SI Vault
William Oscar Johnson
October 20, 1975
Magnetic as always and magnificent in performance, she made a sport—women's golf—and it made her, assuring her lasting fame
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October 20, 1975


Magnetic as always and magnificent in performance, she made a sport—women's golf—and it made her, assuring her lasting fame

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A couple of women who competed in the early days of the LPGA deny that Babe Zaharias was the key to the organization's success, but even they acknowledge that her personality and talent attracted interest to tour events. Patty Berg says, "Our sport grew because of Babe. She had so much flair, color and showmanship, we needed her. Her power astonished galleries."

Babe once hit a drive 408 yards—according to TIME—but there was much more to her game than strength. She was an intelligent golfer. She had graceful, tapered hands and her short game was soft and certain. Even her stance had an athletic buoyancy.

She was ferociously competitive, even with her closest friends. Once, during a practice round, she lent Betty Dodd a driver and another time she gave Peggy Kirk Bell an 11-iron. Both immediately used the clubs to splendid advantage; in both cases, after a few holes, Babe took the club back.

Babe would attempt to psych her opponents in every possible way. She would hit a five-iron, quickly stuff it in the bag and tell everyone it was a seven. She would stride onto the putting green before a tournament and shout, "Are you girls practicin' to come in second?"

She was acquisitive and aggressive off the golf course as well as on—at everything from craps to gin rummy (she once claimed she won by watching the cards reflected in her opponent's glasses). Her homes were filled with free appliances. Often she simply walked into a store and asked for what she wanted. Betty Dodd recalls one such occasion: "We were in Manhattan, and Babe spotted a Rolex gold watch in a window. She said she'd always wanted one and the next thing I know, we're in the Rolex office. She said to the receptionist, 'I'm Babe Zaharias and I want to see the boss.' Babe was invited into his office and he and Babe set up a golf date the next day at Winged Foot. Rolex threw a luncheon for her. They gave her a gold Rolex. They gave me a gold Rolex. They gave her another gold Rolex for George. In those days the watch was worth $1,000. I was embarrassed to death, but Babe never gave it a second thought."

During her professional years Babe frequently was offered and got appearance money for participating in events. This is not done in the U.S.—though common in other countries—and a number of players on the LPGA tour resented it. In the early '50s golfer Betty Hicks publicly criticized Babe on this account. Babe, then president of the LPGA, called a meeting of the members and said: "Now let me tell you girls something. You know when there's a star like in show business? The star has her name in lights, right? Well, I happen to be the star of this show and all the rest of you are in the chorus. People come to see the star and the star gets the money."

She was the star. For as long as she was able.

In April 1953 Babe won the Babe Zaharias Open in Beaumont, then checked into a hospital for a physical examination. The doctors found a rectal malignancy and recommended an immediate operation. Dr. W. E. Tatum announced, "I don't know yet if surgery will cure her, but I will say that she never again will play golf of championship caliber."

Never again?

Babe was condemned to a condition that was, for her, worse than invalidism. A colostomy was the only hope of saving her life. Her intestinal tract had to be rerouted so that she passed solid waste through an incision in the left side of her stomach. "The cancer didn't bother Babe," Betty Dodd says. "But it was that horrible operation. Her mental and emotional state was shaky."

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