Links Legend

LPGA founder Shirley Spork looks back on a life well played

Had Shirley Spork grown up near a tennis court instead of a golf course, professional women’s sports might have evolved a little differently.

As fate had it, Spork (BS49) grew up next to the 17th hole of the Bonnie Brook Golf Course at 8 Mile Road and Telegraph in Detroit. The sight of the greens and fairways inspired the 13-year-old to start playing.

At age 92, Spork still plays weekly at the Monterey Country Club in Palm Desert, Calif. What she accomplished as a player and golf instructor made her into an esteemed figure in the sport. As a founder of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), Spork is one of the pioneers of women’s sports—not just golf. She used her skills as an educator, developed at Eastern, to launch the LPGA’s teaching division, which spans the globe today. As a capstone to a stellar career, last November the PGA of America inducted Spork into its Hall of Fame.

And to think she began playing with just one club.

Breaking into the boys’ game

As a teen, Spork found a few stray golf balls near Bonnie Brook and became interested in the sport after watching some local boys who caddied and played at the course.

“The boys told me if I had a club, I could play,” says Spork, who lives in the Coachella Valley near Palm Springs. “I didn’t have a club, so I collected, washed and resold some golf balls and went to a dime store in downtown Detroit to buy a club. They had a bin full of random clubs and I picked one that cost a dollar. It turned out to be a putter—the very last club you use at each hole. But I didn’t know differently and used it for all my shots. The boys laughed at me.”

Eventually, Spork received some second-hand three, five, seven and nine-iron clubs. With a more complete arsenal, she returned to the course and began hitting with some authority.

“There were no sports programs for kids at that time,” Spork says. “Boys in my day just caddied. But I wanted to play.

“People began to notice this little redheaded girl hitting the golf ball. Club officials kept chasing me off the course. Across the street, there was about 20 acres of vacant land. So I built a hole and bunker there to practice. I guess I became a golf course architect at age 13.”

The following year, Spork participated in a free three-week golf school sponsored by the Detroit Free Press. She won the junior girls competition and made a big impression on the judges, among them legendary golf champion Byron Nelson.

“The Free Press school was the only golf instruction I ever received,” Spork says. “I won a $15 certificate and used that to buy a driver.”

As a teen, Spork began winning Metropolitan Golf Association and Women’s District events. In 1944, she scored her first big victory at a Red Cross golf tournament at the Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Township. At age 17, Spork outpaced numerous established golfers at the event.

In June 1945, Spork traveled to Indianapolis to compete in the Western Women’s Open Golf Tournament. There, she met Mildred (Babe) Didrikson and Louise Suggs—established champions who would soon play a pivotal role with Spork in shaping women's professional golf.

That same year, the Free Press cited Spork as an up-and-comer ready to stake her claim among a rising tide of young and talented women golfers.

“The old order is changing,” the paper reported. “Among them [is] little Shirley Spork. … Unless all signs fail, Miss Spork is on her way to the top and will have to be figured with in another year or two.”

After graduating from Redford High School in 1945, Spork wanted to join the Women’s Professional Golf Association (WPGA), the predecessor to the LPGA. But her parents had other ideas.

“My parents encouraged me to go to Michigan State Normal College [EMU],” Spork says. “And thank God I did. My education helped me go forward in my career—not just in golf but also in developing golf instructional materials later on. I also learned some valuable lessons. When I had trouble in my chemistry class, I met with the dean of students. He made a golf analogy, saying when you land in a bunker, you just have to go in and dig yourself out. I also took a speech class and learned how to speak before large groups of people. That helped me later when I began speaking on behalf of the LPGA.”

Spork didn’t set her clubs aside during her college years. Between classes, she sneaked off campus to play at the Washtenaw Country Club. Her game only improved. Spork was Women’s District Match Play champion in 1946, 1947 and 1948. In 1947, she won the Women’s National Collegiate Golf Championship and finished second the following year.

Spork earned her B.S. in Science in 1949. But by then the nascent WPGA had folded. So she became a substitute golf instructor at Bowling Green State University.

“I took the job because they had a nine-hole course on campus and substitute teaching allowed me time off to play in tournaments,” Spork says. “I was trying to do two things at once, which eventually led met to join the LPGA.”

Barnstorming days

The collapse of the WPGA left America’s top women golfers with no professional competitive outlet. While playing for a club trophy was nice, these women wanted to earn a living playing the sport they loved.

In 1950, Spork, Babe Didrikson, Louise Suggs and 10 other golfers joined forces and launched the LPGA. Didrickson—America’s most famous woman golfer at the time—lent immediate credibility to the new association.

“We wanted to continue competing at a high level and call it a professional league,” Spork says. “Didrickson was able to convince a sporting goods company to hire a tour director for us. We didn’t know how things would work out, but we had enough sponsors in our first year to hold 11 tournaments. And since each of us represented sporting goods companies and made a little money, the league had a chance to survive. I represented [club maker] Golfcraft.”

In the LPGA’s early years, the players packed their clubs and belongings in their personal cars and traveled in caravans across the country, often exceeding speed limits by night to ensure they’d make it on time to their next tournament.

“It was like a barnstorming tour,” Spork says. “We’d arrive in a city and immediately put posters in store windows promoting the tournament. We’d go to local radio stations to do interviews. We’d go to the town’s baseball park and hit drives to promote the tournament. We had to line the golf course and rule on ourselves. We had to do it all.

Spork says the women didn't encounter prejudice on the tour, but people did seem them as an oddity.

"Every time we arrived at a new country club, we’d show them we could really hit the ball. Then they’d invite us back the following year.”

Besides breaking ground for women’s athletics in the U.S., Spork also helped advance women’s sports abroad. During a 1951 European tour, she became the first woman to enter the clubhouse at the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, providing the members with tips on using a pitching wedge.

The LPGA grew in stature throughout the 1950s and 60s as the tour attracted more sponsors. The total prize money topped at $50,000 in 1950, the league’s first year. By 1960, that figure more than tripled to $186,700. Spork contributed to the tour’s ongoing publicity campaign by writing two articles for Sports Illustrated: “Especially for Women Golfers” in 1957 and “Restraining Excessive Body Action” in 1958.

The latter article reflects Spork’s ongoing interest in golf instruction, which became a large part of her legacy.

A lifetime of achievement

With her background in teaching and interest in golf instruction, Spork sparked an effort in the late 1950s to create a school to educate professional golf teachers. In 1959, she helped launch the first National LPGA Teaching and Club Pro Division—a key event in furthering the development of the women’s pro game. From 1970-78, Spork served as western educational director for the National Golf Foundation, making her first LPGA pro to conduct golf clinics in foreign countries. She won the LPGA National Teacher of the Year award in 1959 and 1984.

“My forte in the game was helping to establish the LPGA’s teaching division,” says Spork, who continues to give lessons at the Monterey Country Club. “I’m proud that the division has nearly 1,800 members—including seven sections plus an international section representing 20-some countries. I love teaching because you’re trying to give someone a skill that represents an individual accomplishment, not a team effort. I’m honored to have taught multiple generations of golfers. In some cases, I’ve taught the grandfather, son and grandson.”

As the years passed, so did many of the women who helped found the LPGA. A 2016 documentary titled “The Founders” chronicles the story of the LPGA’s inception and early years. The film features extensive interviews with Spork and other surviving founders and solidifies their legacy as pioneers in professional women’s sports.

The following year, Spork authored a memoir, “From Green to Tee,” further documenting her contributions to sport.

"Golf has been my whole life and I’ve made a lot of friends,” she says. “I’m most proud of the fact that we supply teachers to help boost the number of people who enjoy the game. I wish everyone who enjoys teaching a subject can do so and reap the rewards of watching their students succeed.”

Through the years, Spork earned numerous accolades. In 1968, she was voted into the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame. In 1981, she became the first woman inducted into the EMU Athletic Hall of Fame.

Her biggest honor came last year, when the PGA of America Hall of Fame inducted Spork in recognition of a lifetime of achievement as an LPGA founder and golf instructor.

“That award represents the pinnacle of what I could ever receive from golf,” Spork says. “To be honored by an organization like the PGA is just tops. I hope I’ve helped pave the way for other women.”

­­By Jeff Samoray

(Photos courtesy of Shirley Spork and LPGA)