As I wandered about at the Solheim Cup this past weekend at Inverness Club, I thought on occasion about the thirteen legendary founders of the LPGA. Far from the LPGA’s “barnstorming” beginnings, the LPGA and the Solheim Cup have become a grand spectacle: throngs of fans, elaborate amphitheaters, wall-to-wall television coverage, a massive merchandise tent, and scores of reporters. For three days, the Solheim Cup had the attention of the sporting world.
It is a tribute to the Founders’ vision and perseverance. Sadly, just two of the LPGA’s founders are still with us as of this writing: Marlene Hagge and Michigan’s own Shirley Spork.
Spork was at the 2021 Solheim Cup, but I did not recognize her in the extravagant red-white-and-blue outfit with the tall striped top hat. IT was not until later that I realized who the lady dancing on the first tee was.
Knowing that Spork was a Michigander who attended Michigan State Normal College (now Eastern Michigan University), I wondered if she had ever played at my home course — Washtenaw Golf Club — which is just two miles from the Normal School.
As it turns out, Spork practiced there on a regular basis and played in a publicized exhibition match at Washtenaw in 1949, the year before the LPGA’s founding. The match included Spork, Peggy Kirk, Sam Byrd and Al Watrous.
The article reads:
Pit Champions In ExhibitionDetroit Free Press, July 17, 1949
Shirley Spork, newly crowned Michigan Women’s Golf champion and Peggy Kirk, the Ohio links queen, will be paired with Sam Byrd and Al Watrous in an exhibition match at the Washtenaw Country Club, Ypsilanti.
The exhibition will be a part of the club’s Golden Jubilee celebration.
Watrous is a Michigan Golf Hall of Famer, who was the club pro at Oakland Hills for 37 years. He won the Michigan PGA nine times and the Michigan Open six times. In 1926, Watrous finished second in the Open Championship. He also had top tens in the Masters, PGA Championship and US Open.
Sam Byrd was a pro baseball player who turned professional golfer. Byrd played for the Yankees from 1929 – 1934, and the Reds from 1935 – 1936. He won six times on the PGA TOUR and finished third in the Masters in 1941 and second at the 1945 PGA.
At the time of the Washtenaw exhibition, Byrd was club pro at Plum Hollow.
Byrd is the only person to have played in both the Masters and The World Series.
Peggy Kirk (Bell) was not one of the thirteen “Founders,” but was a charter member. Peggy Kirk, along with her husband, former Fort Wayne Piston Warren (Bullet) Bell, purchased the Pine Needles golf course in 1953 and set about turning it into a premier resort and golf school. Bell is a member of seven Halls of Fame, including the Ohio sports, the North Carolina Sports, North Carolina Business, the LPGA teaching division, and the first woman to be inducted to the PGA Golf Instructors Hall of Fame.
Spork was born in Detroit in 1927 and grew up next to the Bonnie Brook Golf Course in Redford (the course closed in 2001). She bought a set of clubs at age 13 from money she earned collecting and reselling golf balls. A job as a caddie gave her practice time. Later, she had a membership at the Rogell Golf Course (now also closed).
While attending Michigan State Normal (Eastern Michigan), Spork won the National Intercollegiate Championship in 1947. She played her first tournament in 1950 at the Weathervane Western Open in Chicago. When the LPGA was chartered four months later in Wichita, Spork was one of the thirteen designated as founders.
As with many golf pros at the time, Spork taught golf in the winter months, while playing in the summer. In 1959, she was one of four founders of the LPGA’s teaching division.
Spork never won on the LPGA Tour, but was very successful as a teaching pro. She is a two-time LPGA National Teacher of the Year, and is in the PGA of America Hall of Fame.
Addendum: I sent a note to Shirley Spork asking if she remembered Washtenaw Golf Club, and she graciously sent a message back:
Of course! The club allowed me to practice. I used to drive out between classes to play a few holesShirley Spork on Washtenaw Country Club and her days at EMU.
Spork also noted that although she won the National Intercollegiate Championship (now the NCAAs) for Michigan State Normal/EMU, she did not receive a letterman’s jacket for the feat. Some 60 years later, Spork said, “the Men’s Dept gave me a jacket. I received my E, I guess for effort.”
Continuing her lifelong work as a teacher of golf, Spork was at nearly Eagle Crest (the EMU home course) on September 11, working with the EMU women’s golf team.