At the time, the Women’s Open – like the U.S. Open – was a three-day competition, with the golfers who made the cut playing 36 holes on Saturday. Mills only had to sleep on the lead twice, which eased the tension on the young player from the Magnolia State.
Mills was playing in an era dominated by Mickey Wright, who claimed all of her four Women’s Open titles between 1958 and 1964. There were other strong players in the mix, including Haynie and Suggs, the latter having won the Women’s Open 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 LPGA Tour. In 1962, Mills was named the Rookie of the Year, but the 1963 Women’s Open would be her breakthrough victory.
Rounds of 75-73 gave Mills a three-shot win and the first of her three major titles. In 1964, she edged Wright by two strokes to win the first of two LPGA Championships (now the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship), and she won the title again in 1973.
“The [Women’s Open win] was the defining moment of my career,” said Mills. “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 putt to win the Open.”
When Mills dropped a 12-foot putt on the 72nd hole, she threw her right arm into the air, a moment that is preserved in one of the USGA’s promotional spots about being a national champion.
That 1963 triumph also opened doors for Mills. She went on to represent the Ben Hogan Company and three times had dinner with Hogan, her childhood hero. Mills retired in 1980 at the age of 40.
“She had a gorgeous, natural golf swing,” the late women’s golf historian Rhonda Glenn once said. “She had a beautiful rhythmic tempo. That was the thing you noticed most about Mary.
“She had a wonderful temperament. She was very composed and always seemed relaxed, even though I know she was burning inside.”
Mills began playing the game at 11, and her first instructor was 1935 PGA champion Johnny Revolta, who spent time in Mississippi 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.
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 and noting 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’ comportment made her a favorite with spectators, tournament officials and fellow competitors.
Caddies also enjoyed her company. At one tournament, Mills made a deal with Van 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 organized 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.
Mills, who turned 79 in January, now 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.”
On the 50th anniversary of her U.S. Women’s Open title, Mills attended her first Women’s Open in quite some time in 2013 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 decided the timing was right. She also attended the 2009 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black.
Mills marveled at the talent of today’s players, especially the prodigious distances 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 [of players],” said Mills. “I was a medium ball-striker as far as distance, but I had a very repeatable swing.”
Later in 2013, she attended 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 attended. She even went out and played the final three holes.
It gave Mills another chance to reflect on three remarkable days in July 1963 when a girl from Mississippi 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.