Shirley Spork, Teaching Pro and Founder of LPGA, Dies at 94

New York Times, April 12, 2022

Shirley Spork, one of the most prominent teaching pros in women’s golf and one of the last survivors among the 13 women who founded the Ladies Professional Golf Association in 1950, died on Tuesday at her home in Palm Springs, Calif. She was 94.

Her death was announced by the L.P.G.A. a little more than two weeks after she was inducted into its Hall of Fame, leaving Marlene Bauer Hagge as the last living co-founder of the women’s tour.

Spork finished second in the 1962 L.P.G.A. Championship but never won on the women’s tour. Her legacy, apart from her role as a pioneer of the women’s pro game, lay in her tutoring countless women, from duffers to fledgling pros, and in creating schools to help would-be teachers pass on her knowledge to their own students.

Spork received the Ellen Griffin Rolex Award, the L.P.G.A.’s highest teaching honor, in 1998. She was inducted into the inaugural class of the L.P.G.A. Teaching and Club Professional Hall of Fame in 2000. She won the 2015 Patty Berg Award for contributions to women’s golf and was named the L.P.G.A. Teacher of the Year in 1959 and 1984.

In 1947, while attending Michigan State Normal College in Ypsilanti, outside Ann Arbor — a teachers school now known as Eastern Michigan University — Spork won the first national intercollegiate golf championship for women. She graduated with a degree in physical education two years later.

During the 1950 golf season, she joined with leading women’s players, including Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Patty Berg, Louise Suggs, Betty Jameson and Marilynn Smith, to form the L.P.G.A. But in its early years, prize money was meager, the tournaments received little attention in the sports media, and the players jammed together in automobiles as they traveled around the country.

They often attended church services while on tour, and Spork generally placed a small check in the collection basket.

“At one stop, in Waterloo, Iowa, the good monsignor, an ardent golfer, noticed that I had not finished well that week in the prize money,” she told Mona Vold in “Different Strokes: The Lives and Teachings of the Game’s Wisest Women” (1999). “I received my check back with a note saying: ‘You need this more than God does.’”

The women were creative in promoting themselves. They showed up at minor league baseball games to promote their nearby tournaments and arched 9-iron tee shots from home plate to center field. “We had an item to sell, which was ourselves and our talent,” Spork told The New York Times in 2011.

Spork provided tips to female golfers in a pair of articles for Sports Illustrated in the late 1950s. Some of her suggestions involved technical details.

“Because a woman’s proportions are different from a man’s, the average woman golfer has a tendency to overswing,” she wrote in advising women to “restrain the excessive hip turn, which seems like a source of power but which is in actuality the defeater of alignment, balance and power.”

She also urged women to be confident. “Women take more lessons than men but, unlike men, almost never practice by themselves,” she wrote. “Independent practice away from the instructor will give a player the confidence without which it is impossible to play a really good round of golf.”

Spork concluded that she would be hard-pressed to compete for prize money with the more experienced players, so she concentrated on instructional work while playing part time on the L.P.G.A. Tour.

During the 1950s she became the first female club pro at the Tamarisk Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif., and gave lessons to celebrities, including Nat King Cole, Harpo Marx, Dean Martin and Danny Kaye.

Later in the decade, Spork and Smith were instrumental in founding the L.P.G.A.’s teaching division, now known as L.P.G.A. Professionals. Joining with the L.P.G.A.-U.S.G.A. Girls Golf initiative, the division has spurred a growth in junior golf, something that Spork had long supported.

Shirley Spork was born on May 14, 1927, in Detroit, where her father was an electrical engineer and her mother was a clerk in a pharmacy. Her parents didn’t golf, but the family home was adjacent to the Bonnie Brook Golf Course.

At age 11, Spork began scaling a high stone wall separating the fairways from the street during the evening hours, scooping up lost balls and selling them to people passing by. When she was 13, she used her earnings to buy a putter and a 7 iron and began hitting balls on the neighborhood course late in the day.

“There were no junior golf programs, so the only way I learned was by going on the golf course and playing it myself,” she said in an interview for the L.P.G.A. Women’s Network website in 2018. “The golf ranger would come around and scurry me away, but that didn’t keep me away from the golf course for too long.”

Spork, the runner-up four strokes behind Judy Kimball at the 1962 L.P.G.A. Championship in Las Vegas, won $82,720 in career prize money. She usually confined her tournament play to the summer while teaching during the winter at country clubs, most of them in California.