As a pre-teen Marilynn Smith served as a pitcher, coach and manager of a boy’s baseball team.
Golf, she thought, was a sissy sport, and had never seriously crossed her mind. That is until one day when she came home from a bad day at the sandlot. Her mom asked her how she had done that day, and young Marilynn, still steaming in her baseball uniform and pigtails, took off her mitt, threw it down and uttered some distinctly unlady-like words.
Her mom immediately took her to the bathroom and washed her mouth out with soap. When Marilynn’s mom recounted the story to her father, he said, “I guess we’ll have to take Marilynn out to Wichita Country Club and teach her a more ladylike sport.”
Young Marilynn took to the game quickly and never looked upon it as a sissy sport again. Her amateur career included winning the Kansas Women’s Amateur three times – the first in 1946 at age 17 – and the 1949 NCAA Championship. Later that year she turned pro and would go on to win 21 LPGA Tour titles including two major championships (1963 and 1964 Titleholders Championship). By 1949 the Women’s Professional Golf Association, which was founded in 1944, was drawing its last breaths. Lack of organization and finances were key factors in its demise.
"We were grateful to have a place to play, so we didn't stop to ask, 'Isn't anybody around here interested in gardening?'"
A group of pioneering women refused to see this as the end of the road. Instead they were determined to prove that they could make a living as touring golf professionals.
The charter meeting of the Ladies Professional Golf Association took place in 1950 at the US Women’s Open in Wichita, Kan., where Smith and several other women set forth the groundwork that would set the stage for what has been called “the most successful women’s sports organization in the world”.
Despite the elected titles several founders had initially, each had to play a part in selling the Tour early on. Smith, who served both as Secretary (1957) and President (1958-60), recalls making appearances on radio and TV, and showing up for civic luncheons and press conferences.
Furthermore Smith, a lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fan, wanted the LPGA to appeal to baseball fans in particular, so she would appear at Major League Baseball games and hit golf balls into centerfield.
In the early days of the LPGA, Smith became known as Miss Personality because of her outgoing presentations on behalf of women’s golf and the LPGA. Her role as LPGA President was no less effective. During Smith’s tenure she spearheaded the formation of the LPGA Teaching Division, established the first LPGA Pro-Am in conjunction with tournaments and formed the LPGA National Golf School.
Marilynn Smith became the first female TV commentator for several men’s major golf events.
Since 1949 Smith has conducted more than 4,000 clinics domestically and internationally, reaching more than a quarter of a million people. Smith continues to teach today, and among the lessons she imparts is the left hand flow (cross-handed) putting grip.
Smith says she was the first female pro to use it, and got a lot of funny looks. Aside from being co-founder of the LPGA Tour, Smith has blazed the way in the golf arena on numerous other occasions.
Today golf fans don’t bat an eyelash when they see Annika Sorenstam doing a TV commercial. Nor do they do a double-take when Donna Caponi is providing commentary for a PGA TOUR event.
Among the reasons why those occurrences are commonplace is because Smith tackled the uncharted territory and smoothed the way for future travelers of the same road. The 1970s saw Smith, along with Kathy Whitworth, become the first female golfers to be featured in a TV commercial.
It was also that same decade when Smith became the first female TV commentator for several men’s major golf events.