LPGA founder Shirley Spork, whose love for golf was born in Detroit, dies at 94

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Shirley Spork grew up on a golf course, the old Bonnie Brook Golf Course at 8 Mile and Telegraph, and she grew up around a neighborhood full of boys. So, naturally, she wanted to play golf with the boys.

So with money in her pocket earned from selling pop, candy and wayward golf balls back to the golfers, Spork headed to a sporting goods store in downtown Detroit in search of some affordable golf clubs.

She could afford one.

Shirley Spork, a Detroit native and one of 13 founders of the LPGA, gets the crowd fired up at the Solheim Cup in Toledo.

"There were tall ones and short ones and metal ones and wooden ones, and I chose one that was short, metal and straight and had a number 10 on the bottom," Spork recently told The Detroit News. "When I went back to the neighborhood and showed the boys my club, they laughed at me — because it was a putter! I started the game at the end, and I'm still trying to get to the beginning."

Spork turned that accidental putter purchase into a lifetime of impact on the game of golf, as one of the 13 original founders of the Ladies Professional Golf Association in 1950.

The LPGA is stronger than ever today, but on Tuesday, it was mourning. Spork died Tuesday at home in Palm Springs, California. She was 94.

Spork played golf and supported women's golf until the end of her life. She was a regular at the Solheim Cup, women's golf's version of the Ryder Cup. At the Solheim Cup in September in Toledo, she thrilled the galleries with her dancing on the first tee, decked out in red, white and blue from head to toe.

Spork also was a regular at the LPGA's Founders Cup tournament, launched in 2011. She'd shake hands with players, and even dissect their swings and offer suggestions.

She even published a book in 2017, at 89, titled, appropriately, "From Green to Tee."

“There are many things I admire about Shirley but one, in particular, is her passion to continue to learn and stay involved with the game,” Hall of Fame golfer Karrie Webb told LPGA.com.

“When she’s at an LPGA event you will always find her on the range watching all the girls, getting to know them, and maybe even giving a tip or two.”

With Spork's death, the last surviving founder of the LPGA is Marlene Bauer Hagge, who is 88.

Spork grew up in Detroit, in the wake of the Great Depression. She first moved to the Bonnie Brook neighborhood when her dad, who had lost his job, got a job as a caretaker in exchange for free rent. Her love of golf started with that putter, but quickly grew, and a pro at the club eventually gave her four irons (3, 5, 7 and 9) to go with that putter. Before long, she had secured a membership at the old Rogell Golf Course, riding her bike to 7 Mile and Berg, for $35 for the summer.

She began playing tournaments in middle school. Those were after school. In high school (Redford High; Class of 1945), she often skipped class to play in tournaments, often busted when the results made the following day's Detroit News.

Spork considered joining a fledgling women's tour out of high school, but her parents would have none of it. So she attended Michigan State Normal College, which now is Eastern Michigan, with her sights on becoming a physical education teacher. While in college, she won the 1947 national individual intercollegiate golf championship, the predecessor to the NCAAs. In 1948, she was runner-up. (In 2019, she finally was awarded an Eastern Michigan letter jacket.)

In 1949, she graduated and landed a job at Bowling Green State University — and eventually played in the LPGA that she helped found, teaching during the week and traveling to tournaments on the weekend.

Eventually, her parents came to understand her passion.

"My mother said, 'You know, you have to do what you want to do, not what we want you to do,'" Spork told The News in an interview in September.

Her fellow teachers didn't understand how golf would help her save for retirement, but Spork decided to set off to make golf her life, for good.

Shirley Spork is in the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame and EMU athletics Hall of Fame.

Spork's best year on the LPGA came in 1962, when she finished second in the Women's PGA Championship, eighth in the U.S. Women's Open and fourth in another event.

By the 1960s, though, Spork was more of a teaching pro and a star of golf exhibitions. A trick shot artist, she traveled all over the globe, once famously standing on a table in the St. Andrew's clubhouse, showing the men how to hit a lofty pitching wedge. That clubhouse had rarely allowed women to enter.

In 1989, she was inducted into the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame. In 1981, she was inducted into the Eastern Michigan athletics Hall of Fame. In 2019, she entered the PGA of America Hall of Fame. Late last month, the LPGA announced it would be inducting the eight founders who weren't already in the LPGA Hall of Fame; Spork was among those eight, calling the news "the highest honor in our profession."

"I’ve climbed the whole ladder and gotten to the top,” Spork said last month.

She's a two-time LPGA national teacher of the year, having founded the LPGA's teaching division. Spork was a teaching professional at three clubs over the years, two in California and one in Vermont. Until recently, she still played golf regularly, in her weekly "Niners" league in Palm Desert, California.

But it's the LPGA — which she not only founded and played on, but also secured the first sponsors and sold the first tickets, pitching the league in boxing rings and on minor league baseball fields all over the country — that'll be her legacy. It all started at a breakfast in 1949, where the great Babe Didrikson Zaharias had the idea of starting a pro women's tour. She suggested Spork, a top college golfer, turn pro. Spork didn't know how to turn pro, so Didrikson got up from the table, smacked Spork on the head and said, "I deem you a pro."

"We started slowly like a tumbleweed," said Spork, in a half-hour conversation with The News last fall, "and as the wind blew, the tumbleweed went farther.

"And it grew." 

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tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984