Once a Jayhawk, Always a Jayhawk: Marilynn Smith
Marilynn Smith always wanted to be a pitcher. From the ages of 10 to12, she acted as pitcher, coach and manager of a boys’ baseball team and was already pushing herself to become the best competitor she could be. After a bad practice, she let out a certain s-word and threw her mitt against her living room wall. After her dad arrived home, he had the idea to teach her “a ladylike sport” that he thought would suit her more. He drove her down to the Wichita Country Club from her Topeka home to take individual golf lessons and the rest is history.
“Girls weren’t supposed to be playing golf. We were supposed to be married, have a family, in the house cooking and everything. It was quite different back then,” Smith said.
“Back then” specifically refers to 1941, which is the year Smith was introduced to the game of golf at the age of 12. Almost 76 years later, Smith feels blessed to have won 21 titles and two major events, but she’s most proud to be one of the game’s greatest ambassadors. She and 13 other women faced the odds and created modern women’s professional golf with the evolution of the Ladies’ Professional Golf Association (LPGA). That was in 1950, only two years after her college career ended at the University of Kansas.
Smith decided to join the Jayhawks after initially going to Northwestern, but ended up leaving because of the cold weather. She arrived to KU in a time where there was no women’s golf team and not much recognition for women’s athletes in general. It didn’t take long for Smith to get noticed as her two-year career at Kansas was highlighted by a 1949 National Collegiate Individual title.
“I wanted to play in the 1948 women’s national intercollegiate tournament so my father asked KU athletic director Phog Allen for travel expense money for me to play in the tournament. And he said, ‘Mr. Smith, it’s too bad your daughter isn’t a boy,'” Smith said. “This moment was kind of the catalyst (for me) to do bigger things and gain more recognition for younger women who wanted to go to college.”
Following her title win, the pros for Spalding Sporting Goods approached Smith with an exciting proposal to turn pro. It involved a $5,000 salary, a green Dodge and paid travel expenses. She wanted to continue learning at KU, but realized opportunity only knocks once. Her only request: Spalding throw in some baseball mitts so she could play catch with the caddies after tournaments. From there, she began her incredible run around the world where she traveled to all 50 states, 36 countries and met six United States presidents. And it’s all because of golf. From Nixon, Ford, Kennedy to Eisenhower and Australia to New Zealand, Smith doesn’t shy away from her journey as a pro. From 1954-72, she won at least one tour event in 14 of those 19 years.
“I introduced myself to Ike [Eisenhower], we shook hands and he promptly punched a 2-iron under the trees onto the green. I think that was probably one of the coolest moments I had,” Smith said of Eisenhower.
Her journey also included traveling to Major League Baseball (MLB) stadiums where she casually hit a 9-iron into center field in places like St. Louis and Cincinnati and spoke into the mic to get people to watch the women play.
A teacher, mentor and pioneer for the sport of women’s golf began with the work of 13 ambassadors in the creation of the LPGA in 1950. She served as a three-time president of the LPGA and remembers how this group of women came together to develop the sport. Her proudest moments, however, are her title wins at the 1963 and 1964 Titleholder’s Championship against Mickey Wright, a LPGA tour member and a hall of famer. Smith calls this moment at the famous Augusta Country Club in Georgia, “the proudest moment of her life.”
Although her golf career is now over, Smith loves to give back through her scholarship and her golf invitational, which alternates hosts between Kansas and K-State. As a result of not being able to compete in the 1948 women’s national intercollegiate tournament, Smith started the scholarship in 1999 to provide postgraduate opportunities tofemale high school seniors who played golf in high school and plan to play at the collegiate level. For the last nine years, she has organized her Pro-Am golf classic in Phoenix that raises money for this scholarship.
“Last year, we made $145,000 in our pro-am and gave 35,000 scholarships to help young women go to college,” Smith said. “I can’t play golf anymore because of my knees, so this is my life now; to help with this tournament. That’s my baby right now. There are 46 pros who play with men and women amateurs, so this is always a big event.”
A member of eight hall of fames, including the prestigious World Golf Hall of Fame, Smith cherishes her time at Kansas and what she brought to the University as a member of Kappa Alpha Theta sorority and the softball team.
“The friendships I’ve made and the people I’ve met all added to my experience,” Smith said. “I had a wonderful time. I also went to a lot of football games. My teachers were terrific and it was a great institution for learning. I wish I could have stayed longer, but it was quite a privilege to attend the University of Kansas. Once a Jayhawk, Always a Jayhawk, am I right?”
She’s right. Once a Jayhawk, Always a Jayhawk.