Winning the United States Women’s Amateur can make a career. A victory in this national championship virtually guarantees a slot on the USA Curtis Cup team, assures a year of keeping the most beautiful trophy in golf in your clubhouse or your den and, as one Women’s Amateur champion observed, If you’re a champion, the USGA invites you to free chicken dinners for the rest of your life.
But what of those players who came so very close, only to watch a tee shot bound into a brook or a putt veer away from the hole? What of the women who spent their entire competitive lives chasing the elusive dream?
Between 1915 and 1922, Margaret Gavin was runner-up three times. Gavin made her first run at the title in 1915. Playing out of England, she waltzed through four matches at the Onwentsia Club in Lake Forest, Ill., with easy wins.
Mrs. William A. (Margaret) Gavin is something of a mystery today, but in 1915 she was a celebrity. Having hunted big game and had some experience as an aviatrix, the strain of a national championship did not appear to worry her, one newspaper said before the final.
In the 18-hole match, Gavin couldn’t measure up to Florence Vanderbeck on a course measuring more than 6,400 yards and lost, 3 and 2. She (Gavin) appeared to lack power in her long game, while the best that could be said of the other departments was that she was steady, said The American Golfer.
Four years later, Gavin made another run at the title. But trouble was brewing and Gavin’s ill-advised actions during World War I would lead to some embarrassment. In 1919 she was named in a treatise presented to the U.S. Senate, The Investigation of War Charities, by New York’s assistant district attorney. The report outlined the illegal activities of war profiteers who ran false charities for America’s war effort. Many war-time charities were simply scams, with the money going into the founder’s pocket.
Ethel Langdon Drake of New York was one of the profiteers. Drake maintained an office at the Ritz-Carlton and recruited young women to train as nurses. The women paid $100 a month for the privilege. Drake made pleas for contributions from the wealthy, claiming the money would be used to buy and equip a thousand ambulances, which she would send to France. Drake was a colorful character. The medals she sported were awarded for her relief work, she claimed, and she dressed in a flowing nurses’ uniform that made her look like a nun.
It was all a con. Drake’s secretary later testified that Drake started in the charity game with nothing but a brush and a comb. Before the law clamped down, Drake clawed her way into New York society and drafted Margaret Gavin, the well-known golf player, to raise money for her charity through golf exhibitions. With naive patriotism, Gavin went on the road and played her heart out in matches against men, raising more than $30,000.
Fortunately, when the investigation began Gavin had not yet turned over the funds to Drake and instead delivered the money to the district attorney’s office.
Gavin was found innocent of any wrongdoing in the case and later in 1919 arrived at Shawnee-on- Delaware, Pa., to play in the Women’s Amateur with a clear conscience. Now playing out of Chicago, she advanced to the final to meet Alexa Stirling, who had won the 1916 Women’s Amateur, the last championship before the war. Against Stirling, Gavin’s good play deserted her and she won only one hole. Stirling’s straight tee shots and brilliant iron play gave her a 6-and-5 win. In 1920, Stirling would win her third straight championship.
Gavin moved back to England before playing in the 1922 Women’s Amateur at White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. She had won the Women’s Canadian Open Amateur earlier in the year and with new confidence, advanced through the bracket to meet the brilliant young Glenna Collett in the 36-hole final. After playing fine golf all week, Gavin floundered, losing to Collett on the 14th green.
I felt that she did not do herself justice in the morning round, Collett wrote. I was amazed, but breathed a little easier, especially when I found myself 6 up at noon.
For Collett, it was first of a record six Women’s Amateur titles, but Margaret Gavin would never again have a close encounter with the Robert Cox Cup.
Maureen Orcutt, a respected New York Times journalist, was the star of the Metropolitan Women’s Golf Association and won a slew of amateur tournaments. Along with dominating Metropolitan play, she owned three Women’s Eastern titles, the North & South and two Canadian championships. There was but one missing piece – she never won the U.S. Women’s Amateur.
Orcutt came close twice. In 1927, at Cherry Valley G.C. in Garden City, N.Y., she lost in the final to Miriam Burns Horn. Orcutt was bitterly disappointed. She had qualified with a 78, just one stroke out of medal honors. The elite field included former champions Collett, Alexa Stirling Fraser and Dorothy Campbell Hurd and a victory would have proven Orcutt was of national caliber.
Orcutt’s great desire to win the national title rattled her. Lucille MacAllister wrote in Golf Illustrated that Orcutt and Horn as finalists were both keyed to a high nervous pitch. The scores suffered as a result and the gallery became bored…
Orcutt had one more chance. In 1936 she made the final at Canoe Brook in her home state of New Jersey and a loyal gallery traipsed after their favorite. A great deal of pressure was part of that role, but Orcutt played steadily and in the final would meet Pamela Barton, 19, an English star and the reigning British Ladies Open Amateur champion.
To many, Orcutt was due but Barton was just too strong. On a cold, rainy day Barton outplayed Orcutt by shooting under par, capping off the win with a 35-foot birdie putt on the 33rd hole.
Years later, Orcutt said failing to win the Women’s Amateur actually kept her in amateur golf as she chased the elusive prize. In 1962, 26 years after the match against Barton, Orcutt finally captured a USGA championship. Her victory in the inaugural USGA Senior Women’s Amateur brought her to tears. When I won it was the thrill of my life because I’d finally won a United States championship, Orcutt said.
In three different decades, feisty little Polly Riley of Fort Worth, Texas, gave herself at least nine chances to win the national championship. Riley could be gracious, funny and sentimental, and she spoke intelligently on subjects ranging from business to world affairs (in the early 1960s she studied the Russian language), but she was a tiger in a tournament and not above using a bit of gamesmanship to win. In match play she effectively used the speed up, slow down technique, racing around the course against a dawdling player or strolling at a snail’s pace against impatient opponents.
Riley was a short hitter off the tee, which gave her an advantage of hitting the first approach shot. Highly accurate, she hit the green more often than not, then immediately pulled her putter from her bag, giving it a slight twirl, which seemed to imply, In-your-face!
Barely 5-foot-2, Riley had Napoleonic shadows to her character as well as an underdog’s tenacity. Her swing was far from stylish. She changed planes on her backswing and often staggered on her finish. Riley once saw a film of her swing and said it nearly made her quit the game. But she could play. She won the Women’s Southern Amateur six times and, as an amateur, won the 1950 Tampa Women’s Open, the first official tournament of the new Ladies Professional Golf Association. She played on six USA Curtis Cup teams and was runner-up in the 1947 U.S. Women’s Open.
Riley’s failure in the U.S. Women’s Amateur wasn’t through lack of trying. She played in four different decades, missing only two championships from 1946 through 1975. Riley advanced as far as the quarterfinals nine times and was a semifinalist as late as 1965. When she lost, it was to the finest players in the game – Dot Kirby, Orcutt, Grace Lenczyk, Betsy Rawls, Marlene Streit and Mickey Wright, among others.
In 1953 in sultry August heat at Rhode Island C.C., Riley, 27, appeared ready to win. The players she had beaten on her way to final would beef up any hall of fame – Edean Anderson, Anne Quast, Pat O’Sullivan, Kirby and Carolyn Cudone.
Riley played her way into the final to meet Mary Lena Faulk. They were nearly equal off the tee and both were short-game wizards, so it was a good matchup. But Faulk got off to a tremendous start in the morning, firing a 73 and taking a 6-up lead. Riley reduced Faulk’s lead to 3 up three times in the afternoon round, but Faulk held on to win, 3 and 2. It would be Riley’s closest bid to win the national title.
Some 30 years later, Riley reflected on the one hole in her resume. In her charming little frame house on Donnelly Street in Fort Worth, a friend was helping Riley polish her huge collection of silver trophies – the cups, bowls and trays that were the loot of her illustrious career.
Gee, Polly, said the friend, you won everything.
Yes, everything but the one I wanted most, Riley replied.
Many have had the elusive dream. Glenna Collett Vare won six United States titles but never won the British Ladies Open Amateur, the oldest championship in women’s golf, and it galled her. The British became nearly an obsession. More than once I have visualized myself, gray-haired and stooped, wearily trudging over the windswept fairways of an English course seeking that elusive title, she wrote.
Others had brilliant professional careers, but failed to win the U.S. Women’s Open. Kathy Whitworth comes to mind, and Nancy Lopez. In fact, when Lopez came so close to winning in 1997, a USGA staff member noted her huge supporting throng and joked, Maybe the USGA Executive Committee should vote to just give her the trophy.
In the Women’s Amateur, surely Margaret Gavin badly wanted to win. Polly Riley played in 27 championships. Maureen Orcutt played in 26. All admittedly became nervous in their final pursuit. For Gavin, Riley and Orcutt, a single turn of the little white sphere might have changed history. In a sense, it was their honorable pursuit of the title that leaves an impression. Little is known about Gavin but Orcutt, a journalist, and Riley, a public relations director, were respected in their fields. For them, it was their dedication to practice despite their careers, the planning and plotting of their finances in order to play, the long hours, their efforts to have friends, to have a life while they pursued a dream. They never won what they desperately wanted, but perhaps it’s their striving that matters most.
Rhonda Glenn is a manager of communications at the USGA. E-mail her with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.