Pioneering MSU women's golf coach Mary Fossum, who once beat the game's greatest, dies at 93

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

It was January of 1995, and Stacy Slobodnik-Stoll was down in Florida playing golf on the mini-tours, trying to make the most of a two-year sponsorship, when she got a phone call from her old coach at Michigan State.

Mary Fossum wanted Slobodnik-Stoll to return to East Lansing to be an assistant coach.

"At first, it didn't sound like an idea I was interested in," Slobodnik-Stoll said. "But my parents, fortunately, said, 'I think you better take it. That sounds a lot better than how it's going in professional golf.'

"Everything I've been able to accomplish in my life is because of the opportunity she gave me."

Mary Fossum, left, with her successor as Michigan State women's golf coach, Stacy Slobodnik-Stoll.

Fossum, who as a 19-year-old beat legendary golfer Babe Didrikson-Zaharias in a heads-up match and later went on to become the first women's golf coach at Michigan State, died Sunday. She was 93.

Fossum coached at Michigan State from 1973, alongside husband and men's coach Bruce Fossum, until her retirement in 1997, when Slobodnik-Stoll took over the program — where she remains today. Fossum was inducted into the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame in 2002.

Slobodnik-Stoll played under Fossum in the early 1990s, when the head pro at her Grand Rapids-area club, Michigan State great Lynn Jansen, recommended her to the Fossums.

Slobodnik-Stoll still isn't sure why Fossum picked her to carry on the program's rich tradition.

"She never told me. Maybe I should've asked," Slobodnik-Stoll said with a laugh. "I always felt so fortunate. I always had a great relationship with her and Bruce, but so many kids did.

"She treated every single one of her plays like were her children, her Spartan family."

The program, which today boasts a $6-million state-of-the-art training facility, had humble beginnings from an infrastructure standpoint, with Mary and Bruce Fossum strapping clubs on top of their station wagon. But in Fossum's first six seasons as Michigan State coach, the Spartans made six consecutive AIAW national championships. Michigan State won five consecutive Big Ten titles, from 1974-78. She coached six All-Americans, and several future LPGA Tour players. MSU played in the 1982 and 1984 NCAA championships.

She had a knack for grooming future coaches, too. Former Michigan State golfer Kathy Teichart eventually became head coach at Michigan, and Gina Yoder was head coach at Xavier and Dartmouth.

Michigan State's home tournament, the Spartan Invitational, was renamed the Mary Fossum Invitational, and since 2001, there has been a Mary Fossum Golf Scholarship. The Mary Fossum Award is handed out each year to the Big Ten golfer with the season's lowest stroke average.

All of this came after an epic playing career, no more memorable moment than in 1946, when in the Women's Western Amateur semifinals at The Country Club in Cleveland, Fossum, then 19-year-old Mary McMillen, beat Didrikson-Zaharias, 2 and 1, in the semifinals to advance to the championship. McMillen lost in the finals to Louise Suggs, who also won in 1947. The Western Amateur was considered a major before the LPGA Tour was founded.

Didrikson-Zaharias won 48 times around the world and is in the World Golf Hall of Fame. She's considered one of the greatest female athletes ever, but interestingly, Fossum never talked much about that feat.

"It was just one of those things, on one of those days," Fossum once said.

That was vintage Fossum.

One of her defining traits was humility.

"I do have the Chicago Tribune where it was featured as one of the front-page articles," Slobodnik-Stoll said. "But Mar was humble. She didn't talk about all that too much. She would kind of always laugh when we tried to pump her for information or make her feel good about her accomplishments.

"Every single time we won a tournament, she was the first person I called and I'd say, 'I wouldn't be doing this is if it wasn't for you. And she'd just laugh and said, 'Oh, no, no, no.' She would never take those compliments."

Fossum, a Green Bay, Wisconsin, native who won her state's women's amateur tournament three straight years from 1945-47, was inducted into the Michigan State Athletics Hall of Fame in 2003, the National Golf Coaches of America Hall of Fame in 1990 and the Wisconsin Golf Hall of Fame in 1988. In 1997, she received the Gladys Palmer Meritorious Service Award, recognizing contributions to women's golf.

Bruce Fossum was MSU's men's golf coach from 1965-89 and then for one season in 1998-99. He died in 2014 at the age of 86.

The Fossums had four children, nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild, and lived in Okemos.

Arrangements were pending Monday.

Twitter: @tonypaul1984