A proper tribute for the historian of women’s golf

In The New York Times on Sunday, Lisa Mickey penned a fine tribute to the golfing writer and journalist Rhonda Glenn, who has retired from the United States Golf Association after nearly 50 years of mostly uninterrupted service.

While she’s done a bit of television — incuding a brief stint as the first female sportscaster at ESPN in 1981 — Glenn is best known to hardcore golf fans as the author of “The Illustrated History of Women’s Golf,” published in 1991.

IllHistoryWGolfGlenn displays a subtle sense of humor and playfulness when writing about Mary Queen of Scots as “the game’s first famous female player.” Mary met her dreadful demise in 1587 — at the behest of another female monarch — and Glenn notes that “women’s golf went into something of a decline after that.”

While the LPGA, which was formed in 1950, was popularized by Babe Didrickson Zaharias, Glenn details the careers of women golfers unknown to many. She chronicles the beginnings of the Curtis Cup, the rivalry between amateur greats Joyce Wethered and Glenna Collett Vare and the flamboyant British amateur-turned-journalist Enid Wilson, among many others.

Glenn also mulls what might have been for British women’s golf with the death of amateur standout Pam Barton, who died in a 1943 air crash.

The beginnings of the LPGA and its leading personalities — Zaharias, Patty Berg, Louise Suggs, Betsy Rawls and the Bauer sisters — get worthy treatment from Glenn, a collegiate and amateur golfer who also gives the latter its proper due.

But to me the highlight of the book is Glenn’s chapter on Mickey Wright, the winner of 82 LPGA titles and whom both Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson said possessed perhaps the best swing ever by any golfer, regardless of gender.

Wright dominated the LPGA in the early 1960s the way Nancy Lopez followed in the late 1970s and Annika Sorenstam in the middle of the last decade. The only woman ever to hold all four major titles at once, Wright crafted her elegance and power with a club into the highly visible star power the tour needed in the years after Zaharias’ death from cancer.

Glenn includes sequential photos of Wright’s swing in action, and breaks it down not mechanically, but with a keen understanding of what made the golfer tick: “She viewed golf as a form of self-expression rather than as a contest between people.”

But Wright pulled away from full-time play due to injuries and the stress of being the icon of her sport. Glenn, who interviewed the reclusive Wright while she wrote the book, adds that the pressures building up also came from Wright’s own impossibly high standards: “Her gift was her burden.”

Glenn later pushed for the USGA to add a Mickey Wright room in its Golf House museum; it opened last year. As Wright tells Mickey:

“That room in the museum is not just a tribute to me; it’s a tribute to all the women before me. If it weren’t for her, there would be no recorded history of women’s golf.”

In linking out to Mickey’s piece, ESPN.com‘s Don Van Natta Jr. Tweeted today: “I could not have written ‘Wonder Girl,’ my bio of Babe Didrikson, without the help of the incomparable Rhonda Glenn.”

Said former LPGA golfer Barbara Romack, a longtime friend of Glenn, to Mickey:

“She loves the job telling the story.”

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