Shirley Spork was one of the 13 original founders of the LPGA with the likes of Babe Didrikson Zaharias and Patty Berg, but first she was a self-described Tomboy from Michigan who loved golf.
The Michigan Golf Hall of Fame member, who just recently found out she was finally going into the LPGA Hall of Fame, died Tuesday in Palm Springs, Calif., at the age of 94.
“She was always very gracious and would come back to Michigan to help out Eastern Michigan (University) and was always willing to support women’s golf in any way she could,” said Sara Wold, president emeritus of the Golf Association of Michigan and a Michigan Golf Hall of Fame member.
“She was easy to be friends with, just so friendly and funny with all her stories. I remember when she came back for the 100th Michigan Women’s Amateur celebration. She told stories all night long and we all learned a lot from her and laughed with her.”
Shirley started playing with one club, an old putter from a dime store bin at age 10. She became a regular visitor to Bonnie Brook Golf Course in Detroit (8 Mile and Telegraph), where hole 17 was next to her family home. Her father served as the property’s caretaker while the country emerged from The Great Depression.
The boys laughed at the girl with one club, but she endured and became one of the world’s best women golfers.
While attending Eastern Michigan University (then called Michigan State Normal College) to earn a teaching degree, she was the individual winner of the 1947 Intercollegiate Championship, in essence a forerunner to today’s NCAA championship. At home she won the Women’s District Golf Association’s Match Play Championship three times in four years, and then won the 1949 Michigan Women’s Amateur Championship.
After graduating from EMU where the golf team hosts the annual Shirley Spork Invitational these days, Spork taught in the Detroit Public Schools, but she decided she would rather play golf.
She turned professional in 1950 at the urging of Zaharias and played on the original LPGA Tour. Her top finishes included a second in what became the LPGA Championship and she tied for eighth in a U.S. Women’s Open.
“Babe put her hand on my head and said I deem you a pro, and that was it,” Spork said in an interview at Spring Meadows Country Club in Linden six years ago. “We had quite a group and I have some great memories of our adventures on the road.”
She admitted she found tour golf a tough road, especially while also getting a Master’s degree in education and teaching golf while at Bowling Green State University. She then became a golf pioneer again as a teacher, helping found the LPGA Teaching Division in 1959 and is in that group’s Hall of Fame.
Spork was honored in recent years ago by the Women’s Michigan Golf Association with celebrated Michigan State coach Mary Fossum and former USGA and GAM leader Betty Richart of Ann Arbor, and she came home to Michigan and took part in the 100th Michigan Women’s Amateur celebration in 2016 at age 89. At that time, she was still giving putting lessons to anyone wise enough to ask.
Marlene Hagge is now the only living LPGA founder.
“The game gave me so much and I just try to give it to others,” Spork said in 2016. “I love teaching the game, love to see somebody get it and enjoy it. I love watching these young women play today. I let them know there were some great players who paved the way for them and great women who made it possible for their opportunities to play today.”
Wold said Spork, a 1989 inductee into the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame, was very proud of being the Founder of the LPGA Teaching Division, probably her most important contribution.
“She was also proud of reaching her goal for her Endowment Fund at Eastern Michigan University for the Women’s Golf Team,” she said. “Shirley embraced all her friendships and was always ready to tell a story about the Founders of the LPGA. She was an inspiration to so many.”
The GAM and Michigan Golf Hall of Fame will pass along memorial and funeral information as it becomes available.