Museum Moment: Pat Lesser’s Putter

Jul 22, 2010

Sixty Years Ago, Lesser Won with Favored Club

By Rhonda Glenn, Manager, USGA Communications

Pat Lesser Harbottle works in her garden, a place that encourages peaceful contemplation, and there Harbottle thinks about her family and her life in Lakewood, Wash. It’s a good life and a big family: her husband John, five children, 15 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.

And when September 1st rolls around, Harbottle will remember its significance because 60 years ago, she made a putt which, along with many other fine shots that week, landed Pat – and her putter – in one of golf’s great edifices, the USGA Museum.

On that day in 1950 in Hamburg, N.Y., 17-year-old Pat Lesser defeated Mickey Wright, a 15-year-old up-and-comer from San Diego, to win the second U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship.

Not that anyone outside of a small group of girls and their families noticed. Girls’ golf, in that long ago era, was just getting off the ground. “…golf for girls, beyond the club level, was still a novelty,” reported the USGA’s Media Guide.

“There weren’t any events for young girls in our area then,” Harbottle said, “so when my dad asked me if I wanted to play in the national championship, I said, ‘Wow!’”

In 1953, she donated her winning putter to the USGA’s collections, shipping the club to the Association’s headquarters in New York. Today the 34¾-inch, Spalding HBA model, with its metallic gray-colored blade and pyrotone-covered steel shaft, stands with the clubs of other USGA champions in the Museum.

Harbottle doesn’t remember much about the club, other than it had once belonged to her father. Her strongest memories are reserved for that championship and the girls who played.

The 1950 Girls’ Junior was a modest affair. A meager field of 18 girls gathered at Wanakah C.C., near Buffalo. While contestants came from as far away as California and the Pacific Northwest, the field was down from the 28 who had started in the inaugural championship the previous year.

The 1950 class, although meager in numbers, was impressive. Five players – Lesser, Wright, Barbara Romack, Kathy McKinnon and Barbara McIntire of Toledo, Ohio – would go on to win 11 USGA championships.

“We didn’t have quantity, but we had quality,” Harbottle said.

In 1950, however, they were just little girls becoming serious about golf and they were usually the only girl golfers in their hometowns. “We all thought we were the best girl golfer in the world, but then at the championship we met all of these other little girls who were pretty good,” Romack remembered.

“It was nothing like today,” Harbottle said. “There were just a few of us.”

A photo of the 1950 field shows a happy-looking bunch of fresh-faced, post-war American kids. Without today’s sleek fabric blends, most look a little rumpled in their long skirts, long shorts or pedal-pushers and golf shoes that are either brogans or saddle-style.

In 1950, this national title, in its second playing, was up for grabs. Defending champion Marlene Bauer had turned professional and, at 15, was now the baby of the fledgling LPGA Tour.

For fun, the USGA staged putting, chipping and driving contests. Wright blasted her way to driving honors with three drives totaling 680 yards on a wet fairway. The 18 girls were also shuttled to the nearby C.C. of Buffalo to watch the 1950 Curtis Cup Match. From a distance. “They sort of kept us away from the matches,” Romack laughed, “like little germs.”

Nonetheless, the glory of the Curtis Cup, the national flags and spirited competition, became something to aspire to. In coming years three players, Lesser (1), Romack (3) and McIntire (6), would account for 10 slots on USA Curtis Cup teams.

Wanakah, the championship course, was originally designed by Willie Watson, but had been updated by Donald Ross. The course was set up as a par-75, 6,300-yard test. Not that the girls noticed. According to some, they had no idea what the printed distance meant and just went out and played. This was, however, a very long set-up for girls. Within a few years courses for the Girls’ Junior would typically be shortened to less than 6,000 yards. These shorter yardages prevailed until increasingly strong young players prompted much longer courses at the turn of the century.

So the 18 contestants struck off in the first stroke-play qualifying round in the championship’s history. Romack was medalist with 79, followed by McIntire and Virginia Dennehy at 82. McKinnon shot 83, Lesser shot 85 and Wright came in with an 86. A score of 104 made the cut.

Lesser and Wright romped through their brackets with relative ease. Lesser won her first match, 8 and 7. Her semifinal was a whopping 9-and-8 win over Alice Marie Emhardt. Before the final, Lesser was taken beyond the 11th hole only once, when she defeated Romack on the 17th, 2 and 1, in the quarterfinal.

Wright breezed through her bracket, defeating Janet Mack, 4 and 3, in round one and eliminating Dennehy, 3 and 2, before easing by McKinnon in their semifinal, 2 and 1.

Few records exist of the final match between Lesser and Wright. Lesser most clearly remembers that she inadvertently laid down two stymies against her opponent.

“Stymies were in effect and two times my ball went in front of Mickey’s ball,” she said. “You don’t do that on purpose. What an unfair rule that was. I think I felt worse than Mickey.”

Lesser prevailed, 4 and 2, and became the second U.S. Girls’ Junior champion, adding that title to the Western Girls’ Junior championship she won earlier in the summer. She would go on to win the U.S. Women’s Amateur in 1955 and earned a berth on the 1956 USA Curtis Cup Team.

Wright went on to win the Girls’ Junior in 1952, her final try, defeating McIntire in the final. Wright’s brilliant professional career included four U.S. Women’s Open victories.

McIntire went on to win the U.S. Women’s Amateur title twice and long served on the USGA Women’s Committee, two years as chair. In 1956, she lost in a playoff for the U.S. Women’s Open to another 1950 contestant, Kathy McKinnon Cornelius.

Romack served on the USGA Girls’ Junior Championship committee and won the 1954 U.S. Women’s Amateur.

Even today, 60 years later, Harbottle stays in touch with Cornelius, while Wright, Romack and McIntire often talk via telephone. These are ties that began with the sheer fun of that 1950 championship, experiences that created lasting bonds among girls who would make golf a key part of their lives.

Rhonda Glenn is a USGA manager of communications. E-mail her with questions or comments at rglenn@usga.org.

And when September 1st rolls around, Harbottle will remember its significance because 60 years ago, she made a putt which, along with many other fine shots that week, landed Pat – and her putter – in one of golf’s great edifices, the USGA Museum. (USGA Museum)