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.

3 Take-Aways From the LPGA Volvik Championship

JutanugarnCongratulations to Volvik winner, Ariya Jutanugarn, who posted a third consecutive LPGA Tour win. Our games will never, ever reach the heady heights of the women who played in our local LPGA event, but take heart. There’s info and insights from the week we can apply to our own games, however humble they may be.

3 Take-Aways from the Volvik Championship

  1. Be flexible – Make a game plan to fit the situation. Jutanugarn is one of the longest hitters on the tour, but Travis Pointe held too many risks for her usual game. “It’s really hard for me because I can’t hit my driver and I really have to have a good game plan,” she said.
  2. Learn to play with pressure. Known for her final round meltdowns and 10 missed cuts last year, Jutanugarn has worked on her mental game. ”I didn’t know how to control when I got very nervous,” she said. Rather than simply relying on her pre-shot routine, Jutanugarn’s coaches have taught her to focus on slower tempos and less tension in the shoulders. Find a go-to shot that feels comfortable. Jutanugarn birdied 4 of the last 6 holes!
  3. Good sportsmanship is never out of style. Finishing her winning round, the victor was swarmed by other players spraying her with water. Runner-up Christina Kim remarked, “There really hasn’t been a player like her in my generation. The way she powers the ball, it’s remarkable. And she has such imagination around the golf course and incredible touch. She’s kind and she’s got a beautiful smile. Honestly, I can’t say enough about her.”

Master Mentor – Gayle Champagne

Gayle Champagne, centerGayle Champagne started playing golf to avoid answering the phone.  On Friday afternoons the guys at the ad agency would ask, “Gayle, would you cover my calls?” as they headed for the course with a client. Pretty soon Gayle was out there too.  (That’s Gayle sitting between Carolin Dick and me).
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She REALLY took to the sport, organizing trips up north for dozens of women at a time, landing a job at Golf For Women magazine, becoming an expert on the pleasures and perils of business golf.  She’s been involved with the American Junior Golf Association for 16 years and is currently President of the Board of Directors of that national nonprofit. That’s in addition to her full time job at Self Magazine! This is a woman who gives to golf!
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I met Gayle the year I started playing golf – before I had golf shoes OR a golf swing.  She hit a ball 90 yards over a little patch of wetland and I thought she was a golf goddess.  What really stuck with me though, was the way she inspired a new player, with just the right blend of humor and helpfulness.  I so appreciated the time she spent with me.

Whenever I play with Gayle I get inspired.  So with summer on the wane, I’ve made a pledge – to get out there and play with some new golfers, to pass on those good golf feelings.
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Once again, Gayle, thanks!

Mind Management in Golf

Holistic or half-baked, savvy or silly, whatever your opinion, the coaching methods of two women have taken the LPGA by storm.  Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott have the pros singing and “snowboarding” on the Tour.
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Both have serious golf backgrounds.  Nilsson spent 5 years on the LPGA tour, 10 years as head coach of the Swedish Women’s National team, and was Annika Sorenstam’s long time mentor.  Marriott worked for years as the LPGA’s director of teacher training.  Together they teach a “whole person” approach, going beyond stance and swing to focus on a player’s spiritual, social, physical, mental and emotional needs.
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Brittany Lincicome sings and whistles Keith Urban country songs after each shot. Suzann Pettersen counts out loud. Italy’s Giulia Sergas pretends to snowboard.  Others write inspiring words in their visors or recite funny movie lines.  It’s a whole new world of mind management in golf.  Read all about it in 7/15/09  Wall Street Journal article.

Women on Golf Course – Suzy Whaley

Suzy Whaley became the first woman in 58 years to qualify for a PGA Tour event (2003). She’s a top female instructor and an active and eloquent promoter of women’s golf.
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In PGA Magazine, Whaley writes that for many women, golf is a 5,000-calorie helping of Hungarian goulash.  Her article is aimed at instructors and others interested in growing women’s golf, but her perceptions ring true for us recreational players too.  Focus on playing moves instead of swinging moves is the main idea, and it’s an interesting approach to finding success on the course.  Read Suzy Whaley’s article.