As the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. It turned out to be a good thing that the colt a 13-year-old girl was caring for got scared by a train and ran wild over Lincoln Park Golf Course on a summer day in 1954. And it’s a good thing that U.C. Ferguson, the longtime professional at the Oklahoma City, Okla., course didn’t cast off a terrified Susie Maxwell Berning.
Instead, the benevolent Ferguson encouraged Berning, the start of a relationship that led to a Hall-of-Fame golf career that produced 13 professional victories, three of which were U.S. Women’s Open titles.
That’s how Susie Maxwell Berning’s passion for golf began.
When her family first moved to Oklahoma City from Southern California, they rented a house across the street from Lincoln Park. The family had little money, so two of Berning’s three brothers started caddieing at Lincoln Park. Susie inquired as well, but Ferguson politely told her that girls didn’t do such things.
So Berning turned to equines when her father was asked by a co-worker to tend to a pair of horses.
On the periphery of Lincoln Park were bridle paths, and one day while she tended to one of the colts on the bridle path, a train conductor sounded his whistle. The scared colt broke free and ran wild on the golf course, damaging a couple of greens. With the help of maintenance workers, the colt was corralled, but Berning was summoned to the pro shop. She expected a thorough tongue-lashing from the head pro.
Berning was crying and petrified when Ferguson approached. He recognized her as the girl who wanted to caddie, and he asked if his rejection was the reason Berning let the horse run wild. She quickly said no.
In lieu of punishment, Ferguson asked Berning if she would teach his two young children to ride. She agreed. So every Saturday during summer vacation she showed up for lessons. One day, Ferguson asked Berning if she was interested in playing golf. “That silly game?” she replied.
When Patty Berg came to town for a clinic, he asked Berning again about golf. This time, she showed up and was mesmerized by Berg’s humor. “Oh, that’s what golf is about,” she remembered saying. “I would like to try that.”
Ferguson provided free lessons, equipment and rounds at Lincoln Park for Berning, an admitted tomboy. A few years later, smitten with golf, she sold the horses for $150 and bought a used Ford.
Berning wasn’t the only Oklahoman to benefit from Ferguson’s generosity. He helped create Golf Inc., a fund that provided area golfers with scholarship money for college. Berning, future U.S. Amateur champion Bob Dickson, Mark Hayes and many others were beneficiaries.
“He was a gentleman and a half,” Berning said of Ferguson, whose Golf Inc. had raised more than $400,000 in scholarship money by the time of his death in 1999. “I wish to this day we had more professionals like U.C. He loved the game and he loved to teach the ladies.”