Remembering the women who defied all odds to create the LPGA

Bettmann/Getty Images

Babe Didrikson Zaharias tees off in a charity outing at Lakewood Country Club in California. The other three top women golfers participating, left to right in background, were Patty Berg, Betty Jameson and Louise Suggs.

Who: Carrie Schrader and Charlene "Charlie" Fisk, directors and writers of "The Founders," showing at this weekend's Bentonville Film Festival

When: April 10, 2016

Where: Inman Park, Atlanta, Georgia


Allison Glock: You've just premiered your documentary feature, "The Founders," about the 13 women golfers who defied all odds in the 1940s and '50s to create the LPGA. They were forerunners in women's sports and the first professional female athletes to be recognized as such.

Charlie Fisk: At a time when women were not supposed to be athletes at all.

Glock: Yes, you have incredible clips of men on newsreels saying things such as, "It is a fact that competitive athletics tends to destroy all that is natural in women." There's a great quote in the film from one of the first female sports reporters, Liz Kahn, who flatly explains that back then, "People didn't like athletic women."

Carrie Schrader: Liz is her own amazing story. She would go to the clubs where all the male sports writers were working, but she was never allowed in. They'd pass her beers through the window. When we were interviewing her, she told me straight-up that people didn't like athletic women, and they still don't. And I thought, "She is so right." Female athletes make people pretty uncomfortable.

Glock: Why is that, do you think?

Fisk: Powerful women always make certain people uneasy.

Schrader: Look at our election right now. We have a female running for president, and we have a misogynist running for president. For me, being a woman, having a daughter, these female athletic role models are more critical than ever.

Glock: In what way?

Fisk: Women in sports shape the direction that we're going, that the youth is going. They're leading a whole avenue of our culture.

Glock: And they show what is possible, which is precisely what the founders did against very vocal resistance and little financial support. They groomed their own courses. They funded their own tournaments. They had to saw off their clubs to make them fit. They drove thousands of miles just for a chance to play where they weren't even allowed in the clubhouses. As Marilynn Smith says, "We were supposed to be married and having children. It wasn't normal to have a woman on the golf course."

Courtesy of Mighty Fine Pictures

Schrader: As a feminist who knows my history, I was floored that I didn't know what these women did. They were in the trenches way back before the women's movement really even took hold.

Glock: They also set the model for future women athletes to be taken seriously. As they say in the film, "More than money, we wanted to show the world we were great golfers."

Fisk: As filmmakers, we all identified with their passion, their conviction. Any woman in business, in sports, in anything, understands what it takes to get to the next level, and it's a huge amount of personal sacrifice in most cases.

Glock: You were able to interview the four surviving founders: Marilynn Smith, Shirley Spork, Louise Suggs and Marlene Bauer Vossler. What made you want to make this film?

Fisk: It started four years ago. I'd just finished a project on Margaret Mitchell for PBS' "American Masters," and I wanted something I could really dig into, something I really believed in. I was playing golf with a friend, and we were talking about the LPGA. I went home, did a bunch of research, and then I just started reaching out to the founders. When I got Louise Suggs on the phone, she gave me the hardest time. She was like, "Do you have any idea how important this story is?"

Schrader: Louise is famous for being an old curmudgeon. She just says it like it is, a real truth-teller.

Glock: She had a dog named "Dammit."

Fisk: [Laughs] Yeah, so I literally ended the call, teared up and thought, "Oh my gosh, I am not ready to do this." But after a minute, I changed my mind. I realized Louise was right. This story was important. It was an amazing history that had never been told. I wanted to understand what these women went through to get to where they wanted to be. And I made the commitment to myself right then to do the film. I knew if we could get Louise on camera, anyone would watch it.

It was an amazing history that had never been told. I wanted to understand what these women went through to get to where they wanted to be.
Charlene "Charlie" Fisk

Glock: She has one of the best moments in the film, after she won a co-ed tournament in 1946, beating Sam Snead. He was moaning about losing to a woman, and she shot back, "I don't know what you're bitching about. You weren't even second."

Schrader: [Laughs] And then she adds, "He burned about a half-ton of rubber on his way out of the parking lot."

Fisk: There were a handful of exhibition tournaments where both sexes competed together, and the men were really hesitant to play with the women, like, "Why should I be playing with a girl?"

Schrader: So when the men would lose, it was really humiliating for them. Babe beat a lot of those men too.

Glock: You're speaking of the legendary Babe Didrikson Zaharias, the 1932 Olympic gold medalist in track and a champion in virtually every sport she ever tried.

Fisk: When she started picking up golf, she had already played basketball. Organizers wouldn't allow her to participate in tournament golf, saying she wasn't technically an "amateur" athlete. She was considered a pro because she had taken prize money for another sport.

Schrader: Which was crazy because there was only amateur golf. There was no pro golf for women. They made it so there was nowhere for her to play.

Glock: It wasn't considered "proper" for women to play for money. In the film, you point out that here was the greatest woman athlete of all time, and she couldn't make a living doing it. Sadly, not so far off from today.

Fisk: Which is why Babe was like, "Fine, I'm going to go play with the men." She competed in the Los Angeles Open in 1938 and got to the second round. The only other women who have done that since are Annika Sorenstam, Suzy Whaley and Michelle Wie. But Babe did it in the '40s. And she actually could hit as far as the men.

Glock: In 1948, she became the first woman to attempt to qualify for the U.S. Open, but her application was rejected because the USGA said the event was "for men only."

Schrader: Babe liked to make a lot of noise.

Glock: Which created conflict for Louise and some of the other golfers.

Courtesy of Mighty Fine Pictures

"Do you have any idea how important this story is?" Louise Suggs asked "The Founders" directors when they approached her to be in the film.

Fisk: Louise was just not that person. She didn't want to be in the limelight. She was an introvert. And Babe was so charismatic and hungry for attention, so they clashed. Louise didn't get the credit she deserved for advancing the game. Babe got the credit.

Schrader: Also overlooked was Shirley Spork, who thought to ask, "Why are men teaching women how to play golf? Women should be teaching women to play." She wasn't flashy, but what she did for generations of women golfers after her was invaluable.

Fisk: The truth is the other founders knew they needed Babe. She was loved, and she was funny, but it was also really hard on them because Babe was always clear that, "I am it! I'm the star!" And she really was. You know, they all admitted, "If it wasn't for Babe, we wouldn't have been able to do this."

Glock: As the women traveled town to town, they drove themselves hours at a time. When they'd arrive at the courses, they often had to model in fashion shows or attend sponsored cocktail parties to meet and entertain the local men.

Fisk: Oh, how Louise hated those cocktail parties. She was not going to paste on a smile and play to the camera.

Schrader: Or get fondled.

Fisk: Yeah, the women had some stories. Can you imagine driving that far and having to do all that other stuff before you can even think about playing?

Glock: In the movie, you make the point that if they didn't participate in the parties and socializing, they might not be invited to the next tournament.

Schrader: It was ridiculous. We have that clip where one male interviewer says, "They're athletes, and yet, they're still beautiful."

Fisk: But really, not that much has changed for women athletes.

Glock: Meaning the prism women are judged through is largely the same?

It isn't enough to be awesome. They're still very much expected to be incredibly feminine and appeal to men.
Carrie Schrader

Fisk: Yes. You look at any cover of a magazine, and you can see that female athletes are expected to be sexy. All of the women we interviewed spoke about it: Stacy Lewis, Karrie Webb, the rest. They all said, we are talked about for what we wear, whom we're married to, our appearance, the personal stuff. Rarely is it, "Look at this amazing shot!" Or, "Look at this amazing feat!"

Schrader: Women on the tour also believe they consistently beat the men in the short game. Maybe they don't have the power to hit those long shots, but if the courses were set up slightly differently, they could win. Their athleticism is just as good. But it isn't enough to be awesome. They're still very much expected to be incredibly feminine and appeal to men.

Glock: Babe in particular was often criticized for seeming too masculine. She really had to bend over backwards to bring out her inner glamazon, even sewing her own dresses.

Schrader: She was acutely aware of the pressure to look traditionally feminine. To watch her transform from the tomboy she started as, to see her get married and to have to put herself in that box was, for us, sort of a sad feeling.

Fisk: After a screening, I had someone say to me, "That Babe was practically built like a man." And I was like, "Uh, yeah, I guess if that's how you want to describe it. Or maybe you could say she was built like an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime athlete."

Glock: It's very much like the criticism leveled at Serena Willams, Ronda Rousey and almost every player in the WNBA. Do you think starting out dealing with that kind of sexism and inequity is why the LPGA has such a solid record of inclusion and civil rights? For example, the women refused to play at clubs that wouldn't welcome African American golfers, and the LPGA boycotted tournaments that wouldn't admit Althea Gibson in the clubhouse.

Schrader: Renee Powell and Althea Gibson -- both of those women should have their own movies. You can't believe the discrimination they faced. Liz Kahn noted that the PGA certainly wasn't protesting those racist policies. But these women said, "No. It's not fair." They were familiar with being ostracized, so they banded together and said, "We're not going to play there. Period."

Glock: Which was no small thing when most of them were playing for their next meal. It seems they had a pattern of putting the good of the whole above their personal reward.

Fisk: The battle between Patty Berg, Babe Zaharias and Louise Suggs -- they were just constantly head to head. But they were like sisters. You fight, but then out of those fights come those moments of celebration. I think that's part of the reason the LPGA was able to be formed. They had this fierce competition, but in the end, they all had the same goal.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

LPGA founders Marilynn Smith, left, and Shirley Spork sit on the 18th green as the Girls Golf Foundation looks on at Wildfire Golf Club in Phoenix in 2015.

Schrader: The LPGA is the first women's pro organization and the longest running. We've had so many people contact us after the film to say, "I'm still thinking about these women." People want to know them, and that's what we wanted to happen.

Glock: How much pushing did you have to do to get the founders to open up?

Fisk: These women are not on the internet, so I hand wrote letters. I sent photos of myself, pictures of me playing golf. Over the course of eight months, we talked a lot on the phone. They still call me every week.

Glock: What were some of the toughest questions you had to ask?

Fisk: About marriage. "Why didn't you get married? Did you want to? Did you fall in love?"

Glock: There was that great quote from Marilynn Smith, where she said of a man, "I was not in love with him enough to quit golf."

Schrader: It was hard to get them to share certain things. For example, they didn't want to say anything negative about other women on the tour. Getting them to reveal those places where it's not so perfect and pretty was hard to do. Like Marilynn. Everybody was like, "You're not gonna crack Marilynn. She's so polished."

Louise wanted to tell all. She has been waiting for years to say, 'Babe cheated, and I know it!'
Carrie Schrader

Fisk: It's emotional for them. It's scary to really show what they went through and to talk about it in a way that's not about PR. They are still a product of their generation, where talking about those things is something women just don't do. That said, Louise was an open book.

Schrader: [Laughs] Louise wanted to tell all. She has been waiting for years to say, "Babe cheated, and I know it!"

Fisk: Everyone was like, "Are you going to include that?" So nervous. And I was like, "Of course we're going to include it!"

Glock: Where did you find all the amazing archival footage and photography of the women on the courses and behind the scenes?

Schrader: We scoured the Earth. We searched like crazy.

Fisk: We asked all of them, "Can we have your old boxes?" Contacting friends and family all over the country for stuff in their basements, stuff in their attics, home movies. And then we would sit in the hotel rooms at night and dig. That's when I began to realize this was a huge, historic story. For me, watching the footage of them playing is insane. It's like watching the best athletes -- top tier.

Schrader: This is stuff people were going to throw away.

Glock: The sisterhood of it all is so clear in the old clips. Are they still that close?

Fisk: Yes, yes, yes! They talk all the time. Shirley and Marilynn have a beer over the phone and chat every day at 3 o'clock.

Schrader: They maintain that camaraderie and respect. Their whole lives are defined by this passion. If they could, all of them would still be playing professional golf. Marlene played for 40 years or something ridiculous.

Fisk: I mean, they all live on golf courses, literally. They host golf tournaments. They make appearances. They are so involved in the LPGA. And I feel like this is something that doesn't happen as much in men's sports.

Schrader: We had some current footage where a female competitor makes a great shot, and they all run out there and hug each other and get excited, even though they're playing against each other for a lot of money. And I think that's because of the way the founders set up the organization. It's a place of support.

Fisk: LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan screened our film for all the players at The Founders Cup this year, which is huge chunk of time for the players to devote during a tournament. But he felt like they all needed to see it, as part of an initiation of sorts. He's planning to screen it for all 460 members.

Glock: What was the feedback?

Fisk: There was crying and excitement. And we showed it in November at an event in Naples, Florida, where Marilynn and Shirley got to see it. It was a packed house, and it was so touching to screen it with them in the audience.

Schrader: Marilynn said, "Why's there all those little kids running around in the beginning? What's that whole thing with the girl and the bike?" Which was our title sequence. She thought we should start off with, "In 1950, 13 women founded the LPGA ... "

Fisk: That's part of what makes these women so great. They all have an opinion.

Glock: None more than Louise, who just passed away at 92.

Schrader: We were one of her last interviews. It's not in the film, but she quit pro golf in 1964 after she was fined $50 for something she says she never did. She quit the tour rather than admit to something she didn't do. That's how strong her conviction was.

Fisk: There's this really interesting vibe in the room when all these women are together. It's like a family, but it's more than that. It's really welcoming.

Schrader: One time when we showed up to shoot, and they're like, "You need to go to this party in Shirley's room." And we're, like, OK, expecting there to be two or three people there. It's a cheap motel in Arizona, you know? So we show up, and there's about 25 women squished into this room in a circle, eating potato chips and dip, drinking beer and cocktails, just laughing and telling stories about golf and life.

Glock: They don't seem bitter about their struggles at all.

Fisk: No, on the contrary. They take pride in the opportunities they created, and they relish the community golf created for them. These women would do anything for each other. They make each other happy, and they lift each other up. Louise said, "If you told me I couldn't do something, I'd show you I can do it." And that is true for all of them. They did it together.

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