The Incredible Babe Didrikson-Zaharias Part 3: The Greatest Female Golfer of All Time, and a Life Transformed

Babe Didrikson Zaharias

On July 31, 1932, Babe Didrikson won a gold medal in the javelin throw. On August 3rd and 4th, she ran in the 80-meter hurdles heats and then finals, winning her second gold medal. And on August 7, she battled Jean Shiley to the very end, losing the gold to Shiley on a rule violation.

Somewhere in that week, between July 31 and August 7, Didrikson found time to join three sportswriters for a game of golf at the Brentwood country Club. Famed writer, Grantland Rice, was one of the party of four that played the links with Didrikson, who had never played golf before. According to Rice, Didrikson carded a 91, and hit drives of 250 yards.

After the Olympics, Didrikson’s star shining brightly, Babe showed off her various skills in the vaudeville circuit, barnstormed with a basketball team, and generally played to adoring crowds. In 1935, she began to play golf more seriously, even competing in the all-male Los Angeles Open in 1938. It was at a golf tournament that year when Didrikson met a wrestler named George Zaharias, whom she married later that year.

In the 1940s, Babe Didrikson dominated women’s golf. In one stretch in 1946 and 1947, Didrikson won 14 golf tournaments in a row, including the first time an American had ever won the British Women’s Amateur Championship. To this day, Babe’s streak stands as the greatest in golf history.

In 1950, at the peak of her career, there were only about six tournaments a year for women. Using her influence to round up corporate sponsors, Didrikson formed a new pro tour called the Ladies Professional Golf Association, or the LGPA.

george-zaharias-and-babe-didrikson
George Zaharias and Babe Didrikson

In 1953, Didrikson was diagnosed with cancer and had surgery, which had a positive effect. She would go on to win the 1954 Women’s United States Open by twelve strokes, and became an inspiration to millions. But the cancer would return, as would operations and more golf, until finally, on September 27, 1956, the world’s greatest female athlete passed away.

As mentioned by her fellow Olympic teammate, Jean Shiley, Babe was the boyish, brash, I’m-number-one-preaching-Muhammad-Ali of her time. The New York Times noted in her obituary that as her golf career took off, she began to dress in more feminine wear, embraced her marriage with Zaharias, and even became accustomed to mentoring younger golfers.

But as a top player and drawing power in golf, her attitude and demeanor changed. The once lonely tomboy became a social success. She developed into a graceful ballroom dancer and became the life of many a social gathering. She was too skillful at gin rummy for most and at times, to change the pace at a party, she would take out a harmonica and give a rendition of hillbilly tunes she had learned as a youngster.

This change was the cause of a more convivial feeling toward her by rivals. In her younger days her desire to win had served to toughen her as far as any opponent was concerned. But in her later days, instead of goading her rivals with, “Yep, I’m gonna beat you,” she began encouraging the younger girls on the golf circuit.