Vousden on the Babe

Thought for the Day
Compromise is the art of dividing a cake in such a way that everybody believes he got the biggest piece

What a Babe
Lexi Thompson narrowly missed the cut at the Shriner’s Children’s Open last week. It served to remind me of the only woman golfer who has made it to the weekend in a men’s pro event – one of my favourite golfers of all time.

If it were ever possible to draw up a list of the greatest women athletes – not just golfers – who have ever lived, one name, almost as memorable as the woman herself, would crop up time and again, that of Mildred ‘Babe’ Didrikson Zaharias.

At the age of 21 Babe Didrikson won two gold medals at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, setting two world records in the process. She ran the 80 metre hurdles in a time of 11.7 seconds, and threw the javelin 143 feet 4 inches. Both marks were unchallenged for the next four years. She also tied the winner of the high jump but in one of the most bizarre adjudications in sport was demoted to second place because she used the western roll method for her first jump, judged illegal at the time. She was awarded a hybrid medal that was half gold and half silver – the only one of its kind ever given to an Olympic competitor, probably in recognition of the fact that no-one told her that her method was against the rules until after she used it and was disqualified. Incompetent governing bodies in sport are not a recent phenomenon.

She was always inclined to a little hyperbole but exaggeration was never needed because she was so multi-talented – she sang, played harmonica and was an excellent seamstress, for example, but it was in the sporting arena that she truly excelled. In addition to her track and field prowess, she was considerably talented at baseball, basketball, diving, bowling, boxing, softball, roller-skating and many others. Anything that required co-ordination, timing and athleticism was meat and drink for Babe.

She was a latecomer to golf, picking up her first club at the age of 24, but immediately set about mastering this, as she had so many other sports. She achieved her goal to such an extent that she won the first tournament she entered, the 1935 Texas Women’s Invitational. Such was her fame that she was later invited to take part in a men’s professional tournament, the 1938 Los Angeles Open (there was no women’s tour as yet). She was paired with George Zaharias, a former professional wrestler wonderfully nicknamed ‘The Crying Greek from Cripple Creek’, and they married the following year.

It is quite possible that the marriage was platonic and Babe, who had been described all her life as a robust tomboy uninterested in appearing feminine, developed a close relationship with Betty Dodd, another golfer who refused to conform to society’s view of the way women should look and behave. She was once asked, for example, how a relatively slight woman could regularly hit the ball 250 yards and replied: ‘You’ve got to loosen your girdle and let ‘er fly.’

Babe played in several men’s pro events, making the cut and in so doing setting a standard that has never been equalled by another woman. Babe didn’t get into men’s events by invitation – she played through two qualifying rounds to earn her place on merit. When competing against her peers Babe won almost at will. She took the Women’s Western Open (then regarded as a major) four times, three of them as an amateur, and went on to take 10 major championships in a 14-year span, three times being crowned US Women’s Open champion and also lifting the Titleholders Championship, then a major, three times.

Babe was adored by the public and the press – she was, after all, irresistible copy – but did not always endear herself to fellow competitors. Louise Suggs was resentful of the way publicity-magnet Babe Zaharias overshadowed everyone else in women’s golf and thoroughly enjoyed beating her in the 1949 US Women’s Open by 14 strokes – still a record. Long after she retired Louise was asked: ‘Which competitor brought out the best in you?’ and replied: ‘Babe Zaharias – I would do anything I could to stop her from winning.’

Her jaundiced view was not uncommon because Babe was bold, brash, boastful, outspoken and confident to the point of arrogance – think of Muhammad Ali in his pomp but without his self-effacement or modesty. Or just think of Ian Poulter.

Accustomed to being the focus of attention, Babe demanded her place at centre stage in the full glare of the spotlight. She once arrived at a tournament and declared: ‘The Babe is here. Who’s coming second?’ On another occasion, when partnered with Peggy Kirk Bell in a fourball event, told her: ‘I can beat any two players in this tournament by myself. If I need any help I’ll let you know.’

Like Walter Hagen before her, she bantered with galleries, goofed around between shots and hammed it up for all she was worth but unlike Walter, she could also be profane, crude and was so certain of her own abilities that she, perhaps unwittingly, belittled those of her contemporaries. Despite her own outspokenness, Babe made many lasting friendships among her fellow golfers but also accrued a long list of opponents who, like Louise Suggs, would do anything to beat her. But to achieve that they had to be at the top of their game. In a tragically short six-year period on the women’s pro tour, Babe won 31 times but overall, including earlier professional and amateur events, she tasted victory more than 80 times in just under two decades of competition.

The Babe died of cancer in September 1956 at the age of 45 and the fledgling LPGA Tour, which she did so much to help establish, is perhaps her greatest legacy.

Quote of the Week
In every century in every walk of life, there emerge two or three individuals whose abilities in their chosen field transcend anything which their contemporaries can produce. Such an individual is Mildred Zaharias.
John Gone

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