The stories, the accolades, the achievements in a life otherwise cut short are almost beyond comprehension. Mildred Babe Ella Didrikson Zaharias (as an adult, she would change the spelling of her last name from Didriksen to Didrikson, to reflect the Norwegian spelling, rather than the Swedish), could well be the most consummate athlete ever to grace the fairways. She was labeled with the nickname, Babe, after hitting five home runs in a single baseball game as a youth.
The daughter of Norwegian immigrants, she was born in Port Arthur, Texas in 1911. According to several accounts, including her own writing, Babe liked to claim that she was born in 1914, but both her birth certificate and grave stone claim the earlier date. What cannot be disputed is that she was one of those rarely gifted athletes who seemed to excel at every sport she tried, which included, basketball, baseball, softball, track and field, diving, football, roller-skating, bowling and even boxing. But it would be golf that would most secure her lasting legend.
In 1930, her first job was that of a secretary for the Employers Casualty Insurance Company of Dallas, Texas. While it is claimed that she even excelled at typing (capable of typing 86 words per minute on the old type writers that favored a powerful, downward strike), it appears that the position was simply a conduit to play on one of the Industrial League basketball teams, under the authority of the AAU. She would lead her squad to the AAU Basketball Championship in 1931. Representing her company at the 1932 AAU Championships, she competed in eight events, winning five of them, shot put, baseball throw, long jump, javelin and the 80 m hurdles and tying for first in another, and setting five world records in a single day. On the strength of her performance, her team garnered 30 points to beat the next closest team by eight points. However, unlike her competition, she was the only person on her team!
Her performance at the AAU Championships qualified her for the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. Limited to competing in three events, she won gold medals in the 80 m hurdles, the Javelin throw, setting world records in both, and the silver metal in the High jump. She would have won gold in the High jump event as well, but her unorthodox (for the time) style of jumping head first was too much for the judges and they declared her as the silver medalist. Later that year, she was named the Woman Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press (she would also win this honor in 1945, 1946, 1947, 1950 and 1954, a total of six times). In 1950, she was named the APs Woman Athlete of the First Half of the Twentieth Century.
She played baseball for the touring baseball team, the House of David, and once pitched an inning in an exhibition baseball game where she struck out Joe DiMaggio.
In the early 1930s, she turned to the sport of golf, a game she was not exposed to while growing up in Texas. However, her natural athleticism soon took over and in short order, she was redefining the meaning of being a woman golfer. Up until her arrival on the scene, womens golf was defined by elegant apparel and gracious, if not powerful swings.
Babe Didrikson would smash that stereotype with her awesomely powerful swings that has been visually compared to that of Lee Trevino in his prime. She would explain her lack of constraint when lashing into the ball, Its not enough just to swing at the ball. Youve got to loosen your girdle and really let the ball have it.
She more than let the ball have it; she redefined the sport. In 1938, she competed in the Los Angeles Open, the only woman to compete in a mens tournament for the next six decades. At that tournament, she would meet George Zaharias, a professional wrestler and sports promoter. They would marry eleven months later and live in Tampa, Fla.
Zaharias may have been late to come to the game of golf, but she quickly made up for lost time. At one time she won 17 straight amateur tournaments in a row. She was the 1946 and 1947 United States Womens Amateur Champion and was the first American to win the British Ladies Amateur Championship, also in 1947. She was one of thirteen founding members of the LPGA. To this day, she holds the LPGA records for being the fastest golfer to 10 wins (one year and twenty days), 20 wins (two years and four months) and 30 wins (five years and twenty-two days). While competing, she served as the president of the LPGA from 1952 to 1955. In 1950, she won the womens version of the Grand Slam holding the three womens majors of the day, the U.S. Open, the Titleholders Championship and the Western Open. She won 10 major championships (U.S. Open 1948, 1950, 1954; Titleholders 1947, 1950, 1952; Western Open 1940, 1944, 1945, 1950) and a total of 41 professional tournaments.
'The formula for success is simple; practice and concentration, then more practice and concentration. -- Babe Didrikson Zaharias
Zaharias was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1953. She made a comeback in 1954 (winning the U.S. Open only a month after surgery) and the Vare Trophy for the lowest scoring average. Her cancer would flair again in 1955 and she was limited to playing in only eight events (winning two of them). The cancer continued to progress and finally took her life in 1956, at age 45.
While too brief, the impact she made on the sport was formidable. In 1954 she received the Richardson Award by the Golf Writers Association of America for her contributions to golf and the Ben Hogan Award for her comeback after the cancer surgeries. She was awarded the USGA Bobby Jones Award in 1957 and named the Sports Illustrated Individual Female Athlete of the Century in 1999. That same year, the Associated Press named her the Top Woman Athlete of the Century and she was named in the top 10 on the list of the 50 Greatest North American Athletes of the past 100 years for ESPNs SportsCentury, the only female to make the top 10. In 2000, she was recognized as one of the LPGAs Top 50 Players. She was one of six original inductees to the LPGA Hall of Fame in 1967. She was named to the Hall of Fame of Womens Golf in 1951 and is enshrined in the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Copyright 2007 Matthew E. Adams Fairways of Life
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Editor's Note: Matt Adams is a golf journalist, best-selling author (Chicken Soup for the Soul, Fairways of Life) and a golf course general manager. To view Matt's books or sign up for his 'Golf Wisdom Newsletter,'go to www.FairwaysofLife.com.