As Mary Mills prepared for the 36-hole final day of the 1963 U.S. Women’s Open at Kenwood Country Club in Cincinnati, she harkened back to a meeting nine years earlier.
In 1954 at the Country Club of Birmingham (Ala.), Mills, then just 14, had a chance encounter with O.B. Keeler, the legendary sportswriter, and Bob Jones, the man whom Keeler had chronicled during his halcyon days as a golfer. Keeler knew most of the top players in the region. He introduced Mills to Jones, who still had a keen eye for talent.
“Keeler recognized me [because] he knew all the good juniors,” said Mills, who had just won the first of eight consecutive Mississippi Women’s State Amateur titles. “He introduced me to Bobby and he signed his book for me. They both predicted I would become a national champion.
“When I got into contention after leading [the 1963 Women’s Open] for two days, I felt like I was going to have to mess it up, that it was already written in the record books. I just had to stay calm.”
At the time, the Women’s Open – like the U.S. Open – was a three-day competition, with the golfers making the cut playing 36 holes on Saturday. So Mills only had to sleep on the lead twice, which eased the tension for the Gulfport, Miss., native.
Mills was playing in an era dominated by Mickey Wright, who claimed her four Women’s Open titles between 1958 and 1964. There were other strong players in the mix, including eventual runners-up Sandra Haynie and Louise Suggs, the latter having won the title in 1949 and 1952 and the former being a future champion (1974).
Never one to get too emotional, Mills, who had shot rounds of 71-70 the first two rounds, possessed an inner calm that final Saturday.
She was only 23 and a relative newcomer on the fledgling LPGA Tour. In 1962, Mills was named the Rookie of the Year, but the 1963 Women’s Open would be her first professional victory.
Rounds of 75-73 gave Mills a three-shot win and the first of her three major titles. In 1964, she would edge Wright by two strokes to win the first of two LPGA Championships. She won the title again in 1973.
“The [Women’s Open win] was the defining moment of my career,” said Mills, who this year celebrates the 50th anniversary of that triumph. “I knew that my name was going to go down in history. Every kid who starts out in golf has that dream of sinking that 8-foot to win the Open.”
When Mills dropped a 12-foot putt on the 72nd hole, she punched her right arm into the air, a moment that is preserved in one of the USGA’s public-service spots about being a national champion.
That 1963 triumph opened doors for Mills. She eventually represented the Ben Hogan Company and three times had dinner with Hogan, her childhood hero. Mills retired in 1980 at the age of 40 with nine career victories.
“She had a gorgeous, natural golf swing,” said Rhonda Glenn, a noted author/historian on women’s golf who recently retired from the USGA. “She had a beautiful rhythmic tempo. That was the thing you noticed most about Mary.
|Mary Mills punctuated her 1963 U.S. Women's Open title with a 12-foot birdie at the 72nd hole. (USGA Museum)
“She had a wonderful temperament. She was very composed and always seemed relaxed, even though I know she was burning inside.”
Born in Laurel, Miss., Mills began playing the game at 11, and her first instructor was 1935 PGA champion Johnny Revolta, who came down from Chicago during the winter months. Revolta developed Mills’ swing, a rhythm that she said came from springboard diving. Mills equated the slow approach to the end of the board to the timing required in a golf swing. Revolta taught Mills about swing plane and balance.
Under Revolta’s tutelage, Mills quickly developed into one of the South’s best players. One summer, Mills’ parents allowed her to tour the Magnolia State with legendary Patty Berg, who was putting on exhibitions and showed Mills a different side of the game. Having grown up idolizing Hogan – when Mills saw the Hogan bio-pic “Follow the Sun,” she knew she wanted to be a golfer – and seeing how serious his approach was, Mills didn’t think golf could be fun and jovial. Berg’s effervescence showed Mills the game could be both serious and fun.
“That was a treat,” said Mills. “She was a card. Patty was so different.”
Mills graduated from Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., where she played on the men’s golf team – usually as the No. 1 golfer – and competed against the likes of the University of Mississippi, Memphis State and Slippery Rock.
She turned pro in 1962 and played for 18 years.
“She was always very nice and friendly with spectators,” said Glenn. “All the players liked her. You never heard a player say anything bad about Mary Mills.”
Caddies also enjoyed her company. At one tournament, Mills made a deal with Fan Costa, a caddie from Worcester, Mass., who is now in the Caddie Hall of Fame. He told Mills, “Let’s have some fun today.” Mills agreed, on one condition: Costa would have to tell a joke for every birdie she made.
“We made so many birdies that we were laughing and nobody [else] knew what was going on,” said Mills. “I thought I needed to be like Hogan [to succeed]. No, I needed to be like me and relax.”
Upon her retirement, Mills briefly spent time as an instructor and later she put her Millsaps degree to good use by organizing golf and tennis events for a food service company. But after eight years, she started to miss the game, so she enrolled at Florida International University in Miami, and earned a master’s degree in landscape architecture. She worked briefly under architect Ted Manning, co-designing three courses: one in Tennessee, another in Massachusetts and a nine-hole layout in Connecticut. She also consulted on a course in Portugal.
Now 73, Mills is fully retired and living in Boca Raton, Fla. She remains active through biking, hiking and other outdoor activities, including golf.
“I don’t think you ever get tired of golf,” she said. “It’s fascinating at any age. You’re basically challenging yourself.”
Mills attended her first Women’s Open in quite some time this past week at Sebonack Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y. Joan and Ken Camisa, friends from Boca Raton, live in Farmingdale, N.Y., near Bethpage State Park, so Mills felt the timing was right to come. She attended the 2009 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black.
Mills, now 73, marvels at today’s talent, especially how far they hit the ball. In her era, only a handful of players had a power game, namely Wright, Beverly Hanson and JoAnne Gunderson Carner.
“We didn’t have the depth,” said Mills. “I was a medium ball-striker as far as distance, but I had a very repeatable swing.”
Next month, she’ll attend a special 50th anniversary dinner at Kenwood C.C. to commemorate her win. Old friends such as Murle (Green) Lindstrom, the 1962 Women’s Open champion, and Renee Powell are scheduled to attend. She’ll even go out and play the final three holes.
It will be another chance for Mills to reflect on those three remarkable days in July when she bested a field of 84 – and fulfilled a prediction made by a couple of legendary figures in the game.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.