The LPGA Tour is concluding its 2015 season this week with the CNE Group Tour Championship in Naples, Florida. As part of the festivities surrounding the end of the season, the LPGA hosted an official preview of The Founders Film, which commemorates and celebrates the Tour’s early years.
What follows is an account of how the film was made by the principles involved. It was originally written for The Mulligan Magazine, which recently ceased publication. The story was finished in early July, prior to the death of LPGA Founder Louise Suggs, so some the content is dated. But we wanted our visitors to see the original version.
Following this story we have included a portion of the transcript of a press conference held yesterday in conjunction with the CME Group Tour Championship
LPGA Founders Coming to the Big Screen
By Rick Woelfel
In the summer of 1950, a group of 13 hardy and courageous women set out to make women’s professional golf both a viable sport and a viable occupation.
Now, the story of the LPGA’s Founders is being readied for a new audience. 11-11 Films in Atlanta is putting the finishing touches on a documentary that focuses on the embryonic years of the LPGA Tour.
Director Carrie Schrader teamed up with fellow director Charlene ‘Charlie’ Fisk and producer Phoebe Brown to bring the LPGA’s early history to the big screen. All are experienced documentarians. Fisk, who is a golfer herself, received several awards for her work with Georgia Public Broadcasting.
Schrader is a non-golfer but soon developed a keen appreciation for the project. “I think it’s an exciting story about these women,” she says. “They really worked so hard and gave all of themselves to this and look at what they wrought.”
Work on the project began in 2012 when the production team conducted interviews at the RR Donnelly Founders Cup in Phoenix. The film was still being edited as this article was being prepared but when complete it is expected to run somewhere between 70 and 80 minutes.
It features interviews with the four living Founders, Marilynn Smith, Shirley Spork, Marlene Bauer Hagge, and Louise Suggs. There are also interviews with approximately 30 other individuals who offered their own insights on the early days of the LPGA Tour and the evolution of women’s golf.
The list of interviewees includes LPGA Hall of Famers Kathy Whitworth, Nancy Lopez, and Annika Sorenstam, along with the late Rhonda Glenn, LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan, Renee Powell, Peggy Kirk Bell, and present-day LPGA standouts Karrie Webb, Stacy Lewis and Cristie Kerr.
What makes the project distinctive however, are the snippets of film that provide a rare look at the Founders in action. Simply put, there is not a lot of film from the LPGA’s early years and the filmmakers spent a considerable amount of time and energy searching for what did exist.
The material came from various sources, from archives at the United States Golf Association and at UCLA and also from a vast assortment of private sources.
“We have amassed the largest collection of female golf material that has ever been amassed in one place,” Schrader says. “We scoured the earth. We’ve hone through private collections, we’ve talked to players’ families, friends, and descendents. They have come [forward] and we’ve looked at every reel.”
In some cases, when film simply did not exist, the production team was forced to rely on recreations of significant moments; one of the Founders swinging a golf club as a little girl for instance, or of Marilynn Smith pitching for her neighborhood baseball team.
Gathering all this film, converting it to a usable format if necessary, and filming the recreations was an expensive undertaking, so much so that the fate of the endeavor was in jeopardy for a time.
Then Karrie Webb stepped up. In March of 2014, upon winning the Founders Cup for the second time, the LPGA and World Golf Hall of Famer donated $25,000 to the project.
“That really was when the film started to take root,” Schrader recalls.
Webb is credited in the film as an executive producer. So is Stacy Lewis, who has thrown her support behind the project.
Schrader says the support of two of the LPGA’s biggest names was invaluable. “It’s meant everything that they stepped up and gotten behind this,” she says, “[and said] ‘We believe in this.’
“Its very rate in this society to see people put their money where their mouths are. It’s not really about the money. Its about them saying ‘I’m going take some of my success and give back.’
“Their stepping up and honoring these women is such a big deal for golf but it’s also a big deal for sports in general that two superstars, two such amazingly talented women understand that this is a really important thing to honor and that we wouldn’t be here without them.”
Webb herself has a deep and abiding respect for the history of her sport. Some of her fondest memories as a professional golfer revolve around sitting in a locker room and hearing stories from the Founders and those who came after them about life on the LPGA Tour. Supporting a film about the Founders was a natural step.
“I just think it’s a story that needs to be told,” Webb says. “I think in the last 10 or 15 years the players on [the LPGA Tour] haven’t had the opportunity to hear the stories that I’ve heard passed on from some of the Founders. I’m a proud member of the LPGA. Our history is great and it needs to be told.”
Lewis cites the importance of the LPGA maintaining ties to its own history.
“I think it’s just really important for our tour to document our past because not a lot of people know the history of out tour,” she says. There are a lot of girls on tour now who don’t even know who the Founders are so I think when you appreciate your past and where you’ve come from. We need the history of the LPGA to come out. We need people to understand it.”
Lewis has her own memories of stories from the LPGA’s past. “I love getting around the retired players,” she says, “because of all the stories that they tell. Its so cool to hear about them traveling, and everybody loading in their cars and going to the next week’s
tournament. The stories that they tell are unbelievable.”
The necessary dollars to complete the film have come from a variety of sources, in many cases from individuals with an interest in golf history who understand the significance of the project. “It’s been a challenge,” Schrader admits, “but we’ve been fortunate that people have been drawn to this project who really want to see it live.”
Schrader says the LPGA’s support, from Commissioner Mike Whan on down, has been essential to the project. “If it weren’t for them this film would not be possible,” she says. “They did not have to get behind this and they haven’t said ‘We want creative control’ or ‘We want you to portray us in a flattering light all the time. They have just come on board and been absolutely amazing. I cannot say that enough. They are really honoring the Founders, they are really walking the talk.”
To be sure, the early years of the LPGA Tour were not a stroll through the Elysian Fields. The players joined forces to secure tournament dates, make travel less stressful and, in some cases, assure themselves they would be properly paid for their efforts. But they were also fierce competitors and conflicts were inevitable.
Schrader says it was important that that part of the LPGA story not be overlooked. “We’ve got to show the truth,” she says. “We’ve got to show the conflict we have to show the warts. That’s what makes us human. I think the way it plays out in this movie is really powerful. Their adversity and their conflicts.”
Webb points out that even today when she spends time with one of the surviving Founders it’s clear their competitive fires have not entirely been extinguished. “They were the fiercest of competitors,” she says. “You can talk to them and there’s still that sporting rivalry there but they put that aide at certain times so that they could work together to continue to grow the tour. I don’t know if we’d be capable of that sort of thing today, putting our competitiveness aside for the greater good of everybody on tour. It was very selfless.”
Webb viewed a portion of the film at the Founders Cup this past March and came away impressed with what she saw. “It sort of left you wanting more,” she said. “It was very well done.”
The film was tentatively scheduled to make its debut at one or more festivals in late summer or early fall with the hope it will be distributed to theaters after that. Schrader expects the running time to be somewhere between 80-85 minutes.
“I think it’s an incredible story what they went through,” Webb says. “I hope it reaches more audiences than just golf audiences I hope that it reaches people that don’t even follow golf. It’s a wonderful story of perseverance to get us to where we are today.”
“I think it’s going to be a great film,” Lewis says. “To see the players that cane after the Founders tell stories about the Founders; they’re unbelievable they’re hilarious.”
I think its just important for the past of the tour, I’ve been around a lot of the Founders and the players that came after them. They’ve helped my career a lot, they’ve helped me personally … I wouldn’t have the opportunity I have without those Founders so I think it’s really important that that film is made.”
Wednesday Press Conference, Naples, Florida
THE MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining us. We have a very special press conference here this afternoon. Tonight, the LPGA and the PGA of America are hosting a very special preview of the Founders Film. It’s a very special film for the LPGA, one that’s been in the process for a few years now. We are so excited to see this featurelength documentary about the remarkable journey of the 13 women who helped to found the LPGA.
Two of those women who helped found the LPGA are here with us, Marilyn Smith and Shirley Spork. Thank you so much, ladies, for being here. We appreciate it.
And we also have two of the women who helped make this film a reality, thank you so much Charlie Fisk and Carrie Schrader. Thank you so much for being here.
To get things started, Charlie, I’m going to start with you. You were the visionary behind getting this film started. How did this come about? How did you even find out about this remarkable story that we have here at the LPGA?
CHARLIE FISK: I started this film about three years ago, and I had just finished another project about Margaret Mitchell, another kind of historic female biography.
I was looking around for projects. My fatherinlaw, actually Mike McBride, and I play golf together a little bit off and on. He’s been teaching me. He pulled me aside one day and he said I know you’re thinking of stories. Well, you know, there’s these founders of the Ladies Professional Golf Association, and one of the founders had just passed away. He sent me the news article. I read it and I thought why do I not know about this, why am I not learning about this.
I was an athlete in high school and little bit of college. I had no idea. So I called Louise Suggs. I called LPGA, I talked to a few people. I decided to start calling the founders. I called Louise and Marilyn.
After talking to both of them, I was so inspired. There was no way I couldn’t it was something I was called to do at that point. That’s how it got started.
The women are incredible and anyone who talks to them for five minutes understands how special. There’s not many people in the world like them. So I had to spend some time with y’all.
THE MODERATOR: When you first got that phone call from Charlie, what were your thoughts about someone wanting to put this story into a film?
MARILYN SMITH: I couldn’t believe it. I never heard that before. I thought what a wonderful thing to document the beginnings of the LPGA which is now the, what, the longest and best women’s sports organization in the world. So to have the documents and how we started this and how we almost went defunct when Babe Zaharias passed away, it was a struggle, and then to have them put this down for history, when the girls are that are playing now, they will know how difficult it was for us on Tour.
So we had help from a lot of people. Just 13 people don’t do it themselves. We had a lot of help. We can tell you tonight a lot of those people that helped us to make it go.
THE MODERATOR: Shirley, when you got a chance to relive some of those moments in this filming, how fun was it to go back and think about that story that you guys got to be a part of?
SHIRLEY SPORK: I’m kind of fortunate that my head works but my feet and legs don’t work anymore. I’ve got a pretty good memory. I was excited about having it put down in print because at home, having been a founder of both the LPGA Tour and teaching, I have lots of records on paper, you know. To see that it’s put on film is just marvelous. I think you are going to enjoy it.
To think of Charlene and her group of 11 Films who do documentaries and she got a big award recently from a documentary. Hopefully next year I will be able to travel to some film festivals and introduce the film to other countries and other people.
You all will see this evening a project that took really a basic two years of their time, which they donated. This was a sizable project, not one for them to make money on. I compliment them for believing in us and wanting to tell our story.
THE MODERATOR: Charlie, can you take us through that process of what goes into making a film like this? We have this special preview, the film is finally complete. What are the next steps for you guys as you continue trying to get this film out to the public?
CHARLIE FISK: I’m going to pass that on to Carrie because she’s been dealing with our distribution company.
CARRIE SCHRADER: I’ll just start back when Charlie asked me to join on this film she had been working on it for about a year. I wasn’t a golfer. My family golfs, but I had never really golfed.
She said it’s about the women and golfers. I was like I don’t know if I’m so interested in that story. What’s unique about it? Then she showed me the clips of these women, and I started to learn the story of these women. I started to get hooked to these amazing characters and I said, oh, yeah, I want to tell this story. For me, as a writer and director, I mostly do make believe films. To come on and see this naturally born, amazing protagonist who against all odds succeeded, it’s so powerful that I said, oh, yeah, I want to make this movie, I want to tell this story.
I’m just thankful to you all living the lives that you did and it’s helped me be able to live the life that I live as a female film maker.
Anyway, that being said, we were fortunate, right when I came on, Kaleidoscope Films became interested in the story. They loved it right off the bat. They are basically a sales agent, they go out and help us find distribution. They just entered us into Sundance, cross your fingers, and some other festivals. So we’ll see what happens next.
But they love the film and are so supportive of these women and these characters. We’re really lucky. Hopefully we’ll be able to announce a worldwide premiere soon. We don’t know when, but soon.
MARILYNN SMITH: Can I just say the word I think that would personify it for us was persistence. We didn’t see a way to lose. That was the thing.
We almost lost it when Babe passed away, what, in 1954. Some of us had to go out and do some public relations work, like Shirley and I went to a boxing match and we were supposed to get in the ring and get the microphone and talk to the fans. Well, this one fellow was just pulverizing the other fellow and I got woozy because of the blood and everything. Shirley didn’t get woozy. She got right through the ropes and got the microphone and said come out and watch the LPGA play in the U.S. Open.
Then I would hit golf balls at major league ballparks like St. Louis, Cincinnatti and Washington, D.C. Hit balls in center field and then get the microphone. We had to do a lot of that stuff. Sometimes our drives, we caravaned a lot of times and sometimes our drives were 1,600 miles, like from Spokane to Waterloo. It wasn’t an easy thing for us.
SHIRLEY SPORK: We didn’t have the money to hire a publicity person. When we would get to a town, we would print little signs and ask stores if they would stick them in their window. We went to ballparks at little league baseball clubs like Spokane. We would go out to the ballpark and hit golf balls from home plate out in the field.
Luckily, in the beginning we didn’t have ProAms, we had a swing club and we each hit a different club and that way we passed the hat and had enough money to pay (indiscernible) Hammond, who had a bullhorn and could announce us on the tee. That’s how he announced our tournament.
We had pairings we had someone to make the pairings. We had three by five cards. We put the scores on them and then we made our own pairings. On Sunday night, as we went to the next tournament, we went to a pay phone and put the money in and called AP, UP and Golf World. That was it. That’s the only publicity we had.
So we really had to blow our own horns our whole life. I’m glad that my horn hasn’t worn out yet.
THE MODERATOR: Shirley, as you are talking about all the things that you had to do, coming to an event like in the CME Group Tour Championship, where you are seeing some of the players competing for a $1 million prize, how do you feel from knowing that you guys made this possible, that you created this platform for these women who are out there competing today?
SHIRLEY SPORK: I think it’s rewarding for us that we stuck together long enough to see it grow. We weren’t making a lot of money. We were able to travel and meet people. We loved what we were doing. We survived. Here we are.
And the people today, they have the young ladies out here just having a great opportunity. I think it’s wonderful.