No figure in women’s golf spanned as many eras or did as much for her sport as Patty Berg.
Berg was all things to women’s golf-a superb player, a great promoter, a wonderful teacher, a charismatic personality. And her gift has been measured over a long period of time. Berg won her first professional event in 1941, in the infancy of women’s pro golf, and her last in 1962. But even after cancer surgery in 1971, Berg was still competing at the age of 62 in 1980. Hip replacement surgery later that year finally ended her competitive career.
In all, Berg won 60 professional events, including the first U.S. Women’s Open in 1946 (the only time it was played at match play), the Western Open seven times and Titleholders four times. What made these totals even more remarkable is that for the entire prime of her professional career Berg was competing while carrying a full schedule of exhibitions and clinics. Several years before her passing in 2006 she estimated that she had given more than 10,000 all over the world.
For Berg, golf was a high calling. One of her rules was: “Don’t think you really win until you live up to that high thing within you that makes you do your best, no matter what.”
"Don't think you really win until you live up to that high thing within you that makes you do your best, no matter what."
Berg was born Feb. 13, 1918, in Minneapolis, Minn. Her father was a prosperous grain merchant who belonged to the Interlachen C.C. Berg was an all-around athlete as a schoolgirl, competing in speed skating and even playing on a neighborhood football team that included future University of Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson. At 13, she turned her focus to golf and never stopped.
After a shaky introduction to amateur golf in the Minneapolis City Championship of 1933, Berg dedicated the next year to her game and won the event in 1934. “That was my proudest victory ever,” she said. “After that, I began to dream.”
In 1935, the Women’s Amateur came to Interlachen, and Berg made it to the final where she was beaten, 3 and 2, by Glenna Collett Vare. She lost the final again in 1937, but won the championship in 1938, a year in which she won 10 of the 13 amateur events she entered.
Patty Berg was the LPGA’s first president from 1950-52.
Berg turned professional in 1940, when there were only a handful of women professionals. Her income was earned doing clinics and exhibitions for Wilson Sporting Goods. For her first victory, the 1941 Women’s Western Open, she received a $100 war bond.
Shortly after, Berg was in a car accident that severely injured her left knee. The leg had to be reset twice, but during 18 months away from golf, Berg rehabilitated successfully by working out in the camp of a boxer. After a two-year stint in the Marines, in which she went to cadet school and graduated a second lieutenant, Berg won the first U.S. Women’s Open in 1946, defeating Betty Jameson in Spokane, 5 and 4.
In 1948, the LPGA was established, and Berg, along with Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Betty Jameson and Louise Suggs, became the Big Four of the women’s game. Berg, who was also the association’s first president, won three titles that first year. She was the LPGA’s leading money winner in 1954, 1955 and 1957, won the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average in 1953, 1955 and 1956 and was three times voted outstanding woman athlete of the year by the Associated Press. She is the first woman to win $100,000 in career earnings. In 1963, the USGA honored her with the Bob Jones Award.
Only 5-2 with red hair and a freckled face, Berg was known as a supreme shot maker. Carol Mann called Berg “the most knowledgeable person, man or woman, of different golf shots that I’ve ever known.” According to Mickey Wright, “Patty Berg is the perfect golfer for a woman.” The LPGA honored her by establishing the Patty Berg Award in 1978 which is given to the lady golfer who has made the greatest contribution to women’s golf during the year.