The Salem Series: 1954 U.S. Women's Open
The 2017 U.S. Senior Open marks the 6th United States Golf Association (USGA) championship to be contested at Salem Country Club. "The Salem Series" shares the club's rich history hosting USGA championships and the story behind the event. In this blog, take a look inside the famous 1954 U.S. Women's Open won by the greatest American female athlete of all time.
When Salem Country Club agreed to host the second United States Women’s Open in 1954, club and USGA officials were concerned that the biggest name in women’s golf at the time, Mildred (“Babe”) Didrikson Zaharias, might not be in the field.
Considered the greatest women’s athlete in American history, Zaharias had been diagnosed with colon cancer and required surgery in April 1953. The operation left her with a colostomy bag and a prognosis from her personal doctor that “she never again will play golf of championship caliber.”
But slightly more than 14 months later, Zaharias was the crowd favorite, if not the experts’ favorite, as the championship got under way on July 1 on Salem CC’s Donald Ross-designed layout. She told the golf writers on hand early in the week – no shrinking violet the Babe -- that she considered herself the player to beat.
“I do expect to win, otherwise George (husband George Zaharias, the former professional wrestler who had retired from the sport to be with his superstar wife year-round) and I wouldn’t be here,” she declared, according to "Gary Larrabee’s Sensation at Sensation":The Legendary Babe Zaharias’s Historic 1954 U.S. Open Victory.
The fans believed her. The vast majority of gallery followed Zaharias each practice day and for the three championship days.
Secretly, the scribes and many of her fellow competitors were concerned that “The Babe,” no spring chicken at 42 years of age, would not cope well with the predicted high temperatures (low to mid-80s) and the requirement she play 36 holes the third and final day, July 3. Her game might be in form, but could her stricken body survive the heat?
Zaharias rewarded her thousands of fans on hand in resounding fashion. In the process she did what few, in honesty, thought she could do. Winner of two U.S. Opens before the USGA took over the tournament in 1953, Zaharias wrote one of the great stories in American golf history by winning the championship by an astounding 12 strokes with her 72-hole total of 291, three over par. Betty Hicks finished second. Future legend Mickey Wright, playing as an amateur, tied for fourth at 308.
“This victory was the answer to a prayer,” Zaharias told the throng surrounding the 18th green at the trophy presentation. “I was in the hospital in Beaumont, Texas for that colostomy (in April 1953) and I made one prayer over and over. I said ‘please make me able to play again. I’ll take care of the winning.”
That she did indeed, though she admitted to The Boston Herald’s Joe Looney during the post-presentation media session that “I was puffing the last six or seven holes. I may have been forcing a little bit, trying to get a score of 288, but I’m happy.”
The Boston Globe’s Tom Fitzgerald called Zaharias’s runaway performance “the four greatest sustained rounds of any woman golfer in history.”
New York Times golf writer Lincoln Werden observed, “We all knew we were seeing the best there is, a real champion giving an outstanding performance. She has set the pattern by which a champion should act on the course and off it, and in the future all women golfers must be judged as they measure up to the standard or fail to do so.”
Babe added,. “To win this championship again, well, I feel good for 20 years more.”
Sadly, Babe would not have those 20 years. She won two tournaments in the next nine months, then started to feel poorly in late winter of 1955 and her health deteriorated from there. She died September 27, 1956 in a Galveston, Texas hospital. She was forty-two according to Babe’s autobiography, 45 according to the Babe Zaharias Museum in Beaumont, Texas.
By: Gary Larrabee, Media Liaison, 2017 U.S. Senior Open