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Babe Didrikson Zaharias - Whatta' Gal

By Rhonda Glenn, USGA

South Hadley, Mass. - We are in Massachusetts, the scene of Babe Didrikson Zaharias' greatest triumph - a 12-stroke victory in the 1954 United States Women's Open.

Her victory, over so many things, came at Salem (Mass.) Country Club in 1954. Although she did not know it, could not know it because her husband and doctors would not tell her, her body was riddled with cancer and she would die two years later at the age of 45. It is one of the sports world's greatest stories of courage.

Babe Didrikson Zaharias en route to a 12-stroke victory in the Women's Open 50 years ago. (USGA Photo Archives)

I never met Babe Zaharias. I read about her when I was growing up, riding my bike to the Lake Worth (Fla.) Public Library to scan the stacks of children's books and the only book on a woman athlete, a book about her life.

Many years later, I was a reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram when I interviewed Bertha Bowen. Mutual acquaintances had said to me that Bowen had been a great friend of Babe's and it was fairly simple to arrange an introduction and an interview. One afternoon, I knocked on the door of the Bowen's large, lovely home a few blocks from River Crest.

"Come in, come in," said Bowen. "I'm Bertha Bowen. Come into the kitchen. I baked a pie from a recipe in the newspaper and we must see how it turned out."

What followed was a long afternoon of laughter and a few tears as Bertha shared her heartfelt recollections.

In the early 1930s, Bertha and her friend Bea Thompson initiated an invitational tournament for women amateurs at Fort Worth's Colonial Country Club. Contestants in that era were housed in the homes of club members. Babe Didrikson, a new golfer, and Helen Dettweiler, another contestant, were assigned to the Bowens.

"They sat in their car for nearly an hour before Babe got up the courage to come inside," said Bowen.

The daughter of a carpenter, Babe had grown up in poor circumstances in Beaumont. Staying in the Bowen's home in a wealthy neighborhood crossed a line she had never approached. Despite her Olympic victories, two gold medals and one silver, Babe had been scrambling to make a living in numerous sports exhibitions. Babe, the great athlete, was intimidated by what she regarded as fine people.

Good humor and the innate hospitality of Bertha and her husband R.L., a successful businessman, encouraged a bond with Babe that would last nearly 25 years.

Babe didn't win the invitational tournament that fall. The following spring, in 1935, she entered the Women's Texas Amateur at posh River Oaks in Houston.

A former state champion, a society woman from Dallas, was quoted in the Houston press about Babe's entry. "We don't need any truck driver's daughters in our tournament," the woman said.

The society woman won the qualifying medal and match play rounds began. Babe worked her way into the final where she encountered the former champion. A see-saw match ensued. First, one took the lead then the other, until finally they came to one of the final holes, a long par 5. The society woman was safely on the green in three, some 5 feet from the hole. Babe hit her second shot over the green into a muddy wheel rut filled with water. Babe chose her club, addressed the ball, and made a powerful swing. The ball flew onto the green and rolled into the hole for an eagle 3 to clinch the hole. Babe was knocked to the ground by spectators running up the embankment. Her spectacular shot clinched the match.

Within a few days, the society woman and her husband contacted the USGA, claiming that Babe should lose her amateur status. Since the Rules of Amateur Status at that time stated that any professional in another sport could not play golf as an amateur, the USGA was forced to concur.

"Babe telephoned me and said in a little-girl's voice, 'Mrs. Bowen, they've taken my amateur status away from me,'" said Bertha Bowen. "My husband and I called our lawyer and we drafted a letter to the USGA, but it didn't do any good.

"As a non-amateur, Babe could only play in open events, so I called Bea Thompson and said, 'Let's turn our invitational into an open tournament, so that Babe will have something to play in.' And that's how the Women's Texas Open began."

The Women's Texas Open would be played for the next 20 years, first at Colonial, then at River Crest, with professionals Marlene Hagge, Patty Berg, Betty Jameson and Betsy Rawls, and fine amateurs such as Polly Riley, Aniela Goldthwaite and Barbara Romack competing every year.

"Babe was rough, really rough and not everybody liked her," said Bowen. "Some of the things people said about her were just mean but Babe didn't pay any attention to the gossip. She simply didn't have time."

Knowing Her

Bowen taught her how to polish her nails and curl her hair. "I loaned her many dresses, because she and I wore the same size," she said. "We once talked her into wearing a girdle and she hated it. She said, 'I feel like I'm strangling in this thing!' So we told her not to wear it."

Babe, minus her amateur status, became what she called, "a business-woman golfer," and toured the country in exhibitions, most notably with Gene Sarazen. In 1938, she married George Zaharias, a successful and prosperous professional wrestler.

Babe, George and the Bowens became fast friends.

Babe Didrikson Zaharias accepts the reward for winning the '54 Open. (USGA Photo Archives)

For our interview, Bowen had set up a film projector in her living room, using the wall over her fireplace as a film screen. Her fireplace was familiar as the backdrop in a famous photograph of Babe holding her U.S. Women's Amateur and British Ladies Open Amateur trophies. Bowen ran a film for me that R.L. Bowen had taken of Babe hitting practice balls at Pebble Beach. The projector clicked and whirred and there was Babe in slow motion, hitting shot after shot. I was most struck by her hands. Strong yet beautifully manicured, her hands gripped and re-gripped the club as if she had known the grip since childhood.

Peggy Kirk Bell, one of Babe's closest friends, once told me that just watching Babe hold a dinner fork was to see a balancing act of great grace.

Bowen and I went into the family room too look at her artifacts from her friendship with Babe. A pool table, on which Babe and R.L. frequently competed, stood in the middle of the room. "This was Babe's pool cue, and here's her putter with the diamond in the face," she said. "This phonograph record was of Babe playing the harmonica."

Bowen showed me photographs. "This is when we went fishing trip in Durango, Colorado," she said. "Look at her. She was so happy then. Babe was so much fun. She'd telephone me and speak in a heavy German accent, or sound exactly like a little girl.

"I miss her like 60!"

With Zaharias' financial support, Babe could now live a life of ease but she was driven to compete again and she sat out the period of years required to regain her amateur status. In 1943, she was reinstated but because of World War II, golf tournaments had been discontinued and did not resume until 1946. When they did resume, Babe won 13 tournaments in a row; winning the 1946 U.S. Women's Amateur and becoming the first American to win the British Ladies Open Amateur, in 1947.

Going Pro

After conquering amateur golf, she turned professional again in 1947. In 1949, with her husband, Patty Berg and agent Fred Corcoran, she began planning the foundations of the Ladies Professional Golf Association. She was indeed the LPGA's star, its main attraction.

"Once the men pros announced that they were playing for a purse of $10,000," Peggy Kirk Bell once told me. "So Babe gathered a group of women professionals around and said, 'We're going to announce that we're playing for a purse of $10,000 too.' When the rest of us gasped, she said, 'We won't actually play for a $10,000 purse, we'll just announce it.'"

Babe dominated the early LPGA tour in every way, grabbing the headlines, charming the galleries, and winning many of the tournaments. Illness struck her in 1953, bringing her triumphant career to a temporary halt.

Babe finally consulted a doctor who diagnosed her recurring pains as cancer of the colon.

"They came in and George just flopped down on this bed," said Bowen as we stood in her guest room. "Babe threw her purse on that chair and said, 'Bebe, I've got it. The worst kind. Grade four. I'm not worried for myself, but what's going to happen to George?'"

"The problem was that she wouldn't go to a doctor," said Bowen. "She was a very modest person and she didn't like physical examinations."

Babe had a colonostomy in 1953. Her long and painful recuperation began and her prayer became, "Please God, let me play again."

Slowly she came back from the life-altering surgery and began to practice and play. It was nearly a miracle when she returned to the tour. She won five events in 1954, most notably her courageous battle, with 36 holes on Saturday, winning the 12-stroke victory in the United States Women's Open at Salem Country Club.

But her cancer reoccurred. This time there would be no recovery. In the spring, she was taken to the 1955 Titleholders and watched from the sidelines.

Romack, the 1954 U.S. Women's Amateur Champion, was a friend of Babe's. As a young amateur, she played a lot of golf with her and was the guest of Zaharias and Babe in Florida, practicing with Babe and going out to dinner with the couple.

"Babe's eyes were so riveting," said Romack. "She just had these beautiful clear, hazel eyes and when she met you she looked you right in the eyes with a steady gaze. Her eyes were so full of life and light they were dazzling. I saw her for the last time when they brought her to the Titleholders and the light had gone out of her eyes. I could tell then that she was finished. Her eyes said, 'My number is up and I know it.'"

By December of 1955 Babe was largely confined to bed. In some of her last months, Babe and Zaharias accepted the Bowen's invitation to join them in Fort Worth for Christmas. R.L. took his plane to Beaumont and flew Babe, Zaharias and Babe's black poodle, "Bebe," to Fort Worth.

There is a film of that arrival in the Babe Zaharias exhibit, "Let Me Play Again," at the USGA's Museum at Golf House. In the film, the plane taxis to a stop. Standing on the runway, Bertha Bowen seems to be gathering herself, forcing herself to smile with warmth rather than sadness. Babe steps out on the wing of the plane. She is wearing pajamas and a bathrobe. A rhinestone Christmas tree is pinned to her lapel. Helped from the plane, she walks the few steps into Bertha's strong embrace. There is a long hug. The world's greatest athlete is caught in a private moment. She looks drawn and very thin. This is the last Christmas and look at the film breaks your heart.

Bertha and R.L. did their best to make the holiday cheerful. The meals were fine and a few friends dropped in when Babe was up to it. Much of the time, she was in bed.

One day, Babe asked Bertha to drive her to Colonial Country Club.

"We drove to Colonial and I stopped the car on the little road that runs next to the second green," said Bowen. "Babe got out of the car in her pajamas and robe and I helped her over to the side of the green. She knelt down and rubbed her hand over the grass. She said, 'I just wanted to see a golf course one more time.'"

Babe Zaharias died nine months later on Sept. 27, 1956.

Some years ago I wrote about her in a book I was working on, writing that "she gave women's professional golf a poke in the funny bone and a kick in the pants and sent it on its way."

But she was much more than the class clown. She brought power to the women's game and she was a true champion. Indeed, she was the show. Without her, it's doubtful that the LPGA Tour could have started as early as 1950. Perhaps it would have never started at all.

Most spectators enjoyed her. According to Romack, men in the gallery particularly adored her. Not everyone, however, liked Babe. Some reporters were curiously ambivalent about her talent. Some players didn't like her, saying she brought no dignity to the game.

She was the world's greatest woman athlete and that should be enough. But it's also worth noting that while she was hospitalized, she would visit the children's cancer ward. She played games with children whose illnesses were so disfiguring that no one else wanted to see them. She made them laugh. When she thought she had recovered, she spoke out for openness about colon cancer and colostomy surgery. She became a spokesperson in the fight against cancer and raised money for the battle.

Winning the 1954 U.S. Women's Open when her body was riddled with disease is a story unequaled in the annals of sport. It has been exactly 50 years since that great victory. At this Women's Open, the USGA has an exhibit on Babe's life in a tent set up for junior spectators. Perhaps it's time to once again take our hats off to her, and to be grateful for the privilege.

Rhonda Glenn is the Manager of Communications for the USGA. E-mail her with questions or comments to rglenn@usga.org.