History On Philadelphia Country Club’s Side

Venue Hosting Fourth USGA Championship … Boasts Steep Pedigree Of Past Female Champions

 

By David Shefter

Gladwyne, Pa. – When the 156 competitors convene this week at Philadelphia Country Club for the playing of the 103rd U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship, they will be stepping onto a venue that boasts over a century of tradition and heritage in the game of golf.

 

The club, which was formed in 1890 and is the oldest in the Philadelphia area, was the seventh to join the fledgling United States Golf Association. The USGA was formed in 1894 by five clubs – The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., St. Andrews Golf Club in New York, Shinnecock Hills on the eastern end of Long Island, Newport (R.I.) Golf Club and Chicago (Ill.) Golf Club.

 

By 1899, Philadelphia C.C. and its Bala Course had earned enough national prestige to host the Women’s Amateur. Margaret Fox, a member and one of the best female golfers in the nation, played a key role in landing the championship and advanced all the way to the championship match before falling to Ruth Underhill, 2 and 1.

 

Sixteen years later, club member Florence Vanderbeck defeated Margaret Gavin, 3 and 2, at Onwentsia Club in Lake Forest, Ill., for the Women’s Amateur title. Vanderbeck also was a semifinalist six other times and captured the Eastern Amateur in 1921, six years before Philadelphia Country Club opened its new Spring Mill course. The club purchased two adjoining properties in Gladwyne and commissioned William Flynn and Howard Toomey to design and construct an 18-hole course.

 

The Bala Course, a 60-acre property adjoining Fairmont Park in the town of Bala that had hosted the 1899 Women’s Amateur, remained as part of the club until 1950 when the land was sold for commercial development. Shortly thereafter, the greens were carted off by truck to neighboring Bala Gold Club, where they have continued to serve golfers for more than 50 years.

 

But the Bala Course did get one last moment of glory in 1949 when it hosted the inaugural U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship. The field drew 33 of the country’s best young female golfers and was won by a Californian, Marlene Bauer, who was recently elected into the World Golf Hall of Fame and was the daughter of a club professional. Bauer, who defeated future Women’s Amateur champion fellow Californian Barbara Romack in the semis, 3 and 1, went on to beat Barbara Bruning, of White Plains, N.Y., in the final, 2 up. Bauer, 15 at the time, did not return to defend her title the following year as she turned professional.

 

Before that championship, Philadelphia Country Club could boast of two other prominent players. Helen Sigel Wilson never did win a Women’s Amateur title, but she did reach the final in 1941, bowing to Elizabeth Hicks, 5 and 3, at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. Sigel played basketball and field hockey in school and once she took up golf, the game came naturally. By the age of 19, she managed to reach the finals of the Philadelphia Women’s Amateur where she lost to Philadelphia C.C.’s other icon, Glenna Collett Vare, 3 and 2. Four years later, she would attain the title, whipping Vare, 6 and 4, in the final at Philmont. She would finish with a record 12 Philadelphia Women’s Amateur titles, the last coming at the age of 56. She also won two Pennsylvania Women’s Amateur titles and two Eastern Amateurs.

 

Following World War II, Wilson played in the 1946 Women’s Amateur at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Okla., only to run into the long-hitting Babe Didrikson Zaharias in the semis, losing 3 and 2. Two years later, she reached the Women’s Amateur finals again, this time at Del Monte Golf and Country Club (Pebble Beach Golf Links), but Grace Lenczyk denied her the title in the championship match, 4 and 3.

 

At the 1965 Women’s Open contested at Atlantic City Country Club, Wilson was in the hunt until the final round, settling for a tie for fifth. Her aggregate score of 296 was a record that has since been broken and is now owned by Grace Park.

 

Wilson would be selected to two Curtis Cup teams, in 1950 and 1966. And in 1978, the USGA bestowed Sigel the honor of captaining the USA squad that defeated Great Britain and Ireland, 12-6, at Apawamis Club in Rye, N.Y. That team featured future LPGA star Beth Daniel. “That was my biggest honor,” she said.

 

Wilson ’s memory is being rekindled this week as she is serving as an honorary chairman for the Women’s Amateur.

 

The other female of note from the club, of course, was Glenna Collett Vare . The native of Rhode Island moved to Philadelphia when she married Philadelphia businessman Edwin H. Vare, Jr. They were members at famed Merion and Philadelphia C.C., but she represented the latter in competitions. Vare would win a record six Women’s Amateur titles, one more than JoAnne Gunderson Carner. She captured her first in 1922, added a second in 1925, and then joined Beatrix Hoyt and Alexa Stirling on the short list of those who have won this championship three consecutive times, taking the title from 1928-30. Virginia Wie (1932-1934) and Juli Simpson Inkster (1980-82) would also join that elite club.

 

Vare nearly completed the four-peat in 1931, but Helen Hicks stopped the streak in the championship match at The Country Club of Buffalo (N.Y.), 2 and 1. Vare would also lose in the 1932 final to Van Wie, 10 and 8, at Salem (Mass.) Country Club. But Vare was not finished winning. In 1935, at the age of 32, she knocked off Patty Berg, 3 and 2, in the final at Interlachen Country Club in Hopkins, Minn. That’s the same club where Bobby Jones won the 1930 U.S. Open en route to capturing the Grand Slam.

 

Although a lifelong amateur, Vare was elected to the LPGA Hall of Fame in 1950. Three years later, the LPGA created the Vare Trophy, given annually to the player with the lowest scoring average on the women’s professional tour. It is the LPGA’s equivalent of the Vardon Trophy (named after Harry Vardon), which is given to the PGA Tour player with the lowest scoring average.

 

In 1932, Vare also helped found the biennial Curtis Cup competition, playing in four Matches (three USA wins and a tie) and compiling an overall record 4-2-1. The USGA also named a trophy in her honor. The Glenna Collett Vare Trophy goes to the winner of the U.S. Girls’ Junior.

 

Men’s golf also has had its share of history at Philadelphia Country Club. Twelve years after the opening of the Spring Mill Course, the USGA brought the U.S. Open to the venue, where one of the famous final-hole collapses took place. Needing only a par at the 72nd hole to secure victory, Sam Snead thought he needed a birdie. He played the par-5 a bit too aggressively, hooking his tee shot into the rough. Gambling with a 2-wood, Snead thinned his second shot into a steep-faced crossbunker and failed to extricate his ball on his first attempt. His fourth shot found another bunker and his fifth finally found the green. Frustrated by this time, Snead proceeded to three-putt for a triple-bogey eight and a total of 286, two more than Byron Nelson, Craig Wood and Denny Shute.

 

Those three would play off the next day to decide the title, with Wood and Nelson carding 68s and Shute a 76. The 27-year-old Nelson and Wood, 37, would play another 18 holes to decide the championship. At the fourth hole (today it is hole 17), Nelson registered the shot of the 1939 Open and one of the best in the history of the event. From 215 yards away, the Texan struck a 1-iron that soared right toward the flagstick. The ball found the hole for an eagle 2 and Nelson finished with a 70, three ahead of Wood. It was Nelson ’s only U.S. Open triumph.

 

So 54 years after hosting its last USGA championship, Philadelphia C.C. again finds itself in the national spotlight this week. The field is exceptionally strong, with 20 participants having already competed at this year’s Women’s Open, including 13-year-olds Michelle Wie and Sydney Burlison . Eighteen players competed at the Girls’ Junior, held July 21-26 at Brooklawn Country Club in Fairfield, Conn., including runner-up and 2002 Girls’ Junior champion In-Bee Park (champion Sukjin-Lee Wuesthoff withdrew to compete in another junior event).

 

Also, four members of the 2002 USA Curtis Cup team are playing (Carol Semple Thompson, Mollie Fankhauser, Emily Bastel and Leigh Anne Hardin).

 

By the end of the week, a champion will be crowned and another chapter in Philadelphia C.C. history created.

 

David Shefter is a staff writer with the USGA. He can be reached at dshefter@usga.org.

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