by Mark Seiden.

Great women athletes have broken down sexist barriers in sports possibly as formidable as those faced by Jackie Robinson when he broke through “the color line” into major league baseball. Women in golf have played a major part in this transformation.

women in golf through the decades
Babe Didrikson Zaharias

Babe Didrikson Zaharias, for example, established absolute dominance in women’s professional golf from 1945-1956 and was a founding member of the LPGA in 1950. What’s more, earlier in her life, in 1932, she won three Olympic gold medals in track and field.

Nevertheless, a syndicated sports columnist in the 1950s could still get away with this slur against Zaharias:

“It would be much better if she and her ilk stayed at home, got themselves prettied up and waited for the phone to ring.” — Joe Williams, New York World-Telegram

No one would dare say that to women golfers of today like Casey Kennedy, 24, playing on the Symetra Tour; or Rebecca Johnson, LPGA Teaching Pro at the Capri Isles course in Venice.

And surely no one would have gotten away with saying that to my Aunt Rita – one of the groundbreaking women golfers of the decade just after Babe Zaharias.

Think for a moment about these women in golf: Babe Didrikson Zaharias, America’s greatest woman athlete, ever; my aunt Rita Weitzen (a mid-Atlantic club champ in the years from 1956 on); Rebecca Johnson, an LPGA Pro since 1999; and Casey Kennedy (pictured above) , 24, competing for LPGA status now.

What do they have in common? Each had to create a lifestyle and identity that would allow her to devote as much time to golf as the sport requires. Each became a great, woman athlete.

Women as great athletes – why does that come as such a surprise to me?!

Women's Golf
Rita Weitzen

Back in the middle years of the 20th century I was raised on the idea that men were athletes, warriors, and breadwinners; women were mothers and homemakers; boys were junior athletes and warriors and girls were alluring cheerleaders.

But here’s a revealing clue about what one of these women golfers, my Aunt Rita, thought about herself. She had been a wonderful suburban wife and parent, but in the last decade or so before her death at age 90 she chose as her email name: “clubchamp23.”

“Clubchamp23” – what does that mean?

During her lifelong membership at Indian Springs Country Club in Silver Spring, MD, she was Club Champion 23 times.

In fact, during one stretch she won the Club Championship nine years in a row. She also won the Husband and Wife Club Championship six times with her husband, William Weitzen.

So … Rita Weitzen found a way to integrate family life in suburban, mid-20th century America with the rigorous training and commitment necessary for all competitive athletes. She was “Mrs. Wedge” on the golf course, Mom and mentor to her son Richie as they practiced chipping on the front lawn, and a winning golf partner with her husband, Bill Weitzen.

Casey Kennedy women in golf
Casey Kennedy

Casey Kennedy of Venice is facing a different kind of challenge. As a young woman athlete today, Casey must work to finance many of the expenses of her first year as a pro. The stresses of trying to make it to a professional, money-earning level are evident in Casey’s own words about how she felt as she successfully finished the Stage 2 Qualifier at the Plantation courses in Venice in late October.

“The overall highlight of the Stage 2 weekend was turning to my caddy after I made the putt to close out my final round and to be able to rest assured that I had advanced to the Stage 3. I felt a huge relief because at that point after a tough year of independently funding my career working a part-time job, and getting financial help from both my family and boyfriend, as well as having limited status on the Symetra Tour (which I am very thankful for), it was a huge chip off my shoulders. With that putt, I knew I guaranteed myself full status on the Symetra Tour next year and created a renewed sense of confidence in myself. 

So: Babe Didrikson Zaharias broke open the world of women’s sports with guts and talent; my aunt Rita found a way for a suburban housewife, from the 1950s on, to lead an exemplary family life and to play competitive golf as well; and Casey Kennedy’s current experiences exemplify her committed, well-balanced approach to a career in professional sports.

Rebecca Johnson
Rebecca Johnson

Let the last words on this subject (for now) go to the widely respected teacher, Rebecca Johnson, LPGA Pro at the Capri Isles course in Venice for almost 25 years.

“Women in the golf business are still a small minority, but we are a very tight-knit networking group that generates huge career confidence, determination, and pride. We can hold our own although men outnumber us at least 25 to 1. That only makes us stronger.”

 

*Title photo credit: Casey Kennedy – Practice round at the 2015 US Women’s Open Qualifier by Andres Escobar

 

Mark SeidenMark Seiden is a former college professor of literature and writing who has reinvented himself in retirement as a golfer and golf columnist for the Venice Gondolier Sun.  A book of his entertaining columns, “Golf’s Old Magic,” is available at Amazon.  Mark and his wife Renee are dad and mom to five