Industry News

LPGA founder Spork uses spunk to elevate women’s golf

By Alex Miceli

Shirley Spork owns an amazing legacy in golf.

As one of the LPGA’s 13 founders, Spork helped build the modern women’s game, which will be on display this week at the LPGA’s first major championship of the season, the ANA Inspiration. Now 89, she still shows plenty of spunk, even teeing it up in the pro-am of the recent Bank of Hope Founders Cup in Phoenix.

As an only child in a working-class family in Detroit during the Great Depression, Spork grew up across the street from Bonnie Brook Golf Course. At age 11, she earned $1 by selling used golf balls to Bonnie Brook players and took the street car downtown, where she visited S.S. Kresge to shop for her first golf club.

“They had tall ones and short ones and wooden ones and iron ones, and they all had different numbers on them,” Spork recalled in a recent phone interview. “I chose the number 10, which was short and straight, and I didn't know what it was, but it was a golf club.”

Spork could not afford to pay to play Bonnie Brook, an 18-hole executive-length course that closed in 2001, but she would join the caddies on Mondays for golf. 

“I just grew up as a little tomboy,” she said, “wanting to play the game.” 

She even designed her own hole.

“There was a vacant lot across the street from where we lived, and I took a sickle and cut the weeds down and dug a hole to make it feel like a sand bunker. (I) stuck a hole in the middle of the mowed-off area, and I had my own hole of golf. And I could play it any time I wanted. So, I was an architect before a golfer.” 

Spork broke barriers at an early age, winning the 1947 National Intercollegiate Championship although her school, Michigan State Normal College, known today as Eastern Michigan, did not field a women’s team. (In 1981, EMU would recognize her achievements, awarding her a varsity letter and induction as the first female in the school’s athletic hall of fame.) She turned pro in 1950 as the reigning Michigan Women’s Amateur champion, with a berth in the Titleholders Championship at Augusta (Ga.) Country Club.

“I got to meet Patty Berg and some of the other stars,” said Spork, awestruck by her introduction to Babe Zaharias, Louise Suggs and other pillars of the nascent women’s game.

That summer, during the U.S. Women’s Open in Wichita, Kan., a document was drafted to form what would become the LPGA, charting the future for female golfers.

Though Spork had committed to be a teaching professional in Bowling Green, Ohio, she still played the winter tour by flying to events in Florida each week. She would use fellow LPGA founder Marilynn Smith’s course notes and, without benefit of a practice round, compete.

“Well, that’s not the way to play the tour,” she said, “but that’s how I started.”

Spork and the other LPGA founders promoted the tour in a way that P.T. Barnum would have appreciated. Players would hang publicity posters throughout the host city. On Sundays, after the final round, Spork and Smith would find a pay phone and call the Associated Press, United Press International and Golf World magazine to provide tournament results. 

“Someone made the pairings, someone marked the course, and we had to make the rulings with our own players. It was kind of different, for sure,” Spork said. “But we believed in what we were doing, and it gave us a chance to travel and see the country.”

Spork never won on the LPGA, but she made her mark by founding the LPGA Teaching and Club Professionals division. As with any startup, she proved to be an early adopter who helped steer the project into today’s worldwide LPGA tour.

“It's been a long journey, and I feel my reward is seeing how the teaching division has developed. My reward is not how much money I ever made on the tour,” Spork said. “My reward is how many new teachers we have.”

The women who will be competing this week at the ANA Inspiration in Rancho Mirage, Calif., will be testaments to that legacy.

Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: alex@morningread.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli