Remembering those who have had an impact on the game of golf

This is the weekend when Americans everywhere pause to pay homage to people who are no longer with us. Though we usually reserve our thoughts to those who served in the military, in this column I have selected four golfers who made contributions to the game of golf.

Perhaps you have heard of all four of these people, perhaps not. They all have meaning to me and I will share my thoughts with you.

Babe Didrikson Zaharias (1911-1956). Mildred Ella Didrikson was born in Texas to Norwegian parents. She was touted as a star in basketball, track and field, and golf. The fact that she got her nickname when she once hit five home runs in a youth baseball game might suggest that she was a natural in any sport. And yes, the moniker was a reference to the Sultan of Swat.

In an AAU track meet in 1931 Babe placed first in eight events and second in a ninth. The following year she won gold medals in the Olympics in the hurdles and javelin. She would have won a third in the high jump, but officials didn’t like the way she jumped and gave her second.

Later in life she turned to the game of golf and quickly became the best female golfer in the world. In 1946-47 she won 17 consecutive golf tournaments! She won 82 in total and captured the 1954 U.S. Open by 12 strokes. Once, after pounding a drive over 300 yards, a gallery member said: “she must be Superman’s sister.”

In 1950 she was voted the Woman Athlete of the Half Century by The Associated Press. Given her excellence in all sports, one could logically assume that she was a natural. God-given talent meant that she could excel in anything she tried. However this information might give you pause.

When Zaharias took up the game of golf she would endure four to five hours of instruction a day. She hit 1,000 golf balls daily, even after her hands blistered and became bloody.

She may have had natural talent, but she also had a tremendous work ethic that has inspired golfers for generations.

Byron Nelson (1912-2006). Lord Byron was born within seven months of two other giants of the game, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead. All three left their mark on the game, but Nelson stands out for several reasons.

His professional golf career ran from 1935 to 1946. In 1945 he won a total of 18 tournaments including an incredible 11 in a row! The following year he suddenly retired at age 34 to be a rancher. It was something he really wanted to do, so he did it. How many people walk away from a sport at such a tender age?

Nelson continued to play in the Masters after his retirement as a past champion. Between 1947 and 1955 he recorded six top 10s at Augusta National. Not bad for only playing one tournament a year.

Byron Nelson is perhaps better known for being a gentleman than being a great golfer. He lent his name to a tournament and was always the gracious host. Watching the best golfers in the world ascend the stairs to his tower to shake his hand following the final round each year was impressive.

A Bob Jones Award winner for distinguished sportsmanship, Byron Nelson may have been the epitome of that term. Many of today’s athletes could benefit by adopting Byron Nelson’s character.

Patty Berg (1918-2006). Berg was a founding member of the LPGA and then became the leading player in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. Her 15 major championships is still the record by a female golfer today.

As great a golfer as she was, Patty Berg holds a special place of honor with me for another reason. When my high school classmate, Don Cahill, asked me a year after we graduated to play a round of golf with him at Willard Country Club, I hesitated. I had only recently taken up the game and did not have my own set of clubs.

Not a problem he assured me. I could use his mother’s. An avid golfer, Mary Alice Cahill had a set of Patty Berg clubs and had no problem with me borrowing them. Considering my novice stature, I hit those clubs pretty darn well.

Sometimes I wish they were still available to use!

Jace Bugg (1976-2003). All right, I get it. This guy is not a household name. In fact I’m sure many of you have never hear of him. Let me tell you about the guy with the unique name.

When I was still teaching, I was in a golf fantasy league. You had to pick a different golfer each week from Doral in February to the PGA in August. I would scoot down to the library during my lunch or conference period to check out my golfer on the computer. Yes, it was before computers were located in each room!

As I scrolled down the list of players I came upon one Jace Bugg. It was a name I had never seen before so I did a little research. Turns out he was in this PGA event on a sponsor’s exemption. He would never play in another one.

Despite being named the 1997 Kentucky Golf Association Player of the Year, Jace Bugg was not very highly regarded in high school or college. His dream of playing on the PGA Tour was indeed a longshot. He went to the Canadian Tour and won an event there with his wife Misty on his bag. The description of the event said that the couple seemed much more invested in each other than picking up the trophy. Love and perseverance will do that.

He then took part in the then-Nationwide Tour, winning a tournament in Arkansas. The next stop would be a PGA Tour card, but fate intervened. In November 2002 Jace Bugg was diagnosed with leukemia.

Jace and Misty impressed everyone with their belief that he could beat the disease. They never gave up hope even after chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant did not help. They remained optimistic even after doctors told them there was nothing else they could do. The miracle was going to happen and the dream would be renewed. They were sure of that.

Eleven months after his diagnosis Jace Bugg passed away. Two years later the Kentucky Golf Association started the Jace Bugg Award for Sportsmanship. He was that kind of person. His qualities of faith, courage and perseverance will never be forgotten.

On this Memorial Day weekend, do take time to honor those who have or are currently serving in our military. You may also want to think about these four individuals who have contributed mightily to the great game of golf.

Al Stephenson is The A-T’s golf columnist

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