Thanking Seniors: The Week The LPGA Played For Nothing

…They frequently slept five to a hotel room to save money. They caravanned from city to city, and if one car got a flat tire, everybody stopped to help…

by Dave Riley

Every March since 2011 players from the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) have competed in what has become known as the JTBC Founders Cup. JTBC is the Korean TV corporation that currently sponsors the competition. The Founders are the lady golfers who, back in 1950, created the LPGA from almost literally nothing. No big corporations bankrolled their venture. No TV networks paid to televise the tournaments. True, there had been women’s competitive golf before 1950, but it was hit-and-miss and there was no central association.

As the name of the tournament indicates, the event honors the thirteen women who founded the LPGA. The guys had a golf tour. Why shouldn’t the ladies, they thought.

The founding members did it all back then: planned and organized the golf tournaments, drafted the by-laws, supervised membership, set up the Golf Clipartcourses and much more. The financial rewards were miniscule compared to today’s five- and six-figure payouts. Dedication to the sport and the LPGA was very much a labor of love for these women.

“You wouldn’t have wanted to have done it, I’ll tell you that,” founder Louise Suggs said. “At that point we didn’t realize it, but it was a lot of work. We were young kids who thought the world was in front of us. We lived out of the trunks of our cars and had to do everything.” They frequently slept five to a hotel room to save money. They caravanned from city to city, and if one car got a flat tire, everybody stopped to help.

“I can’t imagine having to do all of that,” said Karrie Webb, a friend of Suggs and the winner of the inaugural Founders’ tournament and 40 other LPGA events. “We are very fortunate that they did all of that and gave us this platform.” Fortunate indeed. In her nineteen-year career Karrie has won nearly twenty-million USD, not to mention winnings on other tours and lucrative endorsement deals.

“When I was young, I looked to the LPGA and that was my dream,” said Yani Tseng, who for 109 weeks was the number one ranked women’s player in the world. “The founders are the reason we have the LPGA. They let us dream.”

Golf journalist Brent Kelley, writing online in “About Sports,” said that Babe Didrikson Zaharias, one of the thirteen founders, “was inarguably the most important golfer in the early history of the LPGA. Her star power is what kept the LPGA going during its first few years of existence. She was known to call a promoter, negotiate an exhibition appearance for herself, and then say, ‘And I’ll bring along a few of the girls.’ Voila — that’s how some of the early LPGA events were born.”

In 2011 the current crop of LPGA pros gathered at the Wildfire Golf Club at JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort & Spa to compete in 54 holes of medal play and to honor the people who made their tour possible. (How often does this happen in other sports?) Three of the founders were in attendance: Shirley Spork (83) Louise Suggs (88), and Marilynn Smith (82).

Okay, okay, I know what you’re thinking. It’s all nice, but so what?

Well here’s the so what. Besides honoring the pioneering seniors who made it all possible, the players in the very first founders’ tournament donated all the prize money to charity, every last dollar of it. $500,000 went to the LPGA-USGA Girls Golf and $500,000 went to the top-10 finishers’ designated charities.

What makes this a very big deal is that 2011 and years leading up to it were not flush times for the LPGA. The economic downturn caused them to lose sponsors and have tournaments cancelled. For a while TV revenue, so important to the fiscal health of any professional sport, was down as well. That means many fewer bucks in the pockets of LPGA pros over the course of the season. LPGA members play for money. That’s how they meet the mortgage payments and feed their families, plus pay their caddies and their airline fares. Only that week, nobody played for money.

“I’d be lying as a player if I told you that my initial gut feeling wasn’t, ‘Oh, no, I’m not getting paid,’” Angela Stanford said. “But once you get through that and think of the bigger picture and the cause, then it makes sense. This is a pretty cool way to show how the LPGA can make a difference in a community.”

Winner Karrie Webb designated her winnings 50/50 to the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation and the Japan Relief Charity. Paula Creamer, Sun Yung Yoo, Sarah Jane Smith and Sandra Gal also designated their shares for Japan relief. Others designated a variety of worthy charities, including Breast Cancer, Make a Wish Foundation, American Heart Association, Special Olympics, and more.

If you’re good enough to make it to the tour, you’re a fierce competitor. You don’t play for second. You play to win. But I suspect that if by the weekend you are eleven strokes back, your goal is suddenly more modest, like just making next week’s expense money. These people are the ultimate independent contractors.

Not many pro athletes go into a tournament with no hope of winning a nickel. But that’s what every lady who entered the inaugural Founders’ Tournament did, all to help others and to honor the thirteen ladies who gave life to the organization that today enables them to make a living playing the game they love.

The LPGA founding members are Alice Bauer, Patty Berg, Bettye Danoff , Helen Dettweiler, Marlene Bauer Hagge, Helen Hicks, Opal Hill, Betty Jameson, Sally Sessions, Marilynn Smith, Shirley Spork, Louise Suggs and Babe Didrickson Zaharias.

Art: From Classroom Clipart

Dave Riley

About Dave Riley

Growing Old Isn’t For Sissies is about aging. It’s stories of how some older people achieve remarkable successes, how some people make the lives of others better, and how all seniors have hurdles to face — maladies, loss of loved ones and more.