If you could find a topic in golf, Shirley Spork could tell you a story about it.
Women’s golf? As one of the 13 founders of the LPGA in 1950, Spork knew all of the fabled names. Men’s golf? She knew those players, too, from the late 1940s on. Desert golf? As a teaching pro, Spork was in the desert at a time when the game boomed in the Coachella Valley in the 1950s.
That’s because Spork, the Palm Desert resident who died Tuesday at 94, loved golf. She was passionate about golf and teaching the game, so much so that she turned her back on playing the game on the early LPGA Tour to become a teacher.
That passion allowed her to be a founder of the LPGA’s Teaching and Club Pro division. It also led her to be inducted into the PGA of America’s Hall of Fame. For Spork, golf had been her life, even if she had to fight like other women in the game for equal footing.
Take, for instance, the story Spork loved of getting her first assistant pro job at Tamarisk Country Club in Rancho Mirage in 1953.
“I came down here and (the LPGA) played our first tournament at Tamarisk and I thought, I’m gonna go and see if they need a golf pro here in the winter and I’ll play the summer and teach all winter,” Spork recalled on March 30 while attending the Chevron Championship at Mission Hills Country Club.
Turns out, Tamarisk did need a pro to help head professional Ellsworth Vines. Once she was given the salary she fought for (“I need to eat, too,” Spork said she told the board), she set up her career in the desert and would be a fixture in the area for another 69 years.
A fixture for the LPGA
“Precious few are true pioneers in their passion, but Shirley Spork was twice trailblazer in the sport she loved – golf,” the LPGA said in a statement confirming Spork’s passing. “In 1950, she was one of 13 Founders of the LPGA. A decade later, Spork almost singlehandedly created the LPGA Teaching & Club Pro Division.”
Before the LPGA, Spork was a star golfer at Eastern Michigan University in an era before the NCAA had a national championship for women players. What did exist was won by Spork, but she said even her university wouldn’t acknowledge her national championship because it was women’s sports.
Nothing like that slight could slow down Spork. By 1950, Spork was ready to sign on as one of the 13 players on the LPGA. The 13, called the Founders, were all talented golfers who loved the game, but Spork said she realized early on that she could not compete with golfers like Babe Zaharias, Louise Suggs, Marilynn Smith and the Bauer sisters, Alice and Marlene. Marlene Hagge, also a desert resident, is now the sole remaining founder at 87 years old.
Accepting that she wouldn’t make much money on the LPGA against those golfers, and with a teaching background with her education from Eastern Michigan, Spork decided that teaching golf was a more stable living. Teaching suited Spork perfectly, because she mostly wanted to help other people play the game better.
If she saw someone take a half swing unconsciously, she’d chime in “get more onto your left side,” or “don’t sway in that backswing.” And you would end up talking to her and walk away smiling. Spork would hold charity tournaments to raise funds for Eastern Michigan University but also for The First Tee of the Coachella Valley. If there was someone who needed help, Spork wanted to help, and for that she was loved by the golfers in and around the LPGA past and present.
The week of the Chevron Championship, the LPGA announced that it would induct into its Hall of Fame all founders who had not made the Hall through playing criteria. That included Spork, who was delighted by the news.
“Oh, my, what a tremendous surprise, and so, so welcomed for all our members of the Founders to be able to be honored and be inducted into the tour’s Hall of Fame, LPGA Hall of Fame,” Spork said that day.
When I asked Spork just how many Hall of Fames she was in now, she smiled and looked at me from under the brim of her straw hat and said, “Oh, four or five, I guess.”
That was Shirley. Smiling and enjoying golf until the end.
Larry Bohannan is The Desert Sun golf writer. He can be reached at [email protected] or (760) 778-4633. Follw him on Facebook or on Twitter at @larry_bohannan. Support Local journalism. Subscribe to The Desert Sun.
This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: LPGA: Shirley Spork’s passion for golf lifted the LPGA and teaching pros