This is the seventh in a series of 18 stories reviewing every USGA championship and international team competition held at Merion Golf Club, site of the 2013 U.S. Open, which until 1942 was known as Merion Cricket Club.
On the same day that Dot Porter laced up her shoes and strolled out of the locker room to play her first match in the 1949 U.S. Women’s Amateur, the Ladies Professional Golf Association was founded in New York City.
Porter won that Women’s Amateur, prompting appropriate hurrahs, headlines on some sports pages and a slot on the next Curtis Cup Team. The LPGA’s birth, meanwhile, was greeted with a yawn. But on that day – September 13, 1949 – American women’s golf began to change forever and five decades later, champions would ponder its meaning in a Portland, Ore., bar.
That U.S. Women’s Amateur at Merion Golf Club featured a lot of famous faces. Many of the old campaigners were, of course, past their prime. Margaret Curtis, the rotund three-time champion, was 65 years old. Curtis had first played in the championship in 1897, then had starred in World War I Red Cross efforts and later co-founded the Curtis Cup. Helen Stetson, another past winner, was making a sentimental appearance. Having won the Women’s Amateur in 1926 at Merion, Stetson was hardly expected to contend.
Other veterans in that middle ground had vast experience that at least guaranteed a battle. The stocky 1937 champion, Estelle Lawson Page, 42, had won three key tournaments within the prior five years. Maureen Orcutt, also 42 and seeking the only important United States title to elude her, had won the Women’s Eastern Amateur in the run-up to the championship.
Also signing up to play was Glenna Collett Vare, the most celebrated of all women amateurs, if you discounted Babe Zaharias. Vare won what the players called “the National” a record six times between 1922 and 1935. At 46, she was all business and still feisty. At the 1948 Curtis Cup Match, Vare, the USA captain, had scrawled her own name in the starting lineup. She won the match.
Porter had been Dot Germain when her name began to appear near the top of leader boards. In 1946 she had become Mrs. Mark A. Porter and was now the mother of a toddler and two months pregnant with a second child.
Yet, this week she had an edge. A few fine golfers were sprinkled in her bracket – the Englishwoman Frances Stephens, Titleholders champion Peggy Kirk and smooth-swinging Mary Lena Faulk – but most favored players were in the opposite bracket; Mary Ann Downey, Betsy Rawls, Dot Kielty, Helen Sigel, the stalwart Polly Riley, Pat O’Sullivan and Marlene Bauer, the first U.S. Girls’ Junior champion.
Porter, 25, was flying beneath the radar in the upper draw. With a golf swing grounded in old-school method, she had a wide arc, plenty of power and her short game was good enough.
A few amateurs would join the fledgling LPGA, but for Porter a pro career was out of the question. “I felt very complete, no trouble,” she said years later in an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer. “I’m glad to this day that was my choice.”
Amateur golf was enough to provoke competitive fires, and even dying fires burned hotly. Among the older players, Stetson won her first-round match on the 20th hole. Orcutt hung on until the third round and Page lasted until the 21st hole of a fourth-round fight with Porter.
But never again would they contend in any important way. The postwar era featured hopeful, energetic young amateurs who had either married or entered emerging careers and golf, for the next few years, belonged to them.
While those days when women amateurs strolled the fairways in skirts with hemlines slightly below the knee, as required by propriety and private clubs, may seem quaint, the players were as motivated as any generation and they banged out their fairway woods with fierce determination.
But it was a different time. Quieter. More humble.
Upon receiving a prize a player might thank everyone, comment that it had been a wonderful match, that they were honored to be champion, and that their opponent had played so well.
If Dorothy Porter had a rival, it was her fellow Philadelphian, Helen Sigel. One battle was in 1941 when Sigel had knocked off the 17-year-old in the third round of the Women’s Amateur and went on to be runner-up to Betty Hicks.
In talent, Porter and Sigel seemed evenly matched but it looked as if Sigel would be the first to claim a national title. Again in 1948 she had made it to the Women’s Amateur final, where she lost to Grace Lenczyk. Golf writer Herbert Warren Wind had described Sigel as “a mere slip of a girl” but Sigel’s muscular legs were the base of a solid golf swing that drove the ball tremendous distances. If 1941 and 1948 were not Helen’s years, neither was 1949. She went out in the third round.
Of the favorites, Porter was joined by Kirby, Kielty and the talented Bauer in the quarterfinals.
Marlene Bauer’s lithe physique and playful manner earned her the nickname of “Gremlin.” At 15, her putting touch helped her upset Glenna Vare in round two. As the championship sorted itself out, the confident California girl advanced to the semifinal to meet Kielty.
Bauer’s father, Dave, was never far away. While some believed his influence over Marlene and her older sister Alice was too strong, an unidentified Golf World reporter wrote, “As a matter of fact he speaks to them in soft, musical tones… When she (Marlene) missed a shot, Papa Bauer was heard to remark to himself: ‘Oh, my baby.’”
Marlene had a tough task. Kielty was in her prime, a Curtis Cup player who had won a big one, the 1948 Women’s Western Amateur. It was ironic that Kielty had disqualified herself from the 1948 Women’s Amateur after a scoring error in qualifying, and when she stymied Bauer to win the 17th hole, then won the match, justice seemed to prevail.
The Porter-Kirby semifinal showdown was never close. Porter advanced, 3 and 1, and along the way picked up new fans. She had one of the world’s great smiles, friendly warmth that pulled you in, and a chatty, charming manner.
“Here is a happy golfer,” USGA Women’s Committee Chairman Frances Stebbins later wrote of Porter in the USGA Journal. “Here is a young lady who plays as if she gets some fun out of playing, and not as if the fate of nations hung on her ability to explode one from a bunker…”
If Kielty seemed more serious on the golf course than Porter, she was certainly more tired, having outlasted Sigel, Polly Riley and Bauer to get to the final.
Kielty was something of an enigma. Born in 1918, she was among the youngest children of a large brood from Minnesota. She later popped up in California, began playing at the age of 20 and won the Los Angeles Women’s City Championship three years later.
When World War II broke out, Kielty signed up for the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) and flew bombers to Europe out of Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. She became WASP staff director of the Second Airforce under flying ace Jacqueline Cochran. These were patriotic women who made a great wartime contribution, but Kielty returned from the war to discover that her service as a pilot, like that of other WASP, was no longer required. Airlines hired returning male pilots, not females, so Kielty fended for herself. She became a part-time flight instructor in the Long Beach area, invested in a dress shop and joined posh Virginia Country Club.
Kielty, at 31, was building a record. She was a semifinalist at the 1946 U.S. Women’s Open, which was match play, twice runner-up in the Broadmoor Ladies Invitation and her Women’s Western Amateur title clinched a spot on Vare’s 1948 Curtis Cup squad.
On Sept. 17, Kielty and Porter, women of vastly different perspectives, teed off for the national title. The fine morning was as brisk as early autumn and the bunkers, the so-called “white faces of Merion,” glistened in the sun.
Some 2,000 spectators tagged after the match. Tough semifinals can strain the finalists and they are often left ragged, but that day’s golf was first class. Few holes were halved. Recoveries, for the most part, were excellent. The pace was somewhat slow – 3 hours and 40 minutes for the morning 18 – but Kielty was not to be hurried in the ultimate match and took extreme care on the greens.
At the lunch break, Porter led, 2 up. The 19th hole was a disaster for Kielty. Her approach shot to the par 4 seemed right on the flag, but fell into a bunker, hole-high. Porter’s second was 20 feet from the hole. Kielty failed to escape the bunker and Porter took a 3-up lead.
Kielty battled back and took the match all the way to the 34th hole, the Quarry Hole, where she missed her second shot into the dunes and could not escape. The great match came to an end and Porter had the triumph of her life, winning, 3 and 2.
In the aftermath of that championship, Rawls, Kirk, Faulk and young Marlene Bauer and her older sister Alice joined the professional ranks and established great careers. Bauer and Rawls were elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame. Vare was also a member.
Most of those who advanced at Merion made the USA Curtis Cup Team in 1950 – Porter, Kielty, Kirby, Sigel, Lenczyk, Kirk, Riley and Beverly Hanson. That Curtis Cup resulted from a fund-raising effort led by Margaret Curtis in which American, Australian and Canadian donations brought a team from war-ravaged Britain to the United States.
The amateur ranks had begun to erode. Growing prize money beckoned and the U.S. Women’s Amateur became a sort of farm team for the LPGA. In the 1950s and ’60s, a trickle of fine amateurs turned pro. By the 1970s, desertions became a torrent. The last champion to remain amateur was Carol Semple Thompson, who won the Women’s Amateur in 1973.
Rhonda Glenn is a manager of communications for the USGA. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.