Berg, Patty (1918—)
Berg, Patty (1918—)
Berg, Patty (1918—)
Foremost American women's golfer and first president of the LPGA, who was responsible for making professional golf a sport in which women could not only compete but support themselves. Born Patricia Jane Berg on February 13, 1918, in Minneapolis, Minnesota; third daughter of Theresa D. (Kennedy) and Herman Berg (a grain broker); never married; no children.
Named Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year (1938); won over 60 professional golf tournaments (1941 to 1962); won three Vare Trophies for the lowest average score (1953, 1955, and 1956); received the Bob Jones Award in recognition of her "sportsmanship" (1963); given the Ben Hogan Award for playing despite a handicap (1975); received the Herb Graffis Award for contributions to golf as recreation (1981).
Patty Berg's athletic career began on the football field where she played halfback on the neighborhood boys' team, the Minneapolis 50th Street Tigers, until she switched to quarterback. The team was composed of serious and talented players, including Bud Wilkinson, the future football coach, who lived down the street. Berg also loved hockey, baseball, track, and speed-skating and, at 15, would win the Minnesota speedskating title in the girls' junior division. Herman and Theresa Berg were not as enthusiastic about their daughter's stint on the football team as they were about her other sports. Patty rarely bothered to change out of schoolclothes, and more than one good skirt was ruined in the rough-and-tumble game. Her mother didn't mind the physical aspect of football; it was the skirt mending that irked her.
Berg's sporting life expanded when she was 13. Her father, a wealthy grain broker, loved golf and bought Patty's younger brother a golf membership at the country club. "Where's mine?" asked Berg. Her father, who reasoned that golf might be a dandy alternative to football, secured her a membership with the proviso that she
practice daily. Patty started playing with a makeshift set of clubs—three old brassies, three irons, and a putter. In the beginning, it took the young golfer 112 strokes to get around an 18-hole course, but she improved rapidly. With the help of her father, who was also her chief instructor, in 1935 Berg won the Minnesota state championship, a feat she would repeat in 1936 and 1938. She also reached the match play finals of the U.S. Women's National Amateur Tournament in 1935. Only 17, she found herself battling Glenna Collett Vare , the famous golfer for whom the Vare Trophy is named. Noted Time:
Reporters were amazed by Patty's earnestness, her freckles, her costume of a boy's sweatshirt and the assurance with which, though she weighs only 110 and is just over 5 ft., she consistently drove 200 yards. Patty Berg amazed them further by beating five opponents in a row. In the final, she played Mrs. Vare. The match appeared to be over when "Glenna" was 4 up with six holes left to play. Patty won two of the next three. Mrs. Vare won only by sinking a hard putt on the 34th green.
Berg was determined, playing with a power that astonished many. By now a score of 70 on an 18-hole course was routine. Her powerful 200-yard drive was astounding. It didn't seem possible that the petite Patty could slam a ball that far with such accuracy. Few knew, however, that after the give-and-take of the football field, the golf course was pretty tame. After Berg's 1935 match with Vare, she became a sports celebrity compared with great golfers like Bobby Jones. It would "only be a matter of time," declared one sportswriter, "before the 17-year-old would prove herself the foremost woman golfer in the United States." Wrote William Steedman in the Seattle Times:
The new star is a kid of eighteen named Patty Berg who has as many freckles as a plover's egg, and, so they tell us, as many golf-shots as she has freckles. We'll have to see how she does for the next couple of seasons before we can hail her as another Alex, or Glenna, or Virginia. But, in view of what she has done, and what the Eastern critics say about her, she'll do as a guess for future preeminence until a better guess comes along.
Although Berg didn't know it, she would be instrumental in creating a very different sport during her career. Until this time women's golf was played by amateurs. Although Helen Wills Moody had made tennis a popular sport as a professional in the late 1920s and early 1930s, golf had remained a secondary game. Berg's potential to transform the sport was immediately recognized. "Her miraculous saves in the 1935 national kicked up the attendance figures to fully 15,000 for the week," wrote Bernard Swanson in The American Golfer, "and, for the first time really poured money into the women's coffers in the United States Golf Association." The public adored the little redhead who performed feats women were thought incapable of accomplishing.
Pressure on the links was intense, for Berg was under enormous public scrutiny at a young age. But, having been the only girl on a boys' football team, she was used to being the underdog and adapted quickly to her new status. For the first year, she wore the same sweater and hat in tournaments because they "brought her luck." She always lined her clubs, thirteen irons and five woods, against the wall of her room, ready for the next big match. As she grew more self-assured, she discarded some of these habits and began showing up in slacks or a skirt, frequently with a beret perched on her head. An earnest player who kept a strict schedule and was often in bed by 8:30 in the evening, she had brains and she had perseverance. "When that kid gets to the green, she expects to hole every putt," said former national champion Helen Hicks . "When she misses one of ten feet, she is provoked. And, when she misses, she practices putting until the turf cries out for mercy. You can't go far wrong that way."
Berg's parents were deeply involved with their daughter's career. Her mother, who had been lame since childhood, could not follow her daughter around the course, but she was at each match and watched intently from her chair even when the young athlete was no more than speck in the far distance. Her father stayed close at hand. When things went poorly for his daughter, he began to whittle furiously on a piece of wood. Her parents' support meant a great deal to the young player who continued to amass honors. In 1936 and 1938, she represented the U.S. in the Curtis Cup matches against women from Great Britain. In 1937, she lost to Estelle Page in the final round of the U.S. Women's Amateur title, but the following year she defeated Page. "As bonny Mrs. Page ran over to the new champion and plopped a kiss on her cheek," reported Time, "the gallery of 3,000 yelled themselves hoarse for the temperamental little red-head, the darling of all golf galleries, who had just climaxed one of the best seasons any woman golfer has ever had—her tenth victory in 13 tournaments. But the new champion would rather be an All-American football star."
In 1938–39, many changes occurred in Berg's life. She became a business student at the University of Minnesota, though she continued to play despite the demands of a college career. Her 1939 season was cut short, however, by an appendectomy which required several weeks of recovery. A more serious blow followed a few months later when her mother died. Theresa Berg had been Patty's constant companion and major support. Her presence reassured the young player. Berg decided she must keep playing, however, and, after a temporary absence from the game, she entered several tournaments in 1940. From 1934 to 1940, Berg competed in 28 amateur tournaments, winning every notable local, state, and amateur title. She had become a force to be reckoned with.
In the summer of 1940, Berg announced she was turning professional. At that time only a handful of women were golf pros, including Helen Hicks, Opal Hill, Helen Dettweiler, Helene MacDonald , and Babe Didrikson Zaharias . Now a junior in college, Berg decided to work for the Wilson Sporting Goods Company while completing her studies. Her salary was $5,000 a year, a considerable sum at the time, plus a commission on "Patty Berg" golf clubs. With her fresh-faced good looks, her steely determination, and celebrity status, she was an ideal company representative. But relinquishing her amateur status was not an easy decision in 1940; there were only half a dozen U.S. tournaments open to women golf pros. Of these, only three offered a combined purse of $500. "Henceforth, the onetime national champion, who has been accustomed to winning five out of every six tournaments she entered," noted Time, "must confine her competitive golf to the half-dozen U.S. tournaments open to women pros." But Berg had decided to gamble on the growth of women's golf, a decision she would never regret.
Hicks, Helen (1911–1974)
American golfer. Name variations: Helen Hicks Harb. Born Helen B. Hicks in Cedarhurst, New York, on February 11, 1911; died on December 16, 1974; married. Member of the Curtis Cup team (1932).
In 1931, at age 20, the long-hitting Helen Hicks reached her peak, winning the U.S. Women's Amateur championship by defeating Glenna Collett Vare ; that same year, Hicks won the Women's Metropolitan (she would repeat that win in 1933). Though she made the finals in the 1933 nationals, she lost to Virginia Van Wie . In the spring of 1934, Hicks signed with Wilson Sporting Goods and became the first U.S. Women's Amateur champion to turn pro.
Page, Estelle Lawson (b. 1907)
Estelle Page took the 1937 USGA Amateur, defeating Patty Berg ; she was also a runner-up in 1938 and a semifinalist in 1941 and 1947. A member of the Curtis Cup team in 1938 and 1948, Page won many nationals championships, including the North and South in 1933, 1936, 1940, 1941, 1946, 1947, and 1949. At one time, she held the world record score of 66 in medal-play competition.
Off to a good start, she won her first professional title, the Women's Western Open, in 1941. But, on December 8, the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Berg was severely injured in an automobile accident in Texas, and her knee was shattered. Set badly, it had to be rebroken and reset three times. Throughout the ordeal, Berg remained determined to return to golf. After a year and a half of diligent exercise, she began to play again, though she would always walk with a limp. In 1943, during World War II, she signed up for Marine Corps duty; for the next two years, she was assigned to play exhibition golf matches to raise funds for war-service agencies. She also recruited for the Corps and became a poised public speaker. In 1946, Berg returned to professional golf, winning the first National Open. Amazingly, the pinnacle of her career was still to come.
Power is the theme of [Berg's] golf, but it isn't everything. She has brains and perseverance.
Organizing women's professional golf became her passion. Considered a pastime for the rich, golf had always been deemed an acceptable sport for women. No one, however, gave any thought to women supporting themselves by playing the game. After World War II, replaced by returning soldiers, women poured out of the factories they had either worked in or managed during the long conflict and settled back into unpaid work at home. This pattern served quite well in the sports world as well, or so many thought. Berg disagreed. She was being paid $7,500 a year by Wilson Sporting Goods, but purses for tournaments were pathetic. In women's golf, $500 was considered an enormous sum. The game would not progress, she felt, until more professional tournaments with larger purses existed. Babe Didrikson Zaharias' manager, Fred Corcoran, agreed with Berg. He brought Zaharias, Berg, and Betty Jameson together to form the nucleus of a new organization, the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) in 1948, and Berg served as the LPGA's first president until 1952. Wilson Sporting Goods was also instrumental in supporting the new organization. Berg particularly enjoyed working with Zaharias, a rival on the course. The two women were opposites—Zaharias was flamboyant while Berg was earnest—but they appreciated each other and enjoyed promoting the sport together until Zaharias' untimely death in 1956.
In the 1950s, Patty Berg demonstrated the potential of professional golf for women. She won nine of her fifteen major championships from 1948 to 1962. Shooting a score of 64 at the Richmond (California) Open, she set a women's professional record which lasted for a dozen years. Berg also showed that women could make money as professional golfers. Through her efforts as a Wilson spokeswomen and a founding member of the LPGA, the sport was becoming more popular. Tournaments with larger purses were sprouting up throughout the United States. In the mid-1950s, Berg was the leading money winner on the LPGA tour. In 1954, at a time when $10,000 purchased a home, she won $16,011; in 1955, she won $16,497; and in 1956, $16,272. She was the first professional golfer to win over $100,000, and her total earnings would be well over $200,000 in her golfing lifetime.
Berg continued to win tournament after tournament. In 1953, she won the Glenna Vare Trophy for the lowest playing average in LPGA-sponsored events with a 75. She repeated this feat in 1955 with an average of 74.47 and in 1956 with a 74.57. She also won Golf Digest's performance average award which assesses a player's performance relative to other players in official events. In 1955, her score was .894, in 1956, .882, and in 1957, .830. Although her career was at its peak in the '50s, Berg did not lose her competitive edge. She won LPGA victories in the early 1960s, and, in 1975, she qualified for the Dinah Shore Open. After battling cancer in 1971, Berg was back out on the links, continuing to compete on the women's professional tour until 1981.
Patty Berg made so many outstanding contributions to golf that honors naturally followed. In 1959, she received the Richardson Award from the Golf Writers Association of America (GWAA). The U.S. Gold Association gave her the Bob Jones Award in recognition of her "sportsmanship" in 1963. The Joe Graffis Award followed in 1975, awarded by the National Golf Foundation (NGF) for her contributions to golf education. In 1981, she received the Herb Graffis Award for contributions to golf as recreation. Because she walked with a limp after her accident in 1941, her courage was also recognized. The GWAA gave her the Ben Hogan Award in 1975 for playing despite her impairment. She was the first woman to receive the Humanitarian Sports Award in 1976 from the United Cerebral Palsy Foundation. In 1978, the LPGA established the Patty Berg Award in honor of its first president. She was also named as one of golf's five most influential women in the July 1982 Golf Digest. This short list included Betsy Rawls, JoAnne Carner, Helen Lengfeld , and Peggy Kirk Bell . The Smithsonian also honored the golfer, installing Berg as a "champion of American sport."
When she left professional golf in 1981, Berg continued to perform as "Golf's Goodwill Ambassador." She probably introduced more women to the sport than any other player, traveling to thousands of clinics to teach and put on exhibitions. It was not unusual for Berg to travel 60,000 miles a year for this purpose. She was well known in Japan, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, in fact in any country where golf was played. She also co-authored several books on the sport: Golf (1943) with Otis Dypwick, Golf Illustrated (1950) with Mark Cox, and Inside Golf for Women (1977) with Marsh Schiewe.
Through her victories on the links and her relentless promotion, Patty Berg became the first lady of golf. She was a trailblazer in American sports. Although she excelled as an amateur, she was one of the first to realize that women must play as professionals if they are to improve their status in sport. From 1941 to 1962, she won 60 professional golf tournaments, earning substantial amounts of money. Today, professional women golfers are a normal part of the sports world thanks, in part, to Patty Berg's unrelenting efforts as well as her tremendous gifts as a golfer.
"America's Interesting People," in American Magazine. Vol. 122, no. 3. September 1936, p. 85.
Block, Maxine, ed. Current Biography 1940. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1940, pp. 75–77.
Kupelian, Vartan. "Sarazen, Berg to be Honored at Patrick Tournament," in Detroit News and Free Press. July 24, 1994, section E, p. 11.
"Pat for Patty Jane," in Literary Digest. Vol. 121, no. 10. March 7, 1936, p. 40.
"Patty," in Time. Vol 27, no. 10. March 9, 1936, p. 27.
"Patty's Day," in Time. Vol. 32, no. 14. October 3, 1938, pp. 53–54.
"Patty Goes Pro," in Time. Vol 36, no. 3. July 15, 1940, p. 34.
"They Said It," in Sports Illustrated. Vol. 73, no. 9. August 27, 1990, p. 8.
Karin Loewen Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia