125 Years of Golf in America: Pennsylvania July 3, 2019

The USGA was founded on Dec. 22, 1894. With the 125th anniversary coming at the end of 2019, every week throughout the year we're highlighting how all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, make the game we all love a great one in the United States. 

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Watch: Two-time U.S. Women's Open champion and World Golf Hall of Famer Betsy King on growing up in Pennsylvania, charity work

Carol Semple Thompson, Female Golf Ambassador

By David Shefter, USGA

 

Pennsylvania native Carol S. Thompson is one of the most decorated amateur golfers, male or female, in the game's history. (USGA/John Mummert)

When it comes to producing quality golfers, few states can match Pennsylvania. Arnold Palmer, Betsy King, Jim Furyk, Jay Sigel, John McDermott, Sam Parks Jr. and Dorothy Porter have had their names etched into some of the game’s iconic trophies. Other prominent USGA champions from the Keystone State include Janet Anderson (Alex), S. Davidson Herron, Max Marston, Frances Griscom, Carl Kaufmann, Skee Riegel, William C. Fownes Jr., Nathan Smith, Sean Knapp, Buddy Marucci, O. Gordon Brewer and William Hyndman.

And then there is arguably the state’s greatest golf ambassador not named Arnold Palmer. Few can compare with the on-course résumé of Carol Semple Thompson, but Thompson’s brilliance goes beyond her success on the golf course. Here’s the Cliff Notes version of her accomplishments:

  • Seven USGA championship wins, including the 1973 U.S. Women’s Amateur, tied for fifth-most in USGA history behind Bob Jones, Tiger Woods, JoAnne Carner and Jack Nicklaus

  • Competed in 116 USGA championships, including 32 U.S. Women’s Opens

  • 1974 British Ladies Open Amateur champion

  • 22 Pennsylvania Women’s State Amateurs (the next closest is Helen Sigel Wilson with 5)

  • 15 Western Pennsylvania Women’s Amateur titles

  • 9 USA Curtis Cup appearances (record)

  • 5 USA Women’s World Amateur Team Championship appearances

  • Represented Pennsylvania in first 8 USGA Women’s State Team Championships (won inaugural event in 1995)

  • Twice a victorious USA Curtis Cup Team captain (2006 and 2008)

  • Member of the USGA Executive Committee (1994-2000)

  • Two-time North & South Women’s Amateur champion

  • Recipient of 2003 USGA Bob Jones Award (Association’s highest honor)

  • Recipient of 2005 PGA “First Lady of Golf Award”

  • Inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2008


For Thompson, it all began in Sewickley, Pa., where her parents were ardent golfers and proponents of the amateur game. Harton Semple, an attorney, became more prominent as a golf administrator, serving 10 years on the USGA Executive Committee, the last two as USGA president in 1974-75. Phyllis Semple was an accomplished amateur golfer who competed in every major Pennsylvania women’s event and the U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship before lupus eventually halted her competitive career. She also served for many years on the USGA Women’s Committee, the U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur Championship Committee and the USGA Museum and Library Committee.

Harton, in fact, had a family rule that all five of his children had to break 90 before they could quit. All achieved the feat, but only Carol developed the passion to compete on the game’s biggest stages.

Early on, she tagged along with her mother during the summer competition season, where she met some of the legends of amateur women’s golf, such as Barbara McIntire, Judy Bell, Phyllis (Tish) Preuss, Dorothy Porter, Helen Sigel Wilson and Nancy Syms. It wouldn’t be long before she was beating all of them.

Her first major win came at 16 when she met – and handily defeated – her mother in the final of the 1965 Western Pennsylvania Women’s Amateur at Sewickley Heights Country Club, a club that her father had helped found five years earlier.

Eight years later at Montclair (N.J.) Golf Club, Harton Semple handed the Robert Cox Trophy to his daughter as the U.S. Women’s Amateur champion. Normally, the USGA president did the honors, but then-president Lynford Lardner Jr. ceded to the current vice president. It was the only time Harton would see his daughter claim a USGA title as he died six months before her next title, the 1990 U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur.

That 1973 victory marked the first time the offspring of a USGA Executive Committeeman had won a USGA title. Sixteen years later, James Taylor, the son of future USGA president Buzz Taylor, would win the U.S. Mid-Amateur.

“I didn’t realize how unusual it was,” said Semple Thompson, 70. “It’s certainly the highlight of my golf life. We didn’t talk at great lengths [at that moment], but I could tell he was emotional.”

Only a few years earlier, Semple Thompson wouldn’t have envisioned such a moment. She contemplated turning professional after graduating from Hollins (Va.) University. Harton talked her out of it by offering to financially support her if she remained an amateur. It was an offer Carol, who wasn’t quite sure what vocation she wanted to pursue, couldn’t turn down.

Although she spent the winter in Florida to prepare for the 1971 amateur season, Semple Thompson failed to produce any significant results. If anything, it showed she wasn’t ready for life as a professional golfer.

The physical gifts were there, but mentally she couldn’t get over the hump until she met Mike Walsh, a steel salesman who dabbled in hypnosis. Semple Thompson spent six weeks listening to audio tapes and adopted his methods.

“I learned how to relax and visualize,” said Semple Thompson. “I didn’t do that before.”

By 1973, she was ready to make noise in the amateur ranks, and it culminated in her rallying to defeat three-time champion Anne Sander in the 36-hole U.S. Women’s Amateur final, 1 up.

Semple Thompson became one of the game’s most mentally tough foes, especially in match play where her USGA record is an astonishing 155-67.

Many of her greatest moments have come in Pennsylvania, which has hosted the most USGA championships (87) of any state and features two of the game’s iconic venues – Merion and Oakmont – which have combined to host 34 of them. According to Semple Thompson, that’s a key reason why the Keystone State has produced so many great players. And it’s not just Merion and Oakmont. Philadelphia Country Club, Kahkwa Club, Aronimink, Rolling Green Golf Club, Philadelphia Cricket Club, Lancaster Country Club and Fox Chapel have all hosted multiple major events.

“We have beautiful golf courses everywhere,” said Semple Thompson, “and it’s inspired a lot of players.”

Thompson claimed two of her seven USGA titles at her home club, Allegheny Country Club in Sewickley. Her first U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur title came in 1990 and she won the third of four consecutive U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur crowns there in 2001, a few days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

But it was the following year at Fox Chapel outside of Pittsburgh where Semple Thompson enjoyed one of her most special moments. Late Sunday afternoon during the last singles session of the biennial Curtis Cup Match, the then 52-year-old converted a 27-foot putt from just off the 18th green to seal the competition for the Americans. It was Semple Thompson’s 12th and final appearance in the Match and the roar emanating from that green was electrifying. On a team with seven college standouts, it was the grand dame of USA amateur golf who delivered the poignant snapshot of the weekend.

“That was fantastic,” said Semple Thompson. “Definitely storybook.”

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