It was her versatility, her excellence in so many sports—basketball, hurdles, discus, high jump, javelin, swimming, tennis, bowling—that made Babe Didrikson Zaharias singular, a woman athlete without peer. But it was golf that brought her lasting fame—and most of the million dollars she earned in her lifetime. She was not the best woman golfer of her era. That distinction belongs to a splendid Briton, Joyce Wethered, who won the British amateur four times in the '20s, turned professional for a brief, profitable U.S. tour in the mid-'30s, then wed Lord Heathcoat-Amory and retired behind the genteel hedges of an estate in Devon.
But Babe Zaharias created big-time women's golf. She launched it as a legitimate sport and brought gusts of freshness and fun to a game too often grim. She joked and clowned and had a rapport with fans that is rare. She had the ability to be cocky with charm, and the galleries loved her. Her booming power game lowered scores and forced others to imitate her. And had it not been for her death—in 1956 when she was just 45—she would reign as the game's dowager queen.
When Babe won her first golf tournament—the 1935 Texas women's championship—Grantland Rice took note in his celebrated tin-ear doggerel:
From the high jump of Olympic fame,
The hurdles and the rest,
The javelin that flashed its flame
On by the record test—
The Texas Babe now shifts the scene
Where slashing drives are far
Where spoon shots find the distant green
To break the back of par.
But Babe, then 23, had had to crack something much more testing than the back of par—Texas golf society. She had no pedigree, coming as she did from a dead-end neighborhood in Beaumont, no money and not much social grace. Her gold medals from the 1932 Olympics counted for little among the country-club set, and her fame had already faded. There was only her golf game, at that point strong but scarcely smooth. When she entered the Texas event, a member of the Texas Women's Golf Association named Peggy Chandler declared, "We really don't need any truck drivers' daughters in our tournament."
Several women withdrew from a driving contest that preceded the tournament, implying that Babe was too manly for them to compete against. Babe purposely dubbed drive after drive with an exaggerated girlish swing—except one that she hit 250 yards to win.
In the tournament she overwhelmed her first three opponents and won her semifinal match in the rain on the 18th hole with a 20-foot putt that spurted water across the green. In the final she met none other than Peggy Chandler, and the match was B-movie material: scruffy poor girl vs. snobbish rich girl. They played 36 holes before a large gallery. By the 26th hole Peggy Chandler was 3 up, but Babe rallied, and on the 30th hole she drew even. On the 34th hole, a long par-5, Peggy Chandler put her third shot on the green close to the cup and a birdie seemed certain. Babe's drive had been a wild 250-yarder into a ditch. Her second, a three-iron, carried over the green, the ball coming to rest in a rut containing an inch of water. Her next shot was pure penny-dreadful heroics, a pitch that rolled into the hole for an eagle 3. The golfers halved the 35th and Babe won the 36th to take the match 2 up.
Now, if the B-movie scenario were truly followed, Babe would have been welcomed into the perfumed society of Texas golf. Instead, the U.S. Golf Association, acting on information presumably supplied by some of the Texas women, ruled that it was in "the best interest of the game" that Babe Didrikson be barred from amateur golf, that she was a professional. This meant Babe was eligible to compete in only one tournament, the Western Open. There was no other event in the world for women pros (the U.S. Women's Open was first played in 1946). Babe turned for help to R.L. and Bertha Bowen of Fort Worth, friends she had made during the Texas tournament. R.L. was president of Community Public Service, an electric light and power company. Bertha was one of the group that ran women's golf in the state, and she had been appalled at the clawing Babe had received. The Bowens invited Babe to their home. They called a lawyer; they contacted the USGA; it was no use. About the only thing they could do was start their own tournament for Babe and pros like her, the Texas Women's Open. Bertha recalls, "I was furious that Babe had been cut off. I was criticized by some of my friends for befriending Babe. They'd ask, 'Why are you fooling around with that girl?' "
Babe had rough edges then and her association with the Bowens supplied some social polish. "She was so poor it was pitiful," Bertha says. "One night we were invited to a formal party and we asked Babe to come along. She hemmed and hawed because she didn't have any clothes. Well, we got her an evening dress and she took one look at it and said, 'I'm not going to wear that naked thing.' She was very modest. We had to chase her all over the house before we could get the dress on her. We finally cornered her in the kitchen and forced her into it."
Most members of the Texas Women's Golf Association remained cool toward the Bowens' prot�g�e; the ladies kept telling Bertha that Babe really must wear a girdle when she played golf. Babe put one on, played a round and returned in a frenzy to the Bowens. "I heard the car come screeching in the driveway," says Bertha, "and Babe came tearing into the house. She was yelling, 'Goddam! I'm chokin' to death!' As far as I know, she never put on a girdle again." (Nonetheless, Babe's favorite wisecrack to galleries was: ' "When I wanta really blast one, I just loosen my girdle and let 'er fly!")