Imagine this: You’re one of the best female golfers not only in your college but in your entire state. The biggest national collegiate golf tournament is coming up and you want to play in it. But your college doesn’t let you because it forbids women from playing individual sports. Women shouldn’t rise above others, your Women’s Athletic Department contends. They won’t even sign your application for the tournament.
That’s what LPGA Founder Shirley Spork faced in 1947 when she wanted to enter the Women’s National Collegiate Golf Championship (think NCAA Individual Championship) representing Michigan State Normal College.
Fortunately, Shirley had spunk. She didn’t demurely take “no” for an answer. She waited until she had a substitute teacher–one who might not know her college’s policy–to sign her application. Paying her own way, she made the 182-mile trip to Ohio State University where the tournament was being held.
And not only did she get the chance to compete—she won the tournament!
If you’re thinking she came back to a hero’s welcome at Michigan State Normal, you’d be wrong. The Men’s Athletic Department acknowledged her win, but the Women’s? A big fat nothing, despite Shirley’s win being the only collegiate win Michigan State Normal had in 1947–by men or women.
Shirley Spork is the LPGA’s Jill of All Golf Trades, and Master of All. If there’s a role in golf, Shirley has done it, done it well, and, in many cases, done it first!
As a player, she was the 1948 Amateur Champion, 1949 Michigan State Amateur Champion, Detroit District Champion many times, 1959 California Women’s Medal Golf Champion, the runner-up in a 1962 LPGA Major . . . the list goes on.
As an LPGA Founder, Shirley served as Rules Official and Press Agent, set up courses, and promoted the Tour by doing clinics and attending local events.
But Shirley’s range of leadership in golf is special even among her LPGA Founder peers. She was a head pro, a Director of Golf, and owner of a pro-shop. At one course, she maintained the golf carts, ran the attached inn, and was even the cook!
And while she’s not known for being a golf course architect, at age 12 she “designed” her own golf hole in a vacant field across the street from her house. She took a small scythe and cut the field’s grass down to fairway length. Then she dug a pit to simulate a bunker. She finished the project off by mowing a circle for the green, digging a hole and putting a stick in it. Viola! She built her own golf hole!
But Shirley is best-known for being a teacher. In fact, in 1959, because of her tenacity and belief in LPGA teachers, she was able to get the then LPGA leadership to approve the LPGA Teaching Division, which became the LPGA Teaching and Club Professionals with over 1700 members around the world today. She, herself, was National Teacher of the Year twice.
At 92, Shirley is going strong and still passing on her knowledge and expertise. I’m not convinced one could find a more masterly Master Teacher than Shirley Spork.
Today, women and girls are encouraged to pursue any sport and any career. You may be tempted to say, “How times have changed,” but they didn’t change on their own. They changed because of women like Shirley and the other LPGA Founders, who knew there was something inherently wrong with how women and girls were treated in sports.
When Title IX was passed in 1972, it was arguably the biggest win for girls and women in sports ever. But long before the Billie Jean Kings of the world could make that win happen, the Shirley Sporks of the world paved the way.
By the way, in 2014 Michigan State Normal College—now known as Eastern Michigan University—honored Shirley Spork for her 1947 Women’s National Collegiate Golf Championship. So, there’s a happy ending after all—it just took 67 years.