The year was 2006, and I had what was scheduled to be an easy assignment: A two-hour ride from Orlando, Fla., up I-95 to the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, a short tour, and then a few quick words with Hall of Fame member Carol Mann, the 38-time LPGA champion and 1977 inductee who had taken a role as liaison between the hall and its members. I’d be home early.
Six hours after I arrived in St. Augustine, there I was, still sitting on an outdoor patio across a table from Carol. An overflowing ash tray on the table held Marlboro Lights wedged in like logs. My cassette recorder had run out of tape hours ago. The two of us sat there, talking about golf – its rich past and its promising future – but mostly about life, and all of its inherent challenges.
Carol was an open book. To this day, 30-plus years into my profession, that experience stands as one of the most fascinating that I’ve ever had in my job. In fact, I went home to a weekly meeting at Golfweek magazine with a proclamation for the staff: Every person in this room needs to go spend a full day with a Hall of Famer.
I could write that golf lost an incredible promoter on Sunday with the passing of Carol Mann, who died at her home in The Woodlands, Texas, at age 77. But that would be shortchanging Carol, whom I proudly call a friend. Life, and not just golf, lost an incredible, caring individual.
She’d built an incredible resume as a player (38 victories, including two major championships, one of which was the 1965 U.S. Women’s Open) and retired at 40 to answer a calling. She knew that there was much more to life. She was president of the LPGA from 1973 to ’76, became a television broadcaster, and even started her own golf services company (Mantra: My goal is to serve the game of golf and its people in every and any way possible). Later, she embraced her position with the hall, working diligently to get its members more involved and invested in it.
More than a decade ago, the hall built an exhibit in which each member would be celebrated with a sturdy cherrywood locker to display memorabilia from his or her career. Sadly, many lockers were spartan. Greg Norman’s locker, for instance, had a flight helmet in it, and little else. When Norman visited St. Augustine to present Japan’s Isao Aoki in 2004, Carol whisked Norman aside to show him his locker, and how it appeared.
A month later, from his home in south Florida, Norman phoned Jack Peter, the Hall of Fame’s president. “I just got back from Australia,” Norman told him, “and I filled my plane with all this stuff. You’d better send somebody down here to get it.”
Thank you, Carol Mann.
Perhaps Carol’s most persistent and spirited pursuit for the hall was to help procure items to help with an exhibit planned to honor the 50-year anniversary of Ben Hogan’s 1953 Triple Crown season. She and Andy Hunold, the hall’s director of exhibits, had asked the USGA if it would be possible to lend a few things from the organization’s Hogan Room in Far Hills, N.J. Unfortunately, one of the conditions to which the USGA had agreed in getting Hogan’s memorabilia was that none of it would be moved. Carol could live with that. So, she kept searching.
She visited Shady Oaks in Fort Worth, Texas, Hogan’s home club, shortly after a fire had gutted the place. She walked cautiously around the grounds as Mike Wright, Shady Oaks’ longtime pro, lit their way with a flashlight. They approached Hogan’s famous double locker, which held his neatly pressed slacks and assortment of muscle balms inside. “Would you want this for the exhibit?” Wright asked. Carol about fainted.
Later that day, she sat in front of her computer, and in big block, red letters typed an email back to her friends at the hall: It read, WE GOT HOGAN’S LOCKER !!!
“She was very passionate about the whole project, and celebrating the greats of the game,” Peter said on Tuesday morning. “Carol gave us an insight from a true player’s perspective, and just what the game means to them.”
That day when we talked in St. Augustine, Carol shared an incredibly personal story. In Canada in 1969, after winning her “umpteenth” tournament, having been showered with applause and adulation that a champion receives, she returned to her hotel room, alone, with the trophy. She never turned on the lights, never opened her curtains. Carol sat on the floor in the corner of the room, crying. She felt an incredible sense of emptiness.
Shortly afterward, when Carol saw a doctor for a physical, he asked her whether she would like to seek therapy. She did.
“Now, this is 1969,” she said, “and you didn’t do that, not freely, in 1969. You surely didn’t let it show up on your insurance form. . . . I don’t mind admitting I had therapy. Life is hard. Even though I was doing so well [in golf], something kept being ‘missing’ for me. Like, real life, frankly.”
Later in her life, she would fill in some of the blanks. Her life would be fuller. She always loved golf and those who played it. She never missed a chance to talk about the golf swing, and as a teacher, she dove into some of the game’s technological advances. She stopped a reporter on the floor of the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando one January day, showing off a new teaching app on her mobile phone that allowed her to draw lines to show swing planes and angles. Her exuberance was much like a young child receiving a new bike.
As great of a player as she was – did you know in 1968-69, she finished in the top 5 an astounding 40 times? – Carol was so much more. Carol Mann the golfer was something built pretty naturally. Carol Mann the person was a pursuit that took some time. After Payne Stewart perished in a plane crash in 1999, she became more spiritual.
“I’ve done a lot of work on the inside of this body,” she’d say.
I might see Carol maybe two or three times a year, and we’d always chat. She sent me a nice, supportive tweet just four days before her passing, and that meant a lot. I last visited with her in person in autumn, the week of the Presidents Cup. The two of us were standing in line to get our credentials at the Hall of Fame induction in Manhattan.
“You know,” she said so kindly as we parted, “I always remember our interview.”
As do I, and always will. Rest in peace, Carol Mann. You ran life’s race with dignity and class.
Jeff Babineau is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America who has covered golf since 1994, writing for such publications as The Orlando Sentinel, Golfweek and Golf World. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jeffbabz62