Louise Suggs, who won more than 60 tournaments from the 1940s to the 1960s, and who, as a founder of the Ladies Professional Golf Association, played a key role in establishing women’s golf as a major professional sport, died Aug. 7 at a hospice in Sarasota, Fla. She was 91.
Her death was announced by the LPGA. According to Golf Digest magazine, the cause was complications from melanoma.
Miss Suggs was one of the most dominant golfers of her generation, competing for small sums of money on out-of-the-way courses as she and other female golfers fought to gain greater respect for their sport. In 1950, Miss Suggs was one of 13 women who founded the LPGA, which is now the leading women’s golf organization in the world.
In the early days of the LPGA, Miss Suggs and the other golfers did everything — found sponsors and kept score. Afterward, they called in results to sportswriters, then drove on to the next town. Miss Suggs always traveled alone in her Cadillac.
She was single-minded about her sport, practicing until her hands were raw with blisters as she developed one of the most reliable swings of any golfer, male or female. She kept a grim, tight-lipped expression on the golf course; her manner was often blunt, her speech often salty.
“Fond of her or not,” a 1961 Sports Illustrated article noted, “everyone respects her absolutely — personally and as a golfer.”
During the final round of the 1952 U.S. Women’s Open, which Miss Suggs won with a record low score, her fellow golfers complimented her as she approached the final hole.
She didn’t smile. She said only, “What do you say we play golf, girls?”
Miss Suggs was the first woman to win all four major tournaments in the so-called career grand slam of golf, and her 11 major titles are the third most of all time, after Patty Berg (15) and Mickey Wright (13). Her 61 tournament wins rank fourth.
In her early years of competition, Miss Suggs had fierce rivalries with pioneering golfers such as Berg, Betsy Rawls and especially Babe Didrikson Zaharias, who is often considered the greatest all-around female athlete in history.
“Babe was a better athlete,” Rawls said in 2000, “but Louise was a better golfer.”
Even after she was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, Miss Suggs still felt overshadowed by the more flamboyant Zaharias, who died at 45 in 1956.
“Babe and I didn’t get along,” Miss Suggs told Golf Digest in 2000. “We butted heads. She was so cocky, everybody else was in awe of her. Your typical barroom brawler. But she couldn’t put anything over on me. I’d look her right in the eye. I was just as competitive as she was.”
Miss Suggs delivered one of her most remarkable performances at the 1949 U.S. Women’s Open at Prince George’s Golf and Country Club in Landover, Md. She led from start to finish, shooting 69, 75 and 77 in the first three rounds.
In the final round, she sank a 12-foot putt on the first hole for birdie. After her approach shot at the par-5 No. 13 landed 2 feet from the cup, she tapped in the putt for eagle. She stroked a 25-foot birdie putt on No. 15 and finished the day with a score of 70, five under par.
With a 72-hole score of 291, Miss Suggs won the U.S. Women’s Open title by a remarkable 14 shots — still the largest margin of victory in the history of the tournament.
Zaharias came in second.
“Babe was a little upset after that,” Miss Suggs recalled years later. “She said, ‘Are you sure you counted all your strokes?’ Oh, I did.”
Mae Louise Suggs was born Sept. 7, 1923, in Atlanta. Her father was a minor-league baseball pitcher who later operated a nine-hole golf course outside Atlanta. Young Louise, who never used her first name, was proficient at golf by the time she was 10.
She used to watch the practice rounds of Atlanta golf legend Bobby Jones. By 16, she was the Georgia women’s amateur champion.
Miss Suggs won larger regional tournaments in her teens, and in 1945 was paired in a tournament with Ben Hogan, one of her golfing idols. On the first day, Miss Suggs beat Hogan, 35 to 36, in the final nine holes, even though she was at a disadvantage, playing from the longer men’s tees.
The next day, Hogan wouldn’t speak to her.
“Mr. Hogan, I don’t think you’re a gentleman,” she told him in an oft-recounted story. “I came here to help you win, and you can’t even be civil.”
Her toughness broke through Hogan’s icy demeanor, and the two became good friends.
Miss Suggs maintained that the only advantage men had on a golf course was brute strength. She believed women had a more nuanced approach to the short game and to putting.
She proved her theory during a three-day tournament in 1961 at a par-3 course in Palm Beach, Fla., where she competed against 12 top male golfers, including Sam Snead, Lew Worsham and Gardner Dickinson. Miss Suggs took first place.
Afterward, Snead stormed to his car and burned rubber as he raced out of the parking lot.
Miss Suggs retired from active competition in 1962, but she continued to teach golf well into her 70s. She wrote several instructional books on golf and published an autobiography in 2014. The LPGA’s rookie-of-the-year award is named in her honor.
Miss Suggs twice led the women’s tour in earnings, but in 14 years her total winnings from tournaments amounted to about $190,000.
In 2007, when Angela Park won the LPGA’s Louise Suggs Award as rookie of the year, she earned more than $980,000.
“I wish like hell I could have played for this kind of money,” Miss Suggs said. “But if not for me, they wouldn’t be playing for it, either.”