BY LEE PACE
Golf history is full of memorable win streaks—Bobby Jones and the original “Grand Slam” in 1930, Byron Nelson and his 11 straight PGA Tour wins in 1945, and of course the “Tiger Slam” that Tiger Woods accomplished over the 2000-01 major championship seasons.
Not as well known, however, is the “Slam Bang.”
“She could sense that I was on edge, and she told me to relax. ‘I can beat any two of them without you,’ she said. ‘I’ll let you know if I need you.’” – Peggy Kirk Bell
That streak belongs to Babe Didrikson Zaharias, which she compiled in 1946-47 by winning 17 – 17! – consecutive golf competitions from Texas to Pinehurst, from Miami to the nation’s capital.
In fact, perhaps no source other than The Pinehurst Outlook referred to Zaharias’ unprecedented run of domination in such cutesy fashion. Run a Google search on the phrase in that context and you’ll come up dry.
But there it is in one of the Outlook’s weekly editions in early April 1947 as it chronicles the Babe “winning everything in sight on the winter and spring tour” and being “under unusual strain as she wanted to complete the most remarkable sequence of victories ever accomplished in women’s golf.”
After winning two gold medals and one silver in track and field in the 1932 Olympics, taking up golf in 1935 and playing in 1938 in a men’s pro golf tournament, the Los Angeles Open, Zaharias had regained her amateur status in golf in 1942 and was at the top of the game’s talent pyramid as World War II came to an end.
She channeled her immense athletic skills into golf by hitting a thousand balls a day. Her strength and power off the tee gave her a huge edge on the field—she amazed sports writer Grantland Rice by hitting two shots to the edge of the 523-yard seventh green at Brentwood Country Club in Los Angeles. And her confident (some would say cocky – see below video) personality augmented her aggressive, go-for-broke style on the course.
Peggy Kirk Bell, (who comments in the video above) the matriarch of Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club in Southern Pines since 1953, first met Zaharias in the mid-1940s on the women’s amateur circuit and one day got an invitation to be Zaharias’ partner in the Women’s International Four-Ball in Hollywood, Fla.
“Babe said, ‘You might as well win a tournament,’” Peggy says. “That’s how confident she was. I was really nervous the day of the first round. She could sense that I was on edge, and she told me to relax. ‘I can beat any two of them without you,’ she said. ‘I’ll let you know if I need you.’ Of course, we won the tournament.’”
THE ‘SLAM BANG’
The Babe’s winning streak started in the summer of 1946 in the Trans-Mississippi in Denver and continued with the Broodmoor Invitation and All-American Championship. Then, Zaharias captured her one and only victory in the U.S. Women’s Amateur – at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa. She won the Texas Women’s Open in the fall of 1946 and took the rest of the year off, relaxing at home in Denver with husband George.
The break didn’t last long.
“I was ready to take a long layoff from golf competition and just enjoy my home for a while,” Zaharias said. “But George had other ideas. He said, ‘Honey, you’ve got something going here. You’ve won five straight tournaments. You want to build that streak up into a record they’ll never forget. There are some women’s tournaments in Florida at the start of the winter. I think you should go down there.’”
So Babe opened 1947 with wins in Tampa, Miami, Orlando and Palm Beach, then teamed with Peggy Kirk (who would marry hometown sweetheart Warren Bell in 1953) in the International Four-Ball. The tour moved northward to Ormond Beach, St. Augustine and then the Women’s Titleholders in Augusta, victories all, and she had won 13 straight when the Women’s North and South opened on Pinehurst No. 2 the second week of April.
BABE AND LOUISE – A PINEHURST EPIC
The Outlook noted that Babe was “getting even odds” versus the entire field and the implication was that a bet could be placed at the Pinehurst clubhouse—amazing when you think of the legal implications of wagering today. It reported that in an early match Zaharias “hit a screaming brassie that left the gallery gasping” and counted the spectators for the championship match featuring Zaharias against Louise Suggs at approximately 2,500—“the largest gallery ever.”
Suggs was a 23-year-old golfer from Atlanta who had won two North and South Amateurs in 1942 and ’46 and would later become a heated rival with Zaharias on the LPGA Tour, which was founded in 1950. The Outlook noted that Suggs seemed to garner the sympathy of the gallery and that it was only human nature as the fans “wanted to see the little one beat the strong one.” Suggs conceded an early putt to Zaharias and soon after Zaharias refused the same courtesy toward Suggs, who then missed the short putt.
“After this incident, the match became a real fight,” the newspaper noted.
Babe was 1-up going to the 18th hole, but her approach shot flew to the right and landed against a tree. She tried a bank shot against the tree that didn’t work out and she lost the hole, forcing a playoff.
“After this incident, the match became a real fight.” –The Pinehurst Outlook
“That almost killed me,” Babe said. “George was just going crazy. He later said, ‘I thought for sure you were going to lose one and break the string.’”
Suggs flew the green with her approach on the second extra hole, made bogey and Zaharias left Pinehurst with victory No. 14 secure. From there she won the women’s division of an event called the Celebrities Tournament in Washington, traveled to Scotland to win the Women’s British Amateur and returned home to win the Broadmoor Invitation again. Her streak of 17 ended when she lost in October in the Texas Women’s Open. Soon after, Babe accepted $300,000 from a Hollywood filmmaker for a series of golf instructional films and turned pro.
The name Babe Didrikson Zaharias occupies a mere one line on the champions board in the Pinehurst clubhouse.
But, as so often seems the case, it notes another moment when one of golf’s greatest legends and Pinehurst intersect.
Lee Pace is a regular contributor to the Pinehurst Blog. He latest book, “The Golden Age of Pinehurst—The Rebirth of No. 2,” is available in all retail shops at Pinehurst.