Success of Women’s Golf Can Be Traced to Babe
February 29, 2016
By Jonathan Wilhelm, USGA
The Babe. Two American athletes made that moniker famous. One was a gregarious slugger for the New York Yankees, a man ahead of his time when it came to smashing baseballs unforeseen distances at an unprecedented rate. The other Babe was a multi-sport athlete also ahead of her time with her ability to shape shots and control a golf ball.
Fans of all ages admired George Herman “Babe” Ruth and Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias for their charisma as well as their raw talent, and clung to their successes during a tumultuous period in America’s history. Both athletes made an everlasting impact, but Zaharias had to clear extra hurdles: cancer and gender inequality.
Zaharias’ story is an oft-told narrative of a woman who overcame a grim colon cancer diagnosis in 1954 at age 43 to go on to claim her third U.S. Women’s Open Championship title and 10th major victory – by a 12-stroke margin, no less. She remains the oldest woman to win the Women’s Open. Beating her initial prognosis and returning to the course was never a question for the stubborn Zaharias, who had little time for naysayers. That determination and sheer drive to succeed helped make Zaharias a commanding figure whenever she stepped on the tee.
Mildred Ella Didrikson’s competitive nature was present from an early age. Oozing with confidence and ability, the 5-foot-7 Didrikson’s talent would earn her two track-and-field gold medals in the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles and All-America laurels in basketball. But talent was never her barrier – opportunity was. Zaharias came to form in a period when competitive female athletes were looked upon with some disdain. Sure, times were changing, but the 19th Amendment, which was intended to grant women rights equal to men, was less than 20 years old – and deep-seated perceptions were slow to change.
But Zaharias was not short on tenacity, and she was fond of claiming that her personal goal was “to be the greatest athlete who ever lived.” In pursuit of that goal, Zaharias turned her attention to golf in 1933 – a move that would make her one of the most influential figures in the game.
Outside of a few amateur championships, competitive opportunities in women’s golf were few in that era. Babe, never one to allow limits to constrain her, was happy to help usher golf into a new era. Refusing to accept the societal norms of being dainty and “lady-like,” coupled with her brash confidence, made Zaharias a daunting competitor. That same self-assurance helped her earn the favor of some of her biggest critics. Because no matter how reluctant golf was to change, Zaharias was changing golf.
That change was fully realized in the early 1950s, when Zaharias, along with 12 other women, established the framework for what would become the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA). While the LPGA wasn’t an immediate success, Zaharias, Louise Suggs, Patty Berg and others gained a foothold in the game. Over the next several years, the likes of Betsy Rawls, Mickey Wright and Carol Mann would establish their presence in the game and help pave the way for the next wave of female golfers, with each generation painting a developing picture of the female athlete in modern society.
Fast forward to today: approximately 230 active LPGA Tour members representing almost 30 countries compete in events around the world. Girls’ golf initiatives are an important focus among governing bodies, with the LPGA-USGA Girls Golf program bringing the fundamentals and the values of the game to some 50,000 girls annually.
Today’s female golfers bring a variety of backgrounds and, like Zaharias, continue to push the boundaries of the sport, making a strong case to replace the term “golfer” with “athlete.” Pioneers like Zaharias, with her insatiable appetite for success, were instrumental in sparking that change. So, here’s to a woman who withstood criticism, laughed at the idea of exclusion and quietly led a revolution with a naturally pure swing – to the Babe.