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A Golfing Life: Louise Suggs' Passion For The Game Pioneered LPGA Growth

Louise Suggs' seemingly effortless swing was a thing of beauty. So much so, Bob Hope nicknamed her "Miss Sluggs" for her 250-yard drives from the tee box. AP Photo/Ed Maloney

In his wonderful biography, "Johnny U: The Life and Times of John Unitas,'' writer Tom Callahan begins the book with this description of the great quarterback's era: "On black-and-white televisions, in a black-or-white time, men played football for something less than a living and something more than money."

Insert "women" for "men" and "golf" for "football" and you have the early years of the LPGA. Without TV, of course.

Professional athletes of the mid-20th century only got rich if they were counting memories. If you were female in a fledgling organization, it was worse.

Louise Suggs, who died Friday at age 91, won 61 tournaments, the fourth-most victories of any woman who has ever played golf. Eleven of her wins were majors. She had career earnings of $190,251. These days, a superstar athlete can sneeze away that much.

But the work was a game, and the game was a love.

"Golf is very much like a love affair," Suggs once said. "If you don't take it seriously, it's no fun. If you do, it breaks your heart. Don't break your heart, but flirt with the possibility."

When Suggs and 12 of her peers founded the LPGA in 1950, the possibility that a professional women's golf tour could be sustained was as unlikely as man going to the moon.

That baker's dozen of ladies didn't know where the enterprise was going, beyond long drives on two-lane roads to cheap motor courts and to golf courses where the clover wasn't only for luck, but the fairways.

They didn't just compete in tournaments in Bakersfield and Youngstown, Gatlinburg and Mukegeon, they conducted them -- making tee times, marking water hazards, managing the business of their unlikely league of their own. After all the speaking engagements and clinics to let people know they were in town to spread the golf gospel, then they'd get to play. First tee to 18th green was dessert.

No one played more stylishly than Suggs. The daughter of a professional baseball player who came within a whisker of the big leagues, Suggs possessed an elegant but strong swing with abundant grace and surprising power. "Miss Sluggs," as Bob Hope called her, impressed with the 250-yard drives that she struck with apparent ease.

"Louise's swing combines all the elements of efficiency, timing and coordination," Ben Hogan said. "It appears to be completely effortless."

Just how good was Suggs' full, well-sequenced action? Mickey Wright, regarded by many to have had the best swing in women's golf, was tickled every time she was in a grouping with Suggs and got to see her swing up close because she hoped some of the smoothness would rub off. Suggs knew this and teased Wright about it. When I asked Wright some years ago for a magazine project to name her five favorite swings, male or female, not surprisingly Suggs was included.

Although Suggs' swing could be viewed as the female equivalent of Sam Snead's willowy move, her parallel later in her life was Byron Nelson. Like Nelson, who hosted a PGA Tour event for many years and delighted in his duties, Suggs stayed current with newer generations of women in the competitive landscape she had carefully tilled decades earlier. She became a particularly close friend and mentor to a trio of younger star players and fellow major champions: Beth Daniel, Meg Mallon and Karrie Webb.

A no-nonsense woman, Suggs could judge character as well as distances. As another Hall of Famer, Kathy Whitworth, once observed of her: "Louise had high standards and was extremely honest. She expected people to be honest with her as well. If someone wasn't, she didn't have a lot of patience for them."

But Suggs' forthrightness was underpinned with generosity, and LPGA administrators realized how valuable she could be in linking modern players to their roots -- often with a Scotch and a funny story. It was a sweet and appropriate touch that the organization named its Rookie of the Year award for Suggs. For years, well into her 80s, Suggs would attend the annual awards dinner. Sometimes she would go to rookie orientation, telling the fresh faces how it was and how it is.

"I'd say, 'Listen, this is my outfit, and if you mess it up, you'll have to answer to me,' " is how Suggs once described her message to me.

There might be a handful of people who have played golf better than Suggs and any number who have become more famous, but hers was an amazing golf life.

"It never dawned on any of us that it'd wind up like it is now," Suggs said of the modern LPGA. "Not too many people in the world can say they helped start something that has been successful. When I look at that headquarters in Daytona Beach, when we worked out of the trunks of cars, it boggles the mind."

With Suggs' passing, only three of the 13 women who founded the LPGA survive. Marlene Bauer Hagge is 81. Marilynn Smith is 86. Shirley Spork is 88.

Like a caravan of heavy sedans full of clothes and golf clubs, traveling with their dreams down a blue highway, time moves on.