Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Golf and Athletics Legend

Babe Didrikson Zaharias
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Babe Didrikson Zaharias is arguably the greatest female athlete of all-time — at the very least she is considered by sports historians one of the greatest ever. After years of excelling in other sports, including winning Olympic medals, Zaharias took up golf. She quickly became one of the best ever in that sport, too, and her presence in the early days of the LPGA Tour was critical in the growth of women's golf.

Fast Facts: Babe Didrikson Zaharias

  • Known For: Olympic track and field medalist, professional golfer
  • Born: June 26, 1911 in Port Arthur, Texas
  • Parents: Ole Didriksen and Hannah Didriksen (as an adult, Babe changed the spelling of her surname to end with "on" rather than "en")
  • Died: September 27, 1956 in Galveston, Texas
  • Key Accomplishments: AAU All-American in basketball; won two gold medals and one silver medal in track & field at 1932 Summer Olympics; won U.S. Women's Open golf tournament in 1948, 1950, 1954; credited with 41 LPGA Tour wins.
  • Spouse: George Zaharias (married 1938)
  • Children: None
  • Famous Quote: When asked how she hit the golf ball so far, she replied, "I just loosen my girdle and let the ball have it."
  • Fun Fact: Zaharias once won the sewing championship in the South Texas State Fair. She also was a singer and musician and recorded several records.

Zaharias' Golf Wins and Honors

In the major championships of amateur golf, Zaharias won three times: the U.S. Women's Amateur in 1946 and 1947, and the British Women's Amateur in 1947.

In the professional major championships, she won 10 times (still fourth-best in LPGA history): the U.S. Women's Open in 1948, 1950 and 1954; the Women's Western Open in 1940, 1944, 1945 and 1950; and the Titleholders in 1947, 1950 and 1952.

Zaharias was the LPGA Tour money leader in 1950 and 1951, and the scoring leader in 1954. She received the Bob Jones Award, the highest honor given by the USGA, posthumously in 1957. She is a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame.

For her accomplishments before becoming a pro golf, and after, she was named the Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year in 1931, 1945, 1946, 1947, 1950 and 1954.

And she was named the Female Athlete of the Century (for the 20th century) by the Associated Press and Sports Illustrated.

Zaharias' Panoply of Sports Before Golf

She is undoubtedly one of the greats in the history of women's golf. But a strong argument can also be made that Babe Didrikson Zaharias was the greatest female athlete of all-time. Writing about her in 1939, Time magazine described her this way:

"... (F)amed woman athlete, 1932 Olympic Games track & field star, expert basketball player, golfer, javelin thrower, hurdler, high jumper, swimmer, baseball pitcher, football halfback, billiards, tumbler, boxer, wrestler, fencer, weight lifter, adagio dancer."

They left out tennis and diving, among others. Somehow, Babe even managed to find time to play harmonica in vaudeville shows and win the sewing championship at the 1931 South Texas State Fair!

Later, a newspaper reporter wrote that Zaharias "operates like a woman whose life is a constant campaign to astound people."

Babe Didrikson Zaharias shows off her javelin form in 1932.
Babe Didrikson Zaharias was a gold medal winner in javelin at the Summer Olympics. Bettmann/Getty Images

Didrikson, whose given name was Mildred, grew up in Texas, the daughter of immigrant Norwegians. She was nicknamed after Babe Ruth because of her baseball talents (she later barnstormed with the famed House of David team).

In basketball, she led her team to the Amateur Athletic Union national championship in 1931 and was an All-American selection three consecutive years.

In track and field, Zaharias set five world records in one day at an AAU meet in 1932. At that meet, her team won the national team title ... and she was the only member of the team!

At the 1932 Olympics, Babe won gold medals in the 80-meter hurdles and javelin, and silver in the high jump.

Turning to Golf

Zaharias didn't even take up golf until she was in her 20s, then won the first tournament she entered, the 1935 Texas Women's Invitational. And she worked hard at her game, hitting as many as 1,000 balls a day during practice sessions.

All the work paid off. She won, and won a lot, including her first major at the 1940 Women's Western Open. She won 17 of the 18 tournaments she entered in 1946-47, including the U.S. Women's Amateur in 1946 and British Ladies Amateur in 1947.

Babe Didrikson Zaharias after winning one of her US Women's Open titles.
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Babe won on the Women's Professional Golf Association tour, too, the predecessor to the LPGA, of which she was a co-founder in 1950.

Zaharias was, by far, the biggest star of the young LPGA. At tournaments, she was a showman and a showboat. Her on-course banter with fans was often off-color, sometimes crude, but always entertaining. She gave the people what they wanted, and they came out to see her. Babe's star power has often been credited with keeping the fledgling tour alive, and behind the scenes, she worked tirelessly to line up sponsors — sometimes cold-calling companies and haranguing their CEOs until they agreed to sponsor an event.

Cancer Diagnosis and Death

Zaharias was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1953 and underwent surgery. She returned to win the 1954 U.S. Women's Open by 12 strokes, plus the Vare Trophy for low scoring average on the LPGA. But the cancer came back in 1955. She won the last tournament she played, the 1955 Peach Blossom Open, then was too ill to continue.

In December of 1955, struggling to find the energy just to walk, Zaharias had a friend drive her to Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth. She knelt down and touched the grass one last time.

She died months later at age 45.

More Facts and Figures about Zaharias

  • Babe Didrikson Zaharias was featured on a U.S. postage stamp in 1981.
  • She was portrayed by actress Susan Clark in the 1975 made-for-TV movie Babe.
  • She was the first American to win the British Ladies Amateur Championship.
  • Zaharias won the LPGA "grand slam," claiming all three majors played in 1950.
  • She still holds several LPGA: Golfer who reached 10 wins the fastest (1 year, 20 days), fastest to 20 wins (2 years, 4 months), and fastest to 30 wins (5 years, 22 days).
  • In 1945, Zaharias played in three tournaments on the PGA Tour. She shot 76-81 to make the two-day cut at the Los Angeles Open, but didn't survive the three-day cut after a 79. She made the cut at the Phoenix Open, shooting 77-72-75-80. And she made the cut at the Tucson Open, shooting 307 and finishing tied for 42nd. She got into the Phoenix and Tucson events through 36-hole qualifiers, and into the Los Angeles Open on a sponsor's exemption.
  • Zaharias had previously played in the Los Angeles Open in 1938, shooting 81-84 and missing the cut.

    The Quotable Babe

    A few of Zaharias' better-known quotations:

    • "Before I was ever in my teens, I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up. My goal was to be the greatest athlete that ever lived."
    • On how she generated power in her golf swing: "I just loosen my girdle and let the ball have it."
    • A frequent saying when she arrived at a tournament: "The Babe is here. Who's coming in second?"
    • "The formula for success is simple: practice and concentration, then more practice and more concentration."
    • "They say golf came easy to me because I was a good athlete, but there's not any girl on the LPGA Tour who worked near as hard as I did in golf. It is the toughest game I ever tackled."
    • Upon arriving at a tournament site and seeing the other players practicing: "I don't know why you're practicing so hard to finish second."

    Babe Didrikson Zaharias' LPGA Tour Wins

    Zaharias is credited with 41 victories on the LPGA Tour. The tour was founded in 1950; wins in years prior to that are ones that the tour retroactively recognizes as "official wins."

    • 1940 Women's Western Open
    • 1944 Women's Western Open
    • 1945 Women's Western Open
    • 1947 Tampa Open
    • 1947 Titleholders Championship
    • 1948 All American Open
    • 1948 World Championship
    • 1948 U.S. Women's Open
    • 1949 World Championship
    • 1949 Eastern Open
    • 1950 Titleholders Championship
    • 1950 Pebble Beach Weathervane
    • 1950 Cleveland Weathervane
    • 1950 144 Hole Weathervane
    • 1950 Women's Western Open
    • 1950 All American Open
    • 1950 World Championship
    • 1950 U.S. Women's Open
    • 1951 Ponte Verde Beach Women's Open
    • 1951 Tampa Women's Open
    • 1951 Lakewood Weathervane
    • 1951 Richmond Women's Open
    • 1951 Valley Open
    • 1951 Meridian Hills Weathervane
    • 1951 All American Open
    • 1951 World Championship
    • 1951 Women's Texas Open
    • 1952 Miami Weathervane
    • 1951 Titleholders Championship
    • 1951 Bakersfield Open
    • 1951 Fresno Open
    • 1951 Women's Texas Open
    • 1953 Sarasota Open
    • 1953 Babe Zaharias Open
    • 1954 Serbin Open
    • 1954 Sarasota Open
    • 1954 Damon Runyon Cancer Fund Tournament
    • 1954 U.S. Women's Open
    • 1954 All American Open
    • 1955 Tampa Open
    • 1955 Peach Blossom Open