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.

Se Ri Pak

In the years Before Se Ri Pak, professional women’s golf in Korea was essentially non-existent. In the years After Se Ri Pak, women’s golf exploded.

Se Ri Pak, the 38-year old golfer from Daejeon, South Korea, recently announced her retirement. “I learned a lot and I’m trying to share all my skills and all these dreams,” she said. “So that’s where I plan to be the next step of my life. I just want to make dreams come true.”

Pak is already making dreams come true. In fact, one could say, she was the dream for young Koreans, and by extension young Asian women, in the game of golf. When golf returns to the Olympics since its last appearance in 1904, 60 of the best golfers in the world will compete, with a limit of the top four from each country. In the current 2016 Olympic rankings for female golfers, South Koreans make up an amazing four of the top 7 golfers who qualify for Rio. And if you look even closer, 9 of the top 15 are Asian.

“I remember watching [Pak] on TV,” said Christina Kim, a South Korean-American golfer. “She wasn’t blond or blue-eyed, and we were of the same blood…. You say to yourself, ‘If she can do it, why can’t I?'”

In the book, The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown, Daniel Coyle wrote about Kim, Korean golfers and Se Ri Pak, and called the explosion of talent in Korea an “ignition”. You could be dedicated to developing a skill by practicing consistently and earnestly. But you don’t burn for excellence. You don’t understand what it means to drive yourself to perfection. You never portray your desire as a willingness to die to be the very best.

Until a Hero emerges.

Se Ri Pak 1998.jpg

In South Korea, Se Ri Pak emerged. When she hit the professional stage, Korean women were ignited! Coyle writes,

For South Korea’s golfers, it was the afternoon of May 18, 1998, when a twenty-year old named Se Ri Pak won the McDonald’s LPGA Championship and became a national icon. (As one Seoul newspaper put it, “‘Se Ri Pak is not the female Tiger Woods; Tiger Woods is the male Se Ri Pak.”) Before her, no South Korean had succeeded in golf. Flash-forward to ten years later, and Pak’s countrywomen had essentially colonized the LPGA Tour, with forty-five players who collectively won about one-third of the events.

As Coyle explains, ignition is “an awakening”, “lightning flashes of image and emotion”, “the set of signals and subconscious forces that create our identity; the moments that lead us to say that is who I want to be.”