An all-time LPGA great, Betsy Rawls has sadly passed away aged 95. We share Ron Sirak’s tribute to Rawls, released on Saturday by the LPGA.
“Even after her professional playing days were over, Betsy spent her life continuing to have an impact in the game of golf. I know that her ferocity and competitive spirit was something that inspired me and so many other young girls.” – LPGA Commissioner Mollie Marcoux Samaan
History will never know if Betsy Rawls would have been a physicist mentioned with Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and Marie Curie, but the dusty pages of time do tell us she was on a par with Kathy Whitworth, Mickey Wright, Annika Sorenstam, Louise Suggs and Patty Berg. Those are the only players to exceed her 55 LPGA Tour wins.
Rawls, who was born in Spartanburg, S.C., but grew up in Austin, Texas, included among her wins eight LPGA major championships, a total surpassed only by Berg, Wright, Suggs, Sorenstam and Babe Zaharias. Her four U.S. Women’s Open titles are matched only by Wright, a resume that landed Rawls in both the LPGA and World Golf Hall of Fame.
All this was achieved after Rawls, who died on Saturday 21 October 21, at her beach home in Lewes, Delaware at the age of 95, graduated Phi Beta Kapa from the University of Texas with a degree in physics. In fact, she was all set to pursue a career in that field when, in 1951, Wilson Sporting Goods offered to pay her to conduct golf clinics to promote its products.
“I became good pretty quickly, got hooked on golf, and won some amateur tournaments,” Rawls said. “But I had every intention of being a physicist. I played golf for fun and never considered turning professional. Then I decided it would be more fun to be in golf than physics, and Wilson paid me a salary and all my expenses. They paid my expenses for 20 years. One year, I gave 120 clinics.”
Once she joined the LPGA, Rawls not only quickly rose to the top but also began a lifelong journey to promote the Tour. She was president in 1961-62 and following her retirement in 1975, she was active as a tournament director. From 1987 until 2004, she was tournament director of the LPGA Championship, now the KPMG Women’s PGA.
Rawls started playing at 17 and excelled almost immediately. Just four years later, she won the Texas Women’s Amateur, backing it up with another win in 1950. She also won the 1949 Trans-National and the 1950 Broadmoor Invitational, a year in which she also finished second in the U.S. Women’s Open as an amateur.
Rawls turned professional in 1951, joined the LPGA and got her first victory later that year at the Sacramento Women’s Invitational Open. In 1959, she earned the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average and was the Tour’s leading money winner in 1952 and 1959, finishing in the Top 10 on the money list nine times.
In 1967, she was in the inaugural class of the LPGA Hall of Fame, and in 1996, she received the Bob Jones Award, the highest honour given by the USGA. In 1980, she became the first woman to serve as a Rules Official for the men’s U.S. Open.
Rawls’ achievements sprung from a combination of talent, tenacity and trust in herself. Her intellectual detachment allowed her to take emotion out of the game, and that led to her being a relentless champion.
“I thought I was going to be a winner, and as I went along, winning became easier and easier,” Rawls said. “It was something I expected to do. I always played well under pressure because it didn’t bother me, which was why I won so many tournaments.”
Her intellectual approach not only helped Rawls be a winner, it gave the LPGA a hook on which to market her – and the Tour. One photo from the day shows her reading Bertrand Russell’s “A History of Western Philosophy.”
The 1957 LPGA Media Guide said:
“A total of 22 tournament championships and nearly $55,000 in earnings in just six short years. That’s the amazing professional history of sharp, smart, and sedate Betsy Rawls. It has truly been a steady stream of championships, golf and glory for the Phi Beta Kappa graduate from the University of Texas.”
Because Rawls wasn’t a Founder – she joined the LPGA in its second year – and because her achievements were lost first in the shadows of Suggs and Zaharias and later in the glow of golf’s greatest rivalry – Whitworth and Wright – she is frequently forgotten when the greats of the game are discussed.
But those who competed against her were well aware of her ferocity as a competitor and what she meant to the game.
“Winning the Women's Open four times and tying Betsy at four is the most important statistic in my resume,” Wright said shortly before her death in 2020. “I can think of only two women who have achieved as much, not only as players but for their lifetime contributions, and that’s Betsy and Patty Berg.”
While Rawls would never be one to tout her contributions to the game, she was well aware of what golf gave her.
“Anybody who can make a living in golf is lucky,” she said. “Then to receive all the benefits accorded to me in the process, well, it makes me feel fortunate. It’s more than I could possibly deserve.”
She played golf until age 92, only stopping then because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, at age 90, she got a new set of clubs and called her good friend Whitworth to share how well she was hitting them.
Janet Davis, with whom Betsy shared her life, was by her side when Rawls passed.
Physics is all about understanding how the universe works, comprehending how matter moves through space and time. Fortunately for golf, Rawls abandoned that pursuit for another seemingly impossible task: Maneuvering a ball around the course and into the hole.
In that regard, she was an equal to Newton, Einstein and Curie. Golf has its own Theory of Relativity: In the women’s game, Betsy Rawls is in the extremely limited universe of the best ever to play the game.
By Ron Sirak