Marilynn Smith, one of the founders of the LPGA Tour whose 21 victories, two majors and endless support of her tour led to her induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame, has died at her home in Arizona. She was 89.
Smith, who died Tuesday, was last seen in public March 24 at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup in Phoenix, greeting players as they walked off the 18th green.
Smith was president of the Ladies Professional Golf Assn. from 1958 to 1960 and, in 1973, became the first woman to work a PGA Tour event as a TV broadcaster.
“Marilynn was my founder, my North Star and most importantly my friend,” LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan said on the tour’s website. “In her life, she broke barriers, shattered stereotypes and made others ‘believe.’ ”
The LPGA Tour began in 1950. Shirley Spork and Marlene Bauer Hagge are now the only survivors of the original 13 founders.
Smith had turned pro in 1949 at a time when equipment companies began to recognize the potential for growth in golf after World War II. She signed a $5,000 contract with Spalding for up to 100 clinics a year, and she eventually had a signature line of golf clubs.
The LPGA founders, however, were far more than just players. They promoted, they organized, and they drove thousands of miles together to pitch women’s golf and encourage fans to watch them.
“The word I think would personify it for us was ‘persistence,’ ” she said at the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship in 2015. “We didn’t see a way to lose.”
Smith won the 1954 Fort Wayne Open for the first of her 21 LPGA titles and captured her two majors in the 1963 Titleholders, where she beat Mickey Wright by one shot in an 18-hole playoff. Smith won the Titleholders again the following year.
Born April 13, 1929, in Topeka, Kan., Smith attended the University of Kansas and won the 1949 national individual intercollegiate championship after having to scrape up the money for travel expenses. She often spoke about her father going to the athletic director to ask for financial help and being told, “It’s too bad your daughter is not a boy.”
That was her first taste of gender discrimination, and she spent a lifetime working for greater opportunities for women in golf.
She created the Marilynn Smith LPGA Charity Pro-Am, which for the last 10 years has raised scholarship money to help female golfers with college expenses. Last year, the charity event provided $5,000 grants for 30 women.
The last of her 21 victories was the Pabst Ladies Classic in 1972, though Smith remained active as a founder, teacher and endless promoter. She conducted more than 4,000 clinics since signing that Spalding contract in 1949, helping more than 250,000 young golfers in her career. She was recognized during the LPGA’s 50th anniversary as one of its top 50 players and teachers.
“I’m just an ordinary girl from the Kansas prairie who has lived an extraordinary life, and golf has made it possible for me to travel to all 50 states, 36 countries, to meet five presidents,” Smith said when was inducted into the Hall of Fame. “And I’ve been privileged to play golf with my two idols, Stan Musial and Ben Hogan.”
She also played with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, with Bing Crosby and some of the LPGA greats.
“How blessed can one get?” she said.