Her death was announced by the LPGA, or Ladies Professional Golf Association, the world’s oldest women’s sports organization. The cause was not disclosed.
Ms. Smith was not initially taken with golf. “I thought it was a sissy game,” she often said.
While growing up in Wichita, she was a pitcher on a boys’ baseball team.
“I used to want to pitch for the [St. Louis] Cardinals,” she said in 2012. “That was my ambition.”
When she was about 12, she came home after a bad game.
“I had taken off my mitt, thrown it against the wall and said a four-letter word beginning with ‘S’,” she told the Wichita Eagle in 2006. “My mother marched me right into the lavatory and washed my mouth out with Lifebuoy soap, and my dad said they had better take me to Wichita Country Club and teach me a more ladylike sport.”
Her father said he would buy her a bicycle as soon as she could play nine holes in 40 strokes.
Notable deaths in 2019: Elijah Cummings, Cokie Roberts, Toni Morrison and others we have lost this year
Before long, she was riding her bicycle to the country club, where she took lessons that helped her win three state amateur titles.
At the University of Kansas, there was no women’s golf team, so Ms. Smith played on her own. When her father asked the athletic director, Hall of Fame basketball coach Forrest “Phog” Allen, if the university could pay her way to the national tournament, he replied, “Mr. Smith, it’s too bad your daughter isn’t a boy.”
It was a slight Ms. Smith never forgot. Her father drove her to the tournament and, in 1949, she finished in first place. She left college that year to become a professional golfer.
She received a $5,000 annual sponsorship fee from the Spalding sporting goods company, in return for presenting as many as 100 golf clinics a year. As part of the deal, Ms. Smith asked Spalding to throw in a pair of baseball gloves and a ball, so she could play catch with her (male) caddies.
The 1950s women’s professional tour consisted of about two dozen golfers, the best known of whom was Babe Didrikson Zaharias, who had won two gold medals and one silver in track and field at the 1932 Olympic Games and was often called the greatest female athlete of all time.
“Babe was our marquee player, our swashbuckling Olympian,” Ms. Smith told USA Today in 1999. “People would see Babe hit this prodigious drive and realize women could play this game.”
After an earlier women’s golf organization had folded, Ms. Smith and Zaharias were among 13 female golfers who launched the LPGA during the 1950 Women’s U.S. Open in Wichita.
Their goal was to promote the sport and to provide better playing conditions, more prize money and greater recognition. The golfers traveled in auto caravans from one tournament to another.
At the time, there were only 14 tournaments nationwide for women, paying out a total of $50,000. When Ms. Smith won her first professional championship in 1954, in Fort Wayne, Ind., her prize money amounted to $700.
On the tour, the women set up the courses, put up the scoreboard — which one golfer carried on the roof of her car — and sent out news releases to local newspapers and television stations.
“We were a small-knit family, like sisters,” Ms. Smith said.
The LPGA almost folded after Zaharias’s death from cancer in 1956, but Ms. Smith and other star golfers, such as Patty Berg and Louise Suggs, kept the group going. As LPGA president from 1958 to 1960, Ms. Smith had a major role in promoting the sport. By 1959, there were 26 women’s tournaments, with more than $200,000 in prize money.
“I went to major league ballparks like St. Louis and Cincinnati and Washington, D.C.,” Ms. Smith told Golfweek magazine, “and hit golf balls from home plate out to center field and then got on the microphone and told the fans about the LPGA.”
Today, the LPGA has 33 events on its tour, with prizes totaling $67 million.
Her 21 LPGA titles included victories in the 1963 and 1964 women’s Titleholders tournament in Augusta, Ga., considered a major tournament at the time. In 1963, Ms. Smith and Mickey Wright finished four rounds tied at 292 strokes. In an 18-hole playoff round, Ms. Smith fought back from a three-shot deficit after 13 holes.
“Then I hit a career second shot at 18 — a three-iron that finished eight feet from the hole,” she told LPGA.com in 2018. “My putt won the championship by one stroke, 72-73. I told reporters that I never hit the ball better — and meant it.”
A year later, Ms. Smith and Wright dueled again in the Titleholders championship, which Ms. Smith won by a single stroke, 289 to 290, a tournament record. Her second-round 66 set a course record.
“As it turned out, the 66 was my career best,” Ms. Smith later said. “It had to be the greatest golfing week of my life, but it wasn’t easy.”
Marilynn Smith was born April 13, 1929, in Topeka, Kan., and grew up in Wichita, where her father was in the insurance business. Both parents were golfers.
Ms. Smith competed on the LPGA tour through 1976 and in other tournaments until 1985. She also gave golf clinics in all 50 states and more than 30 countries.
In 1973, she was briefly hired by ABC Sports to provide commentary on men’s golf, covering the Colonial and U.S. Open tournaments.
In later years, the first senior women’s professional tournament was named in Ms. Smith’s honor, and in 2006 she was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
A list of survivors could not be confirmed.
Like other female golfers of her era, Ms. Smith was sensitive about her sport’s public image. She usually competed in a skirt and coordinated blouse, often wearing earrings and pearls. She had her hair carefully styled before each tournament.
“A lot of us were very interested in changing the image of women’s golf,” she said in 1987. “It was like we were Amazons, like we were truck drivers . . . I always felt we were women first and golfers second.”
Read more Washington Post obituaries