Louise Suggs was one of the most influential figures in the history of American golf … not just women’s golf. This piece was written upon her passing this summer. It was originally written for The Mulligan Magazine. We would like to take this opportunity to share it with all who love the game of golf.
Her playing record is one of the most remarkable in history. Louise Suggs, who passed away August 7 at age 91, may have been the most accomplished competitor among the LPGA’s 13 Founders. But when the history of women’s golf is discussed, her accomplishments are sometimes overlooked.
She was not a flamboyant competitor, and not particularly interested in putting on a show. What Suggs wanted to do more than anything else was play good golf. Which she did, for a very long time.
May Louise Suggs was born on September 7, 1923 in Atlanta. Her father, Johnny Suggs, was a minor-league baseball player, a lefthanded pitcher, who plied his trade with the Atlanta Crackers in the Class A Southern Association, which in those days was two-thirds of the way up the minor-league ladder. It didn’t hurt that his father-in-law owned the team.
The year of his daughter’s birth he gave up baseball to build and run a golf course outside the city. It was there Louise first swung a golf club at the age of 10.
“There was nothing to do out there in those days,” Suggs recalled in an exclusive 2012 interview. “It was out in the country. “I just picked up some old wooden-shafted clubs he had in the shop and he sawed them off to fit me. I just picked them up and started hitting golf balls with no forethought.”
Suggs was always athletically inclined. Growing up, she played football and baseball with the caddies at her father’s club. Swinging a golf club came naturally to her.
“A golf swing is just a baseball swing at a different angle and a different plane,” she said. I would just take swings for no good reason, like kicking a tin can or something.”
Playing alongside the caddies, Suggs got her first taste of competition. “We played short knocker,” she said. “We’d hit off the first tee when nobody was around, when no golfers were around. Maybe 10 or 12 of us would hit off the first tee and the short knocker would have to go pick them all up. It was quite an experience, that’s where I tried to swing at the ball hard.”
When she was 14 Suggs made her first appearance in the Georgia Women’s Amateur in Atlanta Two years later she won it. When she was 17 she competed outside her home state for the first time, in Memphis, nearly 400 miles from Atlanta.
This was in the waning days of the Great Depression, and money was scarce in the Suggs household. But even then Suggs displayed the tenacity that would serve her well in years to come.
“We were never hungry,” she said. I don’t know how Mother did it. We didn’t have any money but nobody else did for that matter. We enjoyed it; we didn’t know we were poor. I guess I was a fighter. Always have been.”
Suggs strode onto the national stage in 1941 when, as a 17-year old, she won the Southern Women’s Amateur. The following year she won the North and South Women’s Amateur and captured the Georgia state title for a second time.
Around that time however Suggs’ competitive career came to an abrupt halt due to World War II. Virtually all significant golf competitions were suspended for the duration. So Suggs supported the war effort with her golf clubs, playing in charity exhibitions.
“I lost about three years of competition because there were no tournaments,” she said. “I did a lot of exhibitions for the Red Cross, and USO and Army-Navy relief, things like that. I played a lot with Bob Hope [who gave her the nickname Miss Suggs]. That was an interesting experience for a young kid.”
When the war ended Suggs, who was still just 22 years old and still an amateur, picked up where she had left off and then some. In 1946 she captured two professional major titles, the Titleholders and the Women’s Western Open. She also won the Southern Amateur and the North South once again. The following year she won the U.S. Women’s Amateur by defeating Dorothy Kirby in the championship match at Franklin Hills Country Club in Franklin, Michigan. She also mounted successful title defenses at both the Western Open and Western Amateur.
In 1948 Suggs closed out her amateur career by winning the British Ladies Amateur title over Jean Donald at Royal Lytham & St. Annes and competing for the victorious U.S. Curtis Cup side at Royal Birkdale. On July 8, 1948 she turned professional.
At the time, women’s professional golf was in its infancy. The Women’s Professional Golf Association had been formed in 1944 but relatively few tournaments were open to professionals, most of whom were employed by equipment companies to conduct exhibitions and promote the sale of golf equipment.
Suggs herself had been approached about turning professional while she was still in high school. “They asked me to turn pro and I refused,” she said. “I finished high school- I didn’t go to college, and went to work. I don’t think I thought too much about it to tell you the truth.”
After finishing high school Suggs took a job as a clerk for Gulf Oil in Atlanta and remained there throughout her amateur career. But after her success in Britain Suggs, who was approaching her 25th birthday, decided it was time to join the ‘play for pay’ ranks.
“When I got back from England the manufacturers had decided that women’s golf was the next thing,” she said. “And I was motivated, so to speak. I decided to go with MacGregor and I was with them for 30 years. My dad told me ‘You’ll never make that kind of money [in an office job] and I think there’s a future for women’s golf.’ As it turned out, there has been.
When Suggs first joined MacGregor her mentor was Byron Nelson who was largely retired from competition at that point but was still one of the sport’s most influential figures.
“I asked him to take me with him to give clinics and teach me how to do them, all that kind of stuff,” she said. He and his wife Louise. We traveled together for about six weeks, we had a limousine and a driver. We went all over Michigan, Indiana and Ohio giving exhibitions and clinics He couldn’t have been nicer. He was a great mentor, really.”
After winning one professional tournament in 1948 Suggs took the great leap forward the following year by winning the fourth U.S. Women’s Open at Prince George’s Country Club in Landover, Maryland outside of Washington, D.C. She shot rounds of 69-75-77-70 to finish at 9-under par 295. Her closest pursuer, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, finished 14 shots behind her. That margin of victory established a Women’s Open record that still stands.
“I actually played a round in the 60s,” Suggs said, “which in those days was unheard of. Everything I did seemed to be the right thing. I’d pull the right club. In those days we had caddies that worked at the clubs, we didn’t have our own caddies or anything like that.” Suggs won three additional tournaments that year, including the Western Open and went on to record a total of 55 professional wins. For 15 consecutive years, from 1948-62, she won at least one tournament each season.
The WPGA eventually sank in a sea of red ink and at a meeting at the U.S. Women’s Open in September of 1950. 13 women, including Suggs, officially founded the Ladies Professional Golf Association. Of course, founding the Tour was one thing; making it a viable entity was something quite different. The players served as their own administrative staff in those early years, doing everything from marking the golf course to arranging pairings and tee times, to adjudicating whatever rules disputes occurred during a tournament, to distributing the purse after it concluded. They also had a lot to do off the course, including spending time with sponsors and the media.
Suggs, for her part, often served as a rules liaison between the fledging LPGA and the United States Golf Association. “I kept the [telegraph] wires to the USGA hot trying to find out about rules,” she said. We didn’t have any help most of the time. “If we had something going on the right then that we had to find out about right then, we’d call. We wouldn’t stop the tournament but we’d play a provisional ball and make the decision after we’d find out.”
As a MacGregor staffer Suggs had access to top-of-the-line equipment but it was a far cry from what is available today. “The golf balls were so out of round that a lot of times you could see them go out of round,” she recalls. I never played more than three holes with a ball.”
The golf courses that Suggs and her peers competed on in the early 1950s presented challenges as well. It was not uncommon for members of the host club to handle the course setup. Suggs claimed that Babe Didrikson Zaharias always wanted the golf courses to play long to play to her advantage off the tee. Often, her ‘request’ would be granted to placate the tournament’s biggest gate attraction.
And Suggs notes that local organizers weren’t looking to make things easier for their visitors. “We played courses that were much longer than they’re playing now,” she said. “And not in the condition that the courses are in now. We usually played 65-6800 yards. We played the regular men’s tees, no matter what. We never played the women’s tees.
“We never got many short shots except around the green, chips and that sort of thing. It was rare to be able to hit a 5-iron into a par-4 hole. They wanted to set it up so we didn’t beat the members, that was the object.”
Suggs was quick to point out the conditions of that era literally forced players to learn to improvise. “I’d like to see [today’s players] play with what we played with,” she said. “We had to manufacture shots. We had to figure out how to hit shots out of cuppy lies and that kind of stuff. And a lot of times if you were near the green and needed to hit a pitch shot you couldn’t do it. You had to bump and run it, no matter what.”
In the early days of the LPGA Tour the greens were a study in inconsistency. “You didn’t know what you’d be putting on,” Suggs said. “It might be like a cartpath or it might be [a well-maintained surface].” Through it all, Suggs continued to play outstanding golf. She won her second Women’s Open title in 1952 at Bala Golf Club in Philadelphia, scoring a seven-shot victory over Betty Jameson and Marlene Bauer. Her 72-hole total of 284 was a record for any championship-level women’s event up to that time, though it should be noted that Bala played to just 5,460 yards and a par of 69.
The tight layout played to Suggs’s strengths. “My forte was really keeping the ball on the golf course,” she said, “chipping and putting. That’s all you could do in those days.”
Suggs was unquestionably one of the premier players in the sport. In 1953 she topped the LPGA money list for the first time. She was often overshadowed however by players with more charismatic personalities, such as Zaharias, who had a flair for showmanship and a knack for self-promotion. When it came time to hand out endorsement opportunities Fred Corcoran, the LPGA’s tournament manager, who doubled as Zaharias’s personal manager, was more likely to reach out to someone like Zaharias than Suggs, who was more concerned with playing good golf than putting on a show.
That circumstance still rankled Suggs some six decades later. “[Corcoran] was partial to the Wilson girls,” she said, “because he worked for Wilson originally. And then eventually the three manufacturers (Wilson, Spalding, and MacGregor) paid him to help us run and get tournaments and things like that.
“But whenever there was anything that came up special where there was any money to be made he always went to Babe or someone worked for Wilson. It was hard and you had to keep your mouth shut.”
Suggs favored keeping some distance from her peers. At a time when players would form an auto caravan to get from town to town, she chose to travel alone. “I would have time to myself,” she said, and that was the only time I got to relax and be quiet, when I was traveling between tournaments by myself.”
Suggs likely acquired this mindset from her father. When Johnny Suggs was trying to fulfill his baseball ambitions, there were just 16 major-league teams, not the 30 there are today. And in that era there was something of a quota system in regards to left-handed pitchers; one or two per team was considered the limit. The hitters he faced each night were not just opponents, they were enemies, standing between him and the major leagues. For that matter, so were his own teammates to an extent. This mindset, common among pitchers at higher levels of baseball, then and now, was one his daughter seemingly embraced.
“My father told me ‘The first thing you have to remember is you can never be friends with a fellow competitor,’” she said. “You can be friendly but you can never be friends. He was right. I don’t think anybody made any close friends but we were friendly.”
In light of all this it is unsurprising that Suggs developed a connection to Ben Hogan who, like Suggs, tended to keep his distance form his peers. “Ben was a friend of mind, believe it or not,” she said. “Somebody once said I was worse than Hogan because if I ever gave anybody a blood transfusion they’d get pneumonia.”
Through the 1950s and into the early ‘60s Suggs continued to add to her playing record. She captured Titleholders championships in 1954, ’56, and’59, the Western Open in 1953 and the LPGA Championship in 1957; the latter title made her the first player to complete the LPGA Career Grand Slam by winning every major title available at the time. In 1957 she claimed the Vare Trophy for having the LPGA’s lowest scoring average (74.64). As late as 1961 she won five times.
Suggs’ last win came in February of 1962 at the St. Petersburg Open, for which she earned all of $1,200. She stopped playing full-time not long after that; she was 38 and had had enough of the demands of tournament golf. But she continued to play occasionally through 1984 when she was 60 years old. Her resume includes 58 wins in professional tournaments, three of which came prior to the founding of the LPGA. Eleven of those victories were major championships.
In1967 Suggs was part of the initial group of six inductees into the LPGA Tour Hall of Fame. In 2000 the LPGA established the Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year award in her honor.
Apart from wins and trophies, it was the efforts of Suggs and her fellow Founders that put the LPGA on the path to the success that it enjoys today. Doing so required ample amounts of determination, resolve, resiliency, and outright toughness.
“We succeeded in spite of ourselves,” Suggs said. “I don’t know how we did it. We fought a lot (but) it was great experience. “We had to get together to cooperate and get something accomplished.”