women’s Amateur with a 2-and-1 victory over JoAnne Gunderson at Meridian Hills Country Club in Indianapolis. Four holes down after 20 holes, the tiny warrior fought back, firing fairway woods at the greens while the 17-year-old Gunderson hit 7-irons. Streit took the lead at the 32nd hole and canned a 12-footer at the decisive 35th.

In 1957, she married geological engineer J. Douglas Streit and they greeted the birth of their first daughter, Darlene, in 1960. Two years later, daughter Lynn was born.

Family life never dulled her competitive instincts and in 1963 she won the Australian Women’s Amateur. She was the only player to have captured the national women’s titles of Canada, the United States, Great Britain and Australia. In 1985, she won the first of three USGA Senior Women’s Amateur titles, also winning in 1994 and in 2003 when, at 69, she became the oldest champion in USGA history.

In 2004, she became the first Canadian inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Streit still strikes the ball solidly. Her swing has timeless beauty – a full shoulder turn and wonderful rhythm. It’s an easy swing that has kept her injury-free for many years. Never a long hitter, she kept her drives in the fairway, hit pin-point fairway woods and was a beautiful iron player. Her putting was often very good. And there was that determination, that willingness to walk through fire.

Streit guesses that she will play in the Senior Women’s Amateur for at least two more years, until her 10-year exemption for winning in 2003 runs out. She will find other things to do. She’s close to her daughters and also spends time encouraging Canada’s junior girl golfers to compete and play their best.

Staying on the sidelines won’t be easy after so much success. There was a glimmer of greatness as recently as 2006, when Streit and JoAnne Gunderson Carner played a reunion match at Meridian Hills.

It had been 50 years since they met in that U.S. Women’s Amateur final. Streit and Carner are good friends and often play golf together in Florida during the winter. One day, Streit said, “Why don’t we go to Indianapolis and play the course on the 50th anniversary? It would be fun.”

They agreed, and the match grew into a celebration. Streit and Carner made nice speeches at a clubhouse dinner the night before the match. The following morning, a crowd of spectators watched them tee off. Rules officials were on hand and a youngster carried a scoreboard.

Carner and Streit were jovial on the first tee. There was all that history, not just of Streit but of Carner and her own five U.S. Women’s Amateur titles, two U.S. Women’s Open victories and hall-of-fame career.

On an early hole, Streit was in the trees, lost her concentration and inadvertently disturbed branches on a practice swing. “Loss of hole,” proclaimed the referee. On the next tee, Carner’s deep voice resounded, “A few more holes like that, Marlene, and we’ll be in the clubhouse having cocktails!”

Everyone laughed. They played on, finishing the match arm in arm with Streit edging Carner just as she had 50 years before.

Thoughts go back to that first tee, when Streit and Carner made their first swings. After all the years, their talent still separated them from so many others, even in their eighth decades. They were different, these two. Their swings had such breathtaking beauty and real magic was in the air.

First Streit, sweeping the club back, perfectly timed, so beautifully coordinated, striking the ball right in the center of the clubface. Then Carner with her shortish backswing and the driving power of her legs, the crack of the strike of the ball.

We remembered films of Babe Zaharias hurling a baseball from deep left field to home plate in one fluid motion and of Althea Gibson covering center court at Wimbledon like a big strong cat. Streit and Carner have this same rare athletic grace. You could just see it. And you were thrilled to be there in the soft gray light of morning to see it once again.

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

 

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