Review of Patty Berg: Pioneer Champion of Women’s Golf

Kenny, Kevin.  Patty Berg: Pioneer Champion of Women’s Golf.  North Carolina: McFarland, 2019.  Pp. 205.  Appendix, Chapter Notes, Bibliography, and Index.  $45.00 softcover.

Reviewed by Erica J. Zonder

In November 2019, the Ladies Professional Golf Association’s (LPGA) season-ending event, The CME Group Tour Championship, was won by Korean golfer Sei Young Kim.  First place was worth $1.5 million dollars, from a total purse of $5 million.  This was the largest first place check in women’s golf history (Sirak, 2019).  Overall, the LPGA purse money for 2019 was $70.2 million along with $1.1 million in bonus money, while the men’s Professional Golf Association (PGA) played for $343 million plus $70 million in bonuses (Nichols, 2019).  As of this writing, the PGA Tour was finalizing a new television deal for approximately $300 million more per year than their existing deal (Beall, 2019).  While still not making as much money as the men, the LPGA Tour’s prize money has come a long way since the organization’s inception in 1950, when 13 golfers, including future World Golf Hall of Fame member Patty Berg, played their first tournament for a top prize of $1,000 (p. 88).

McFarland, 2019.

Patty Berg’s golf life is chronicled by Kevin Kenny in Patty Berg: Pioneer Champion of Women’s Golf.  The book is divided into six sections: Amateur Days, Turning Professional, The [LPGA] Tour – Early Days, The Tour – Under New Management, The Tour Without Babe, and the Queen of Clinics, with each section detailing important moments, both on and off the course, in Patty Berg’s golf career.

Patty Berg was born in Minnesota in 1918 to a prosperous family that could finance her amateur golf career (p. 12).  According to Kenny, “despite the Great Depression” many people were still part of the country club set and the younger Berg joined her father, who would be an influential figure in her golf career, as a member of renowned Interlachen County Club in 1931.  Championship golf was the “preserve of the more affluent members of society” and there were already notable amateur women golfers during this era, including Glenna Collett Vare (who later had an LPGA award for lowest stroke average named for her), and Virginia Van Wie, both of whom were wealthy and had the means to be coached by renowned male professionals (p. 13). 

So Patty Berg had the means, and while Minnesota, according to Kenny, did not have a history of producing champions at this time, the state “embraced golf” and came “out in hordes in April” after harsh winters (p. 14).  The Minnesota Women’s Golf Association was founded in 1915 and Berg entered her first tournament, the Minneapolis City Championship, in 1933 at the age of fifteen.  She shot 122 (for comparison, par is typically around 72 for 18 holes).  Berg, who would later be known for her practicing and dedication to the game, then vowed to spend every day the next year practicing.  She won the tournament the following year, and separately even set the course record (presumably for women) at Interlachen with a 78 (p. 15).  The book goes on to detail many of Berg’s wins and losses, successes and setbacks, throughout her amateur career. 

Berg also became very popular in both her home state, around the country, and even in other parts of the world, such as Scotland where she played an amateur team event.  Kenny emphasizes the impact of the press on her popularity – at the time, golf was frequently covered by sports writing greats such as O.B. Keeler, Bernard Darwin, and Charles Bartlett, and covered by such papers as the Miami Herald, Atlanta Constitution, and New York Times.  Kenny does a wonderful job using the media narrative to follow Berg’s evolution as an amateur golfer.  Keeler warns us, in 1935, we should “get used to the name Patty Berg, because you are likely to see it pretty frequently in the next few years” (p. 23).  By 1938 Maureen Orcutt (also a golfer) suggested in an article she wrote for the New York Times that Berg’s “tournament record, the best ever by a woman, is one that even she will have difficulty in duplicating,” while also voting her woman golfer of the year (p. 52). 

The media also commented frequently on Berg’s appearance, describing her as stocky, “pug-nosed”, (p. 48) and having a “sturdy boyish figure” (p. 49), as well as criticizing her clothing choices and lack of fashion.  She was also criticized for getting too much attention, even when in a brief slump, as one newspaper report said “Patty Berg…that’s all you read about in dispatches from the south.  Patty is getting more publicity than a sitdown striker and, to put it boldly, she has been accomplishing just about as much” (p. 42).  The press played a role in her professional career as well.  Golf correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, Pat Ward-Thomas later wrote in his 1981 autobiography “Miss Berg remains kind of mother figure to the professional tour which she, perhaps more than anyone else, helped to found” (p. 101).

Patty Berg turned professional in an era where there weren’t many tournaments for professional women golfers.  “There was prize money of $500 and five professionals” (p. 58).  In 1940, Berg signed a six-year contract with Wilson for $7,500 a year to promote its name and its equipment (p. 58).  Wilson was top golf equipment maker and Berg traveled the country giving clinics and promoting the game.  During World War II, she enlisted in the Marine Corp where she served as a Lieutenant and human resources officer (p. 71).  She also won a couple of golf tournaments while in the service, importantly the George S. May All American in 1945.  May was an early supporter of professional women’s golf.  Berg won the inaugural event in 1943 and won again in 1945 when she received a first-place prize of $500 in War Bonds – the men’s champion received $13,600 in War Bonds (p. 72).  

Another pivotal person in the development of women’s professional golf was Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias.  Zaharias won two gold medals at the 1932 Olympics and then turned her attention to entertainment and golf.  As Kenny noted, “her performing talents and flair for publicity would serve her well when she became the headline act for the LPGA Tour” (p. 81). Patty Berg was the first president of the LPGA, but Babe Zaharias was the first star.  Berg kept the peace between Zaharias and the other LPGA founders, including Louis Suggs (this reviewer was lucky enough to take lessons from Suggs many years ago) who went on to have 61 Tour victories.  As Berg said to Babe, “every star has to have a chorus line” (p. 87). 

The Tour also had Fred Corcoran, an associate of Zaharias and her husband, who booked tournaments, did press releases, and was known for his promotional skills, but the 13 founding women ran the tour on a day-to-day basis – they did their own books, kept up on correspondence, and even made on-course rules decisions.  According to golfer Betsy Rawls “We didn’t have any staff because we couldn’t afford to hire people.  That was the situation for a long time” (p. 95).  The Tour lost Fred Corcoran when Wilson and other golf equipment manufacturers stopped paying his salary, and eventually they lost Babe Zaharias to cancer in 1956. Rawls noted “There will never be another like her” (p. 135). Patty Berg had written a supportive article for the Minneapolis Tribune in 1953 to support her friend, “Marvelous Mildred,” and was one of the few professional golfers to attend her funeral.

The LPGA Tour continued on without Zaharias, and many future Hall of Famers, like Mickey Wright, joined the Tour, but Patty Berg kept on winning.  In 1961, Kenny notes her days as a regular winner were ending but she was philosophical about it, “You don’t see Joe Di Maggio hitting homeruns at 43.  One thing about Father Time – you can put on your best lipstick and rouge, and give it your best swing, but he is a tough man to beat” (p. 145).  Her final victory came in 1962.  Berg totaled 28 amateur victories and 57 professional victories. 15 of her professional victories were in “major” tournaments, a record that still stands today.  Berg also lost her father, Herman, in 1962. As previously noted, he provided her with the financial backing for her amateur career. He spent approximately $10,000 on her amateur career and called it “the best investment he ever made” (p. 148).  Kenny also noted Herman Berg’s support and encouragement for his daughter throughout her career went beyond the game itself, and provided her “an ethical roadmap that stayed with her throughout her life” (p.148).  Patty Berg won the United States Golf Association’s Bob Jones Sportsmanship Award in 1963 and had an LPGA tournament named after her in 1969. She was also inducted into the inaugural class of the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974 and the PGA Hall of Fame in 1978, among many other honors and awards.  Berg was also notable for writing three books on golf and giving over 10,000 exhibitions and clinics over the course of her career – Kenny notes the number is likely an underestimation (p. 159). Berg died in 2006.

This book provides a detailed look at Patty Berg’s golf life. Kenny himself noted that there was little information available regarding her personal life except she never married, as her constant traveling to clinics and tournaments perhaps “never would have suited a long-term relationship” (p. 173).  But Berg had golf, and her father, and 12 other women fighting with her to create a professional golf association and tour. She did not have to overcome a difficult or poor childhood, but she did have to overcome gender inequality in the professional ranks, and she did so with fierce determination.  Perhaps the lesson here is that hard work and decency does pay off.  According to golf commentator and author Rhonda Glenn, “Played in glorious isolation, golf seems to demand total self-absorption from its champions.  A splendid exception comes along now and then, however, and Miss Berg chose the high road” (p. 178).

Beall, J. (2019, November 16).  Report: PGA Tour finalizing new TV deal with CBS, NBC.  GolfDigest.com.  Retrieved from https://www.golfdigest.com/story/report-pga-tour-finalizing-new-tv-deal-with-cbs-nbc

Nichols, B.A. (2019, November 18).  CME’s record prize sheds light on importance of financial security for LPGA players.  Golfweek.com.  Retrieved from https://golfweek.com/2019/11/18/cme-group-tour-championship-prize-sheds-light-importance-financial-security-lpga-players/

Sirak, R. (2019, November 20).  CME Raises the $1.5 Million Question.  Golfweek.com.  Retrieved from https://www.lpga.com/news/2019-changes-to-cme-move-closer-to-pay-equity

Erica Zonder is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Eastern Michigan University.  She earned a J.D. from the University of Michigan and a Masters of Science in Sport Management from Eastern Michigan University.  She can be reached at ezonder@emich.edu and can be followed on Twitter @EricaZonder.

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