It’s a mild day in Palm Springs, California, as I drive down Interstate 10 toward the Coachella Valley.
This is a golf haven, with almost 100 courses within a 20-mile perimeter. One of the most famous in the area is Mission Hills Country Club, home to the “Dinah Shore.” After a 50-year run, the tournament now known as the Chevron Challenge will be played for the final time in a couple of weeks, before moving to Houston. A sad but unavoidable decision.
I pass the course in my rental car, reminiscing about famous Poppie’s Pond splashes, before continuing my drive toward a small community in Indio where the sand-colored houses blend into the desert landscape.
I’m heading to the home of Susie Maxwell Berning, an 80-year-old who will join a class of Marion Hollins, Tiger Woods and Tim Finchem in the World Golf Hall of Fame on Wednesday.
The truth is, I hadn’t heard of Susie before the Hall of Fame announcement. But knowing she was a former LPGA standout reaching her golden years, I was determined to learn her story.
That story, I must say, was quite remarkable.
Berning was born in Pasadena, California, the only girl of four children. The family moved when she was a child to Oklahoma City, where her father rented a home by a local municipal called Lincoln Park Golf Course. When she was 13, her father received a call from a co-worker asking if he would take care of his two horses. Her father obliged, to the thrill of Berning.
She fell in love with the animals and when the co-worker never came back to retrieve them, she convinced her father to let her keep them. Money for feed was made by selling pop bottles she found on highways.
One day while riding her horses on a bridal path built around the golf course, one broke loose, jarring the other to break free as well. What ensued was a scene written for movies. The steeds bolted for the golf course, galloping down fairways and tearing up greens.
Maintenance vehicles sped after the group, circling the course until the animals were eventually cornered and captured. Berning, meanwhile, was taken straight to the pro shop.
Lincoln Park’s head golf professional was a man named U.C. Ferguson, a local legend who would enjoy a 61-year career at the course. He looked at the small girl in tears and brokered a deal.
“He said, ‘Look, I have two young children. If you'll introduce them to horses and teach them how to ride, we'll forget this ever happened,’” Berning said.
For the rest of the summer, Berning did just that. Ferguson became a good family friend and repeatedly urged her to try golf.
“I kept saying, ‘No, that stupid game? You chase this little white ball around? No, sir, thank you,’” Berning replied.
After a year of non-negotiation, Ferguson called Berning and asked her to come to the course for a surprise – she could even ride her horses and tie them up by the pro shop. The surprise was a clinic hosted by 15-time major champion Patty Berg. And that made all the difference.
“Her clinics were so funny. I thought, that's what golf is? Hey, I want to do that. So, I said, ‘Yes, sir, please introduce me, please show me how.’”
A year later when Berning turned 16, she sold her beloved horses for $150 and used the money to buy a car so she could drive to practice. From that point on, she remembers being addicted to golf.
Winning came fast. She captured three consecutive Oklahoma State High School championships as well as three consecutive Oklahoma City Women’s Amateur championships.
She also earned a golf scholarship to Oklahoma City University, becoming the first women in the school’s history to do so. She played on the men’s team under Abe Lemons, who served more as a chaperone than a golf coach. Lemons was famous in Oklahoma for coaching the school’s men’s basketball team. When Susie came on board the golf team, he entered her in tournaments under the moniker “S. Maxwell” to avoid identifying her gender.
Once at a tournament in Wichita, Kansas, another coach asked if Lemon’s player was named Sam or Steve.
“Coach Lemons said, ‘Sam will do.’ So, I played college golf under Sam. And the poor boys. I mean, you know, they were a little shocked at times when Sam showed up,” said Berning.
Playing with the men helped Berning develop length off the tee and after graduation, with some financial help from members at Southern Hills, she turned professional.
Berning entered the LPGA Tour trailing the founders in the 1960s. The foundation had been set, but fields were still small and purses were just a couple hundred dollars. Established women like Marlene Hagge took younger players under their wings by making arrangements for shared housing and cooking meals.
“We drove everywhere and we became family, in a sense,” Berning said. “Everybody got along. Everybody rooted everybody to play good because we needed to play good.”
Every Wednesday before a tournament, the women put on clinics while Patty Berg MC’d. The entertaining clinics promoted the tour and urged people to come out and watch. Each clinic the women gave earned them $25.
There were also evening duties. Every week the women were required to attend a cocktail party. If they missed three, they were fined.
Berning remembered being so strapped for cash that after shopping with Judy Rankin, Hagge and another player, the four decided to split the cost of a fancy dress and take turns wearing it to various functions.
Berning would go onto win 11 LPGA events, including four majors – three at the U.S. Women’s Open. In 1972, she won at Winged Foot, beating Pam Barnett, Judy Ahern and her good friend Rankin by one shot.
“Because I learned golf at a public golf course, where the greens were very slow and not cut real smooth, I think when we played back East, I took it as a honor and a privilege to play such good golf courses,” recalled Berning.
In 1970, her first daughter, Robin, was born. A few years later, her second daughter, Cindy, followed. Golf continued to help sustain the family income, despite the challenges. In San Diego, she had to withdraw from the tournament because she couldn’t find a babysitter and while flying to a tournament, she lost Robin after the two accidentally got on different planes.
Berning played in her final professional event in 1994. The next act of her career turned to teaching. She joined the Nicklaus-Flick Golf Division and taught at different courses, including Angel Park in Las Vegas, before settling in Palm Springs to teach at The Reserve, where she’s been for the last 20 years.
“I always loved helping people. What I really want is for people to have a love of the game as much as I do for them to understand how much pleasure you get from the game. And that's why I enjoy teaching,” said Berning.
Her career took Berning around the world, put her on television as the face of Cushman Motor Cars and gave her a second family. On Wednesday, it took her to the World Golf Hall of Fame. When asked what she’s most proud of, Berning simply replied, “My two daughters. They’re like majors to me.”
As I pack up my bag getting ready to leave Berning’s home, I take one last look around. Images and statues of horses touch every corner of the place, as do photos of friends and family. In one room hangs the flags of courses where she hoisted major trophies, alongside a vintage flag from Lincoln Park Golf Course.
Berning puts on her cowgirl hat, covered with pins, and heads to her garage to load her clubs into her car. She flashes a smile in her camo blue shirt and drives off to teach a lesson. The words on her license plate are the last thing I’m able to see before her car disappears in the distance.