As many students across the land cleared out of classes for March break, it was back to school for those who revel in golf both as a profession and a pastime, surely more enthusiastic about being schooled in the game’s history than they were in their formative years.
It began last week when Lorie Kane, Warren Sye and Bob Weeks became the latest selections to the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame and while those names may not seem historic to the current generation, they will as time goes on.
As they joined those who went before them, Kane mentioned several of her influences, including hall of fame member Jack McLaughlin, who played such an important role in her development as she steered towards the LPGA Tour, where she won four times.
Meanwhile, Weeks, who made his mark in the media, and Sye, an outstanding amateur player, both spent years at Toronto’s Weston Golf and Country Club as they fondly reminisced about their days at a club that has another distinction.
It was at Weston where Arnold Palmer won his first PGA Tour event at the Canadian Open in 1955, which strikes me personally because it was the year I was born nearly 61 years ago.
Using that for perspective, it didn’t come as a big shock when word came that the King wouldn’t be as front-and-centre at the competition that bears his name this week, the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
It was also announced this week that Palmer has declined to take the ceremonial first tee shot at next month’s Masters, although he will be present.
At age 86, Palmer isn’t the same robust figure we’ve known over the years, but the thought that we may have seen for the final time his final shot on such a grand stage strikes deep into the soul of those who have cherished his presence and charisma.
Long live the King.
Granted, it’s only a ceremonial tee shot, but we’ve come to expect from a robust Arnold Palmer, not only an accomplished guy, but one who has injected so much fun into the game over the years.
Somebody who holds such an important place in the legacy of golf such as Palmer illustrates that valuing the past doesn’t mean being stuck there, which golf has been accused of countless times.
It allows us to learn from a path we’ve already gone down, the mistakes of the past, the laughs we get from the way golf looked 60 years ago, the simplicity of the game before it became big business.
These days, in any sport, the emphasis seems more focused on salary caps, arbitration and endorsements than it is the sheer enjoyment of the game itself.
The business side is essential, have no doubt about it, but it often becomes the focus over the fun that Palmer provided, the fun that played a major role in building the tour into what it is today.
It’s fun that people seek not only at the tour level, but also at golf operations everywhere , but rules, equipment regulations, dress codes may stand in the way of that goal, particularly for beginners, who may need assurance from your staff, who may assume the game will automatically hook them.
Fun is why players take up the game, fans line fairways at tournaments and television viewers tune in. It’s what makes golf operations, sponsorships and endorsements work. It’s complements business, but business cannot be allowed to supersede fun, which is often a temptation.
That’s what made Palmer an icon recognized by several generations.
As the Arnold Palmer Invitational continues this week, so will another celebration of golf pioneers across the country in Phoenix, where the JTBC Founders Cup is taking place in honour of the 13 women who founded the LPGA Tour back in 1950 when women were expected to be at home instead of on the golf course.
Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with some of those founders.
“We very much worked together. We were all different personalities and different golf swings, but we seemed to work as a family in those early days. We even helped each other on the practice tee if someone needed help,” said Marilynn Smith, one of those founders, a few years ago.
“The mood that I knew was that we were not supposed to play any sport. We were supposed to be married and in the kitchen cooking and having a family. When I turned pro (in 1949), no one wanted me to turn pro except my dad and the Spalding sporting goods company,” she said.
“My teachers at college, the University of Kansas, wanted me to finish my college, but my dad said, `Well Marilynn, sometimes opportunity knocks just once,’ so that’s when I was able to get a nice contract with Spalding,” said Smith.
The first season on tour featured 14 events worth $50,000 in total prize money and the number of tournaments grew to 21 by 1952, but there was plenty that went on behind the scenes.
“We had to drive everywhere, long nights overnight. We played a lot of exhibitions at clubs in between to supplement the income,” said Marlene Hagge, another founder who was just 16 when the LPGA was born.
For safety reasons, players formed automobile caravans and devised a series of signals to let the other cars know when they were stopping up ahead for something to eat or a bathroom break.
“We had to do everything ourselves. We did all the pairings. We had to decide where the pins went. We got the money together and then, every Sunday night, we’d sit together and we had to write out the cheques, gave the girls the checks and leave Sunday night, so we could get to the next town,” added Hagge.
For more on the 13 founders, click here for a short trailer. How current players feel about the legacy created by those pioneers is illustrated in this video from last year below.
I also spoke with former LPGA Tour player Sandra Post about Smith becoming a foundation for her career and the legacy left by the 13 founders. You can listen here.
While the LPGA certainly broke barriers for women, it also stood tall on a number of occasions, not the least of which came in 1964 when players stood by former tennis great Althea Gibson, now playing golf, after she wasn’t allowed to use the clubhouse at the Beaumont Country Club in Texas, The tournament was eventually moved.
The road to success isn’t always smooth, with bumps galore along the way and countless critics ready to jump. Mistakes we’d rather forget are sure to be made, but for that reason, there is even more joy to take in the victories that also come.
Nothing is perfect as history as shown and that certainly applies to today. In many ways, the lessons of the past are not always learned, but a legacy is always there as a reference point in those cases and a reason to celebrate in other cases.
Having a legacy doesn’t mean living in the past. If anything, it should be something we learn from and take motivation from as we move forward to add on to what happened before us.
The people we’re looking back on today are looking right back at you because they too had an eye on the future.