Babe Zaharias: Golf’s Greatest Athlete
Posted on June 6, 2017
On June 26th, 1911 in Port Arthur, Texas the first American female golf celebrity was born, Mildred Ella Didrikson better known as the ‘Babe’. The ‘Babe’ was much more than just a golf celebrity, she was the “Woman Athlete of the Half Century” declared by the Associated Press in 1950. The nickname of the ‘Babe’ stemmed partially from her mother’s early nickname for her, but more famously from her hitting five home runs in a single youth baseball game. With it being the prime-time of Babe Ruth, she got dubbed the moniker ‘Babe’ after the feat and it stuck for the rest of her life.Babe Didrikson had a natural talent for sports and excelled in everything she tried. She competed in baseball, basketball, billiards, bowling, boxing, diving, football, fencing, golf, roller-skating, sewing competitions, track & field, weight-lifting, wrestling and even performed vaudeville. She had an ambitious spirit that drove her to succeed. By age 15 she gained the attention of Melvin McCombs, who coached one of the nation’s best girls’ basketball teams, by being the leading scorer for the Beaumont Senior High School’s team at the forward position. In 1930, Babe became employed by McCombs’ Employers Casualty Company of Dallas and played for their team the Golden Cyclones. She helped them win three consecutive national championships, which were governed by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), and earned herself All-American status.
Changing her focus the Babe decided to set her sight on track and field and competing in the Olympics. Determined to be an Olympic athlete after reading about the 1928 Olympics, she trained. At the 1932 AAU Championships Babe, representing her company, won five of the eight events she competed in and tied first in another. She earned the team championship due to her cumulative points, although she competed as the solo member, besting a team of 22 women who placed second. Her next stop was Los Angeles for the 1932 Olympics.
In an unprecedented performance, a 21 year-old Babe Didrikson took home two gold medals and a silver medal in record-setting fashion. She first tied the world record of 11.8 seconds in the 80-meter hurdle during her opening heat. The Babe broke that record with her final run with an 11.7 seconds which gave her the gold. She earned gold in the javelin throw with a distance of 43.69 meters, which set an Olympic record. In the high jump event, Didrikson made a record jump of 1.67 meters during a tie-breaker to best American Jean Shiley. However it was judged to be improper technique and the Babe would receive the silver.
During those 1932 Olympics, Babe Didrikson was introduced to the sport she is most famed for golf. Grantland Rice invited her to join him and three other sportswriters for a round at Brentwood Country Club, during which she shot a 91 and regularly drove it 250 yards. Following the Olympics she was part of the House of David touring baseball team and returned to Brentwood to take lessons from their pro Stan Kertes. A mere two years later, Didrikson won the Texas Women’s Amateur Championship. After the event the United States Golf Association, USGA, deemed that as a professional athlete Didrikson was not allowed to compete in any more amateur tournaments.Still desiring to compete and play golf, the Babe went on to do exhibition tours and take part in celebrity pro-ams. This brought her to the 1938 Los Angeles Open, a PGA Tour event held in January, where she became the first woman to compete in a men’s professional tournament. While her attempt to qualify was unsuccessful as she failed to make the cut, she met a man named George Zaharias. “The Crying Greek from Cripple Creek,” was what George was promoted as in his career as a professional wrestler. He impressed the Babe with his athleticism and ability to outdrive her, among other things. The two began courting and were married by December 1938. The Babe became known as Babe Didrikson Zaharias, or simply Babe Zaharias, from then on.
Babe Zaharias didn’t give up on trying to compete with the professional male golfers after missing the cut on her first attempt. In 1945, she competed in three more PGA Tour events and made the initial cut in all three, becoming the first and only female to do so. At the Los Angeles Open, Babe first had to qualify to play then made the two-day cut, but didn’t make the three-day cut. She not only made the cut but finished in 33rd place at the Phoenix Open. At the Tucson Open she finished tied for 42nd.George Zaharias became Babe’s manager and encouraged her to apply for her amateur status to be reinstated by the USGA. Finally in 1943, nearly two years after her initial request, Babe Zaharias received her amateur status. Following World War II, the Babe went on an unstoppable streak winning 14 tournaments in a row (sources report a conflicting number as some say it was 17 in a row, with three wins prior to the ones stated here). She began by winning her only U.S. Women’s Amateur championship at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1946. Before her streak came to an end, she became the first American to win the British Ladies Amateur in 1947 at the Gullane Golf Club in East Lothian, Scotland. Babe’s fourteenth win came at the Broadmoor Match Play at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
In August 1947, Babe Zaharias announced she was turning professional. As an amateur the Babe had already earned four major championships of the era, winning three Women’s Western Opens and the 1947 Titleholders Championship. Her next major came only a year after turning professional at the 1948 U.S. Women’s Open which was competed at the Atlantic City Country Club in Northfield, New Jersey. The tournament at the time was run by the Women’s Professional Golf Association, WPGA, before the organization closed due to financial struggle in 1949.
Following the disbandment of the WPGA and hungry for competitive golf, Babe Zaharias met with a dozen other professional female golfers and the Ladies Professional Golf Association, LPGA, was formed. Patty Berg, a star in her own right, helmed the LPGA as the first president. George Zaharias, along with sports agent Fred Corcoran, assisted in finding sponsors for the organization while Babe rallied the women golfers. Babe Zaharias’s star power really helped in the early years of the LPGA. Her attendance at an event secured sponsorship and drew a crowd. While this accelerated the growth of the LPGA, it did create some resentment from her fellow competitors. She didn’t help with her statements like “The Babe is here. Who’s coming in second?” but she backed up what she said, winning 31 of the 128 events she played from 1948-1953.
In the LPGA’s inaugural 1950 season, Babe Zaharias was the leading money winner and won all three major championships, the Grand Slam at that time. She earned her second Titleholders Championship, fourth Women’s Western Open title, and second U.S. Women’s Open championship. She set an unbroken LPGA record when she reached 10 tour wins in only one year and 20 days. The Babe was the money-leader again in 1951 and won her ninth major championship, the Titleholders Championship, in 1952. Then illness struck.
Babe Zaharias was diagnosed with cancer in 1953 for which she underwent surgery in April. The diagnosis came after Babe had won a tournament named after her, the Babe Zaharias Open, in its introductory year. The doctor’s initial prognosis was not promising as they all said she wouldn’t play competitive golf again. They didn’t know the Babe. Only three and a half months later, she returned to the tee box at Chicago’s Tam O’Shanter All-American championship. The Babe became one of the first public figures to bring awareness to cancer and openly talk about her disease.
In early 1954 Babe Zaharias made her way back to the winner’s circle at the Serbin Tournament in Florida. She played a limited amount of tournaments due to her illness, but that didn’t stop her from claiming another major championship. At the 1954 U.S. Women’s Open the Babe capped off her comeback story by winning her 10th and final major by an astounding 12 stroke margin. Zaharias won five of the 17 tournaments she entered that year.Babe Zaharias competed in only eight tournaments in 1955 and added two more wins to her record. She earned a total of approximately 82 amateur and professional tournaments, including 41 LPGA Tour wins with 10 major championships. Unfortunately following her final win at the Peach Blossom Open the pain returned. The cancer had returned and Zaharias had to retire from golf. In 1956 while visiting a friend in Fort Worth, Texas, the Babe had a friend drive her to Colonial Country Club. During the visit, she walked the course alone while running her hand on the greens, wanting to see a golf course one more time. On September 27, 1956, at the age of 45 she passed away. President of the United States Dwight Eisenhower began his public press conference that day with a tribute to Babe.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the President said. “I should like to take one minute to pay a tribute to Mrs. Zaharias, Babe Didrikson. She was a woman who, in her athletic career, certainly won the admiration of every person in the United States, all sports people over the world, and in her gallant fight against cancer she put up the kind of fight that inspired us all. I think that every one of us feels sad that finally she had to lose this last one of all her battles.”
- U.S. Women’s Open: 1948, 1950, 1954
- Titleholders Championship: 1950, 1952
- Women’s Western Open: 1950
- Women’s Western Open: 1940, 1944, 1945
- Titleholders Championship: 1947
- Olympic Medalist: 2 Gold, 1 Silver in Track and Field
- “All-American” Basketball Player
- Member World Golf Hall of Fame
- Founding Member of LPGA Tour
- LPGA Tour Money Winner
- LPGA Vare Trophy
- Associated Press “Female Athlete of the Year”
- Bob Jones Award Recipient