Nichols: LPGA founder Shirley Spork never won on tour, but should be remembered by future generations as a game changer

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Shirley Spork deserved to be in the LPGA Hall of Fame decades ago. Truth be told, she should’ve been part of the inaugural class in 1967 along with every other LPGA founder. But how wonderful that only two weeks ago, during the Chevron Championship, Spork received word from LPGA commissioner Mollie Marcoux Samaan that she’d finally be in the Hall as an honorary member.

Spork died April 12 at age 94 in California knowing that her name would forever be included among the all-time greats in the game. Exactly as it should be.

While she never won on the LPGA, the witty and wise Spork influenced the game in profound ways, first as one of 13 LPGA founders and then as the woman who championed the LPGA Teaching & Club Pro Division. She taught generations of women how to play and teach the game, specifically tailoring instruction to women.

“I feel I’m very deserving of it,” said Spork of the Hall of Fame honor last month, “having developed the teaching division from 0 to 1,700 people. That is my trophy.”

To know Spork was to feel connected to the very roots of a league.

Born and raised in Detroit, Spork collected golf balls from the creek that ran along her family’s property adjacent to Bonnie Brook Golf Course. She’d sell the balls back to the players as they made their way to the green. With the dollar she’d earned from the balls and 13 cents from her mother, Spork rode a streetcar to the S.S. Kresge dime store and bought her first golf club, a putter, at the age of 12. She even designed her own golf hole in the field across from her parents’ house, cutting the grass herself.

In the 1940’s, women were mostly encouraged to play intramural sports, not individualized ones. Spork, a physical education major at Eastern Michigan, knew her teachers wouldn’t sign her application to compete in the national championship. So she waited until a substitute teacher arrived to get the required signature.

Spork always found a way.

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Shirley Spork on the first tee at the 2019 Solheim Cup (Photo: Beth Ann Nichols/Golfweek).

In her book, From Green to Tee, Spork recounted how she hitched a ride to college in a hearse, a bread truck and an ambulance. In 1947, she paid her own way to Ohio State’s Scarlet Course for the national championship, and when her golf shoes got soaked, a restaurant chef stuffed them with newspaper and put them in the oven.

She won the event as a sophomore, but when she returned to Eastern Michigan, the women’s athletic department wouldn’t recognize her victory. In 2014, 67 years later, Eastern Michigan presented Spork with a varsity letter “E” for winning the only national title of 1947.

In her late 80’s, Spork started a pro-am in the California desert to raise money for the women’s golf program at her alma mater, and the First Tee of Coachella Valley. She always was looking out for the next generation.

Spork ultimately turned professional because the great Babe Zaharias turned to her one day and said “Kid, why don’t you turn pro? We need players out here.”

And so, in 1950, Spork became one of the 13 women who signed the original charter of the Ladies Professional Golf Association.

“We had to mark the courses and rule on ourselves,” said Spork. “We did a swing parade and passed the hat and collected money to pay for a starter who had a table, a chair and a blowhorn to announce us.”

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LPGA Founders Shirley Spork and Marilynn Smith at the 2013 RR Donnelley LPGA Founders Cup at Wildfire Golf Club in Phoenix. (Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

In 1953, Spork came to the first LPGA-sanctioned tournament on the west coast in the desert at Tamarisk Country Club in Rancho Mirage, California, and a lightbulb went off: She could teach there in the winter and play the tour in the summer.

She presented the idea of a teaching division to the tour’s executive committee and was twice turned down, in 1955 and 1956. In 1959, Spork’s idea passed by a single vote.

Spork gave lessons at Monterey Country Club well into her 90s, and artificial hips and knees did nothing to slow down her game. She’d often play in the Founders Cup pro-am with then-LPGA commissioner Mike Whan, who started the tournament, in part, to honor the past and help current players connect with the living legends who built their tour.

Spork liked to tell the story of how she was the first female professional invited into the Royal and Ancient clubhouse in the early 1950s. In a boardroom, members were admiring Spork’s ability to get her wedge airborne around the greens and asked for a demonstration.

“There wasn’t any room so they said get up on the table,” Spork recalled.

And so Spork gave a lesson on top of the table, giving tips on an alternative to the classic bump-and-run.

“I’ve been very fortunate to teach golf for seven decades,” Spork said last spring. “Every 10-year span the methodology has changed.”

And Spork kept up with it all, as passionate about the game as she was when she bought that first putter ­and used it to hit full shots.

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Shirley Spork and Mike Whan at the RR Donnelley Founders Cup in Phoenix.

A few years back at the Founders Cup, Mike Whan implored everyone – including the media – to take up the baton and do something to drive the game forward for girls.

“Do something that makes you feel like Marilynn (Smith) and Shirley (Spork),” said Whan. “They have to wake up every morning and think, ‘Thank God we didn’t give up. I didn’t give up.’ ”

Spork can now rest peacefully knowing that players on the tour she helped create will compete for $90.5 million in prize this year – the average tournament purse in 1950 was $3,000! – and thousands upon thousands of women will take up the game in the coming years because of the teaching program she founded.

When it comes to true impact, Spork was a giant in the game, though she wasn’t exactly revered as one. But she knew what she’d done for golf and for women.

May the generations who follow know it, too.