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BABE
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

Babe

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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Following the operation, the chief surgeon summoned George and Betty Dodd, who had a close and enduring relationship with Babe. The colostomy had gone well, but more cancer had been found in Babe's lymph nodes. It was only a matter of time, perhaps a year, before she would have more trouble. The doctor said he thought it unwise to tell Babe. She would not learn the cancer was spreading until two years later.

On July 31, 1953, only 3� months after the operation, Babe entered the All-American tournament in Niles, Ill. She walked to the first hole, a yellow tee in her teeth, and murmured, "Guess I gotta go." She had played only 83 holes of golf since her operation and was wan beneath her tan, overweight, flaccid. She feared that her artificial intestinal tract might misfunction. "You go out there thinking you're going to hit it hard," she said, "and then you feel like you're going to pull everything loose and you ease up on a shot." She shot 82 and 85 the first two days and got off to a shaky start in the third round. Betty Dodd was playing with her. "She was missing shots and fighting like mad," Betty says. "On the 5th hole she three-putted from four feet. She walked off the green and sat down on a bench, put her head in her hands and sobbed. I told her, 'Quit, Babe, no one will care, they'll understand.' She looked up with tears streaming down her face and said, 'No, no, I don't want to quit. I'm not a quitter.' "

George padded along, a great anxious bear, opening a red leather shooting stick for her to rest on, massaging her shoulders. On the second nine, Babe settled down, shot a birdie or two, and George, who now weighed nearer 400 pounds than 300, told a reporter, "If she gets to believe she can do it, she'll really be all right. It's just like when you sit down to a table covered with food and say, T don't want to eat.' Then you eat a little bit and then you eat a little bit more and first thing you know, you're hungry."

The mere fact that she had played was astonishing. That she finished the tournament, shot 82-85-78-84 and tied for 15th was beyond belief. The following week in the World Golf Championship she shot 74-77-75-81, finished third behind Patty Berg and Louise Suggs, and won $1,000. She played the rest of the season, finished sixth on the money list with $6,345, and won the Ben Hogan comeback of the year award. In 1954 she won five tournaments, including the U.S. Women's Open at Salem Country Club in Peabody, Mass. There she shot 72-71-73-75 to win by a shattering 12 strokes, a record never broken. She finished second on the LPGA money list with $14,452.

Following the colostomy, Babe played tournament golf for almost two years. Then, in the spring of 1955, Babe and Betty Dodd were fishing on Padre Island in the Gulf of Mexico and Betty's car got stuck in the sand. Babe worked hard to dig it out. The next morning she had terrible pains in her back. "They got worse and worse," Betty says. Babe went to a hospital in Beaumont, but doctors could not trace the source of the problem. Several weeks later she went to a hospital in Galveston, where a milogram series was done. Nothing showed up. They put her in traction and Betty Dodd recalls visiting Babe: "When I walked in she started to cry. Finally a test indicated she had a disk problem. They operated. Ten days later she still had no relief from the pain. She was on drugs. One day the doctor came in and said, 'Babe, I'm going to lay it on the line. We feel there is nothing wrong with you physically. We think you have become addicted to drugs.'

"I thought Babe would hit him," Betty says. "She was in tremendous pain and he was telling her it was all in her head, that she was psychologically addicted to drugs. So she refused to take another shot. Now she was in so much pain she couldn't eat. One night she went out of her mind with the pain, pulling the intravenous tubes from her arms. They started giving her pain-killers again and X-raying once more. And finally a radiologist spotted cancer in her lower spine." There was no way to operate. Babe wanted to go home to Tampa, and the doctors let her go.

In Florida Babe tried to live a normal life. Betty Dodd came and stayed often, although she and George did not get along well. The greatest pain was located in Babe's left foot; the cancer had affected the sciatic nerve that ran down her leg. Betty remembers, "The only relief was to squeeze the foot. I used to lie on the end of her bed for hours and just mash her foot. My hands became so strong I could even have strangled George."

For months Babe would not admit that her golf career was over. On Oct. 9, 1955, she wrote the Bowens: "I don't think it will be too long before I can play again as I am feeling so good and strong. Oh for the day!"

Later that month Peggy Kirk Bell visited Babe. They actually played golf, but it was a melancholy occasion. "She was in a great deal of pain," Peggy says, "but she got out of bed and insisted that we play. She couldn't get her golf shoes on, they hurt too much. So she played in loafers.

"On the first hole, where she used to drive the green, she hit it about where I did. She did the same thing on the next hole and she said to me, 'Peggy, you've got to be one of the greatest golfers in the world. How do you break 100 only driving this far?' " It was Babe's last round of golf.

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