LPGA trailblazers: From the founders to the new generation
The LPGA, at its very core, is an organization built on the backs of women who made tremendous sacrifices in order to make their dream of a female Tour come to fruition. More than 70 years later, the organization continues to pave a path for women, no matter their background, nationality or skin color, to provide them with the opportunity to pursue their passion.
In celebration of Women’s History Month, here’s a look at some of the trailblazers who have highlighted the decades since the LPGA’s founding in 1950.
1950s: 13 Founders
In 1950, 13 women – Alice Bauer, Marlene Bauer Hagge, Patty Berg, Bettye Danoff, Helen Dettweiler, Helen Hicks, Opal Hill, Betty Jameson, Sally Sessions, Marilynn Smith, Shirley Spork, Louise Suggs and Babe Zaharias – came together to create the LPGA Tour. Those 13 women would later come to be known as the Founders.
In the Tour’s infancy, members drove from city to city, and tour stop to tour stop in order to compete. As they crisscrossed the country, players participated in promotional opportunities to drum up support for their fledgling circuit. Members did everything from throwing the first pitch at minor league baseball games to making radio appearances, to promote the LPGA. In its first season, the tour started out with just 14 tournaments and $50,000 in total prize money. Within 10 years, the tour added 12 more events and the prize money grew four-fold.
1960s: Althea Gibson
In 1963, Gibson made history as the first African American to join the LPGA Tour. Gibson was already a two-time Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion, who also broke the color barrier in tennis. But, the trailblazer faced a number of challenges and discrimination that her white counterparts didn’t encounter in their travels on the LPGA Tour. She was often barred from staying at the same hotel as her fellow pros and was sometimes refused entry to the clubhouse where the tour was competing. She made 171 starts on the LPGA Tour from 1963-77 and paved the way for Renee Powell, who in 1967, became the second African American to join the tour.
1970s: Kathy Whitworth
Whitworth was the most dominant player the LPGA Tour has seen. Over three decades, she amassed 88 victories, including six major championships. Whitworth owns the record for the most professional wins on the LPGA or PGA tours, eclipsing Sam Snead and Tiger Woods’ record of 82 victories on the PGA Tour. Whitworth won the Rolex Player of the Year and Vare Trophy, for lowest scoring average, seven times. She also topped the money list a record eight times. She became the first player to captain the U.S. Solheim Cup team, at the inaugural event in 1990, and the following year became the first player to reach $1 million dollars in career earnings on tour.
1980s: Jan Stephenson
During the 1980s, Stephenson won 10 times, including three major championships. But what the Aussie achieved on the course was overshadowed by the influence the trailblazer had in promoting the LPGA Tour. At the suggestion of Ray Volpe, the first tour commissioner, Stephenson engaged in a variety of promotional activities to drum up interest in the circuit. Notably, the Aussie posed for a number of suggestive photographs that drew attention to not just Stephenson but also women’s golf. That strategy, along with Nancy Lopez’ arrival on tour, led to a boon. The LPGA grew internationally, and prize money soared to $14 million. In 1986, Stephenson posed in a bathtub full of golf balls, seemingly nude, for a promotional calendar. It would become the most iconic photograph of her career.
1990s: Se Ri Pak
In 1998, Pak won the U.S. Women’s Open – her second major victory of the year – in thrilling fashion after taking off her socks and shoes to wade into a water hazard along the 18th fairway. It became the defining moment of her career and one that inspired an entire generation of young girls, who watched from home in Pak’s native South Korea, to take up the game. A decade later, Inbee Park won the 2008 U.S. Women’s Open to signal the arrival of the next wave from Korea. The victory was just the tip of the first wave of young players known as ‘Se Ri’s Kids,’ who have come to dominate the LPGA Tour.
2000s: Annika Sorenstam
The 2000s belonged to Sorenstam. No player won more during the decade. She captured 54 of her 72 LPGA Tour victories during the 2000s. One of her most notable moments came in 2001, when she became the first player in tour history to shoot 59. In 2003, she made history again as she became the first player in more than 50 years to compete on the PGA Tour at Colonial Country Club. In 2006, when the Rolex Rankings were established, Sorenstam became the first player to be ranked No. 1 in the women’s game. Sorenstam was named Rolex Player of the Year eight times in her career, eclipsing the record previously held by Kathy Whitworth.
2010s: Lydia Ko
Before Ko joined the LPGA Tour in 2014, she was already doing things in the women’s game that had never been done before. In 2012, at the age of 15, she became the youngest winner in tour history when she won the CP Women’s Open. It was one of four professional events she won as an amateur. In 2013, Ko successfully defended her title and turned professional that same season. In 2014, Ko joined the LPGA Tour and in her first season became the youngest to win the Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year award at age 17. In February of 2015, Ko became the youngest player, male or female, to be ranked No. 1 in the world. That same season she won the Amundi Evian Championship, where she became the youngest woman to win a major championship. She added to that in 2016 when she won the ANA Inspiration to become the youngest to win two majors. Ko is a 15-time winner on the LPGA Tour and made history as a silver medalist in golf’s return to the Olympics in 2016.