Obituary: Mae Louise Suggs, golfer

Louise Suggs: Golfing pioneer and honorary R&A member who won 61 professional tournaments. Picture: AP
Louise Suggs: Golfing pioneer and honorary R&A member who won 61 professional tournaments. Picture: AP
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Born: 7 September, 1923, in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. Died: 6 August, 2015, in Sarasota, Florida, aged 91

LOUISE Suggs was one of the best women ever to swing a golf club, winner of 61 professional tournaments including 11 majors, the first woman to complete a career Grand Slam of all majors and co-founder of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) in 1950. She served as its president for several years and was one of the first women inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame (for both men and women). The icing on her career cake, she said, was being named earlier this year as one of the first women members, an honorary one at that, of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club at St Andrews after 260 years of male dominance. The others included England’s Dame Laura Davies, the Swede Annika Sorenstam and the Princess Royal.

Suggs recalled the first time she saw the Old Course at St Andrews many years ago, when she saw a sign outside the clubhouse reading: “No dogs or women allowed.”

Despite her relatively small frame – she was 5ft 6in – Suggs was a big-hitter, out-driving many male professionals and once beating a mixed men-and-women field that included the great Sam Snead. As a result, her friend the comedian Bob Hope called her Miss Sluggs while she also became known for the vanity registration plate on her car – TEED OFF.

In an era of old-fashioned clubs and basic balls, she also had a reputation for consistently hitting the fairway.

The majors in Suggs’s day were fledgling and different from those of today. Suggs won the US Women’s Open and the Women’s PGA Championship, both of which continue today, and two other majors of the time which no longer exist as such.

And she retired 14 years before the Women’s British Open Championship was launched in 1976. But she and other pioneers of the women’s game paved the way for the modern, big-money tournaments and stars like Davies, Sorenstam, Michelle Wie and Inbee Park.

Suggs began her career as an amateur and turned pro after winning the British Ladies Amateur Golf Championship in 1948 at Royal Lytham & St Annes, beating Scotland’s Jean Donald one-up in the match play event.

Suggs was one of the first female golfers to make serious money, although the prizes sound paltry compared with the megabucks of today. During her career, she earned a total of $190,251 in prize money. And sponsorship was rare in a tiny minority sport in the days before TV coverage. Inbee Park, the winner of the professional Women’s Open at the Trump Turnberry Ailsa course in Ayrshire two weeks ago, pocketed a tidy £298,534 for her four days’ work.

“I wish like hell I could have played for this kind of money,” Suggs said. “But if not for me, they wouldn’t be playing for it either.”

In the foreword to Suggs’ book Par Golf For Women, the all-time great male golfer Ben Hogan wrote: “If I were to single out one woman in the world today as a model for any other woman aspiring to ideal golf form it would be Miss Suggs.

“Her swing combines all the desirable elements of efficiency, timing and co-ordination. Despite her slight build, she is consistently as long off the tee and through the fairway as any of her feminine contemporaries in competitive golf. And no one is ‘right down the middle’ any more than this sweet-swinging Georgia miss.”

The annual US prize for the season’s best newcomer is named after her -- the Louise Suggs (Rolex) Rookie of the Year Award.

Mae Louis Suggs was born to a leading baseball family in Atlanta, Georgia, on 7 September, 1923. Her father John was a pitcher on the fringes of the New York Yankees while her grandfather had owned the Atlanta Crackers, the city’s home side until the Milwaukee Braves moved there in 1966 and became the Atlanta Braves.

The Crackers were thought to have been named from the Gaelic craic because of the Scots and Irish in the area since colonial days.

When the Suggs family moved to Lithia Springs, just west of Atlanta, her father built a golf course and Louise began playing at the age of ten, igniting a long and great career which started when she won the Georgia State Amateur Championship still aged 16.

Having turned pro on 8 July, 1948, she won the professional US Women’s Open the following year in Landover, Maryland, beating her arch-rival, the Texan “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias, by a clear 14 strokes, a record margin in that championship to this day.

There was no love lost between the two young players and Suggs resented the tremendous publicity given to the flashy Babe, a successful all-round sportswoman and Olympian. That publicity for the flamboyant Texan, however, did much to bring the first real sponsorship to women’s golf and spur the two women, along with a dozen others, into founding the LPGA.

Suggs’ career came to an end in 1962 on a somewhat sad note. After she was fined $25 for failing to play in a Milwaukee tournament she had signed up for, she went into a huff on what she called “a matter of principle”.

Still, most lovers of the world’s most frustrating game will agree with what Suggs once said: “Golf is very much like a love affair. If you don’t take it seriously, it’s no fun. But if you do, it breaks you heart. But flirt with the possibility.”

Ms Suggs never married. She liked to say “all the women golfers are my children”.