HONORING THE GAME
Hall Call Comes for 3-Time U.S. Women's Open Champ Berning April 23, 2020 By David Shefter, USGA

Susie Maxwell Berning won her three U.S. Women's Open titles between 1968 and 1973. (USGA Archives)

When anyone starts listing the game’s greatest female champions, names such as Mickey Wright, Louise Suggs, Betsy Rawls, Annika Sorenstam, Se Ri Pak, Nancy Lopez, Kathy Whitworth, Babe Didrikson Zaharias and JoAnne Gunderson Carner immediately get jotted down. But add the U.S. Women’s Open to the equation and another player should be in the conversation: Susie Maxwell Berning.

Berning is one of six players to win at least three U.S. Women’s Open titles, and of her 11 career LPGA Tour victories, four were major championships. Those are remarkable accomplishments for anyone, but Berning, 78, often went overlooked among the pantheon of the female greats. Even when World Golf Hall of Fame voting came up for the female category earlier this year, Berning herself thought she would be edged by 17-time LPGA Tour winner Dottie Pepper, who has been a fixture on television with NBC/Golf Channel, ESPN/ABC and CBS the past 16 years.

“In the golfing world, if you are not my age, they don’t know my name,” said Berning. “They don’t know who I am. I really appreciate the World Golf Hall of Fame considering me and selecting me.”

Berning, who was born in California but honed her skills as a golfer in Oklahoma City, Okla., is the last of the six players to have won at least three U.S. Women’s Opens to enter the World Golf Hall of Fame, joining Wright, Rawls, Zaharias, Sorenstam and Hollis Stacy.

“I’m excited for Susie,” said two-time U.S. Women’s Amateur champion and World Golf Hall of Fame inductee Beth Daniel, a co-chair on the selection committee. “The thing that makes her stand out is her four majors, which she won while juggling a family. There are very few women in the history of golf that have been able to do that, and it lets female golfers know they can have a family and a career. Nancy Lopez did it. Juli Inkster did it. But before them, Susie Berning did it.”

Berning was the fourth and final member of the Class of 2021 to be announced by the Hall of Fame. Nine-time USGA champion Tiger Woods, 1921 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion and golf pioneer Marion Hollins, and recently retired PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem were previously announced. The induction ceremony will either be held next March prior to The Players Championship in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., or in June, before the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.

“I won my three [U.S. Women’s] Opens before Tiger Woods was born,” Berning said, laughing.

“This is quite an honor,” she added. “Just to be in the same room as Mickey Wright, Kathy Whitworth, Judy Rankin and Patty Berg. To be honored alongside them is something I thought would never happen. I never even thought about it. I'm now part of their family, which makes me very proud.”

Susie Maxwell Berning claimed the first of her three U.S. Women's Open titles seven weeks after getting married. (USGA Archives)

Berning claimed the first of her three U.S. Women’s Open titles in 1968 in wire-to-wire fashion, edging four-time champion Wright by three strokes at Moselem Springs Golf Club in Fleetwood, Pa. Her victory came seven weeks after marrying husband Dale Berning. When she won her next Women’s Open four years later at Winged Foot Golf Club, her daughter Robin was 18 months old. She recovered from a disastrous opening-round 79 to win by one stroke with an 11-over total of 299. The following year at the Country Club of Rochester (N.Y.), she won by five strokes over Shelley Hamlin and Gloria Ehret.

“My first one, I had only been married for seven weeks, so I was still on my honeymoon,” said Berning. “My second and third ones, my [oldest] daughter, Robin, was 1½ and then she was 2½ [in 1973]. So when I left the golf course after my rounds, I went home and played with my daughter and visited with my family. I had no time to think, ‘Oh my god, I’m in contention for the Open.’ Having my two children (youngest daughter Cindy was born in 1976) got my mind off golf.”

At 5 feet, 2 inches, Berning was short in stature and short off the tee. She was not a birdie machine, so she relied on her short game and mental fortitude. Those intangibles served her well on difficult layouts like the ones used by the USGA for the U.S. Women’s Open. Being straight off the tee also kept her out of the thick rough often found at these venues.

“Especially at Winged Foot [in 1972],” said Berning. “It had rained the week before. We were hitting drivers [off the tee] and the [balls] were plugging in the fairway. Fortunately, I hit the ball quite straight. But when you only hit it 220 [yards], it doesn’t go too much into trouble. I was a very straight hitter.”

None of this ever would have happened without a scared horse.

After Maxwell’s family moved to Oklahoma City and rented a house across the street from Lincoln Park Golf Course, Susie inquired about caddieing with two of her older brothers. But the pro, U.C. Ferguson, told her lugging bags isn’t something girls do, so she turned her attention to horses.

Her father’s co-worker had a couple of horses that needed tending, and Susie began walking them on a bridle path adjacent to Lincoln Park. When one of the horses got startled and broke free, it ran wild on the golf course and damaged a couple of greens. Maintenance workers corralled the horse, but Maxwell was summoned to the pro shop. Ferguson remembered her as the girl who wanted to caddie. Instead of scolding the distraught 13-year-old, he asked if Maxwell could teach his daughters how to ride horses. It was the beginning of a longtime friendship.

Two years later, 1946 U.S. Women’s Open champion Patty Berg visited Lincoln Park for a clinic. Ferguson asked if Maxwell wanted to watch. She initially scoffed, saying she didn’t want to learn “that silly game.” She later agreed to attend and was immediately mesmerized by Berg’s humor. Maxwell now wanted to try the game, and under Ferguson’s tutelage she became one of the top players in the state.

During practice sessions, she often pretended she was chipping or putting for the U.S. Women’s Open title.

“When I got more involved with golf, the only tournament anyone ever talked about was the U.S. Open,” she said. “It meant the most and still means the most.”

After winning three consecutive Oklahoma high school championships, Maxwell received a golf scholarship to Oklahoma City University, where she played on the men’s team for Abe Lemons, the legendary basketball coach who also oversaw the golf program. Most of that scholarship money came from Ferguson’s Golf Inc., a fund that provided area golfers with money for college. By the time of his death in 1999, Ferguson had raised more than $400,000. Maxwell, future U.S. Amateur champion Bob Dickson and future PGA Tour pro Mark Hayes were among the beneficiaries.

At Oklahoma City, Lemons would put the name S. Maxwell on the lineup card so that opposing players didn’t know they were facing a female. Her exploits came a decade before the passing of Title IX, which required schools to offer the same opportunities for females that were afforded their male counterparts. The competition also prepared Maxwell for a 33-year career on the LPGA Tour.

Her decision to turn professional was hastened when she saw regional rivals Beth Stone and Betsy Cullen join the LPGA Tour. In fact, Stone and Maxwell would share runner-up honors to amateur Catherine Lacoste in the 1967 U.S. Women’s Open.

Berning joined the LPGA Tour in 1964 and became the circuit’s Rookie of the Year. A year later, she won her first title, the Western Open, which was then considered a major championship.

“She practiced all day long,” Ferguson once said. “She practiced her short game a lot. She earned her success.”

After graduating from college, Maxwell worked at three-time U.S. Open host Southern Hills in Tulsa. In a 2000 story in The Oklahoman, she attributed much of her success in the U.S. Women’s Open to the time she spent practicing on that renowned Perry Maxwell course.

Along with her pioneering role raising her daughters while competing on the LPGA Tour, Susie and daughter Robin became the first mother/daughter tandem to play in the same LPGA Tour event, the 1989 Konica San Jose Classic. Five years later, Susie and Robin, who played at San Jose State and Ohio State, teed it up in the Wegmans Rochester LPGA.

After retiring from the LPGA Tour in 1996, Berning remained in the game. For the last 19 years, she has been an instructor at The Reserve Club in Indian Wells, Calif., although she hasn’t played much the last 18 months due to left hip replacement surgery.

Getting the call from the Hall of Fame recently brought some positive news during a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has dominated the national conversation.

Those three U.S. Women’s Opens titles remain etched in Berning’s memory, especially the 1972 title at Winged Foot, where her 79 still is the highest first-round score registered by an eventual champion. Berning recovered with scores of 76-73-71 on the challenging East Course to post 11-over 299.

“I felt very lucky to win at Winged Foot,” she said. “You don’t win [the U.S. Women’s Open] after the first day, but you can sure lose it. Patience and putting [carried me]. I always enjoyed fast greens and we know we are always going to have fast greens at the Open.”

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.

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