From the Golf Journal Archives - A Lively Legend – and Her Tomato Soup

Aug 27, 2010

Glenna Collett Vare’s name is generously sprinkled in golf’s record books, but now in her 80s, she is content to play, drive her car, fix soup, and ask questions.

By James Dodson

(Note: This article originally appeared in the August 1987 issue of Golf Journal.)

THE SUNNY MORNING I called on Mrs. Glenna Vare, I found a lanky young man mysteriously thumping a tennis racket against the outside wall of her house.

It was a lovely old mansion with big windows and a rambling porch and a breathless view of the sea, set back from the road among century-old trees on a gentle dorsal of land just outside the old summering spa of Narragansett, R.I.

The reason I had come to visit had entirely to do with time and fantasy. A few days before, I’d happened to read in the Providence Journal that Glenna Collett Vare was about to participate in her 62nd straight Point Judith Invitational golf tournament. The story mentioned that Glenna Vare was 83 years old, and still played golf with a 15 handicap.

That was remarkable in its own right: She could almost shoot her age. But, in truth, I had not driven all the way from Boston just to meet another spry octogenarian who stalked after a golf ball. For lack of a more fitting way of putting it, I’d come – a combination graduate student and sports groupie – to lay eyes on living golf history.

Glenna Collett Vare is a name deeply incised in the ledger of American golf. She belongs to a separate – if remoter – latitude of golfing fame, a time when the game was played not for money or rank, but rather for the simple exhilarating pleasure of the game itself. Between the years 1922 and 1935, Glenna Collett Vare won the U.S. Women’s Amateur six times, something no golfer had ever accomplished, and that no one has done since. In her competitive playing days, Glenna Vare was the queen of American golf. She dominated women’s golf here with a patrician good cheer that was as beguiling as it was revolutionary. Toward the end of the 1920s, when her competitive days were slowing down, she helped orchestrate the Curtis Cup Match, between the United States and Great Britain. Not surprisingly, the award given annually by the LPGA to the woman professional with the lowest scoring average bears Glenna’s name – the Vare Trophy.

“Is Mrs. Vare here?” I asked the lanky youth armed with the tennis racket.

“Yup,” he replied and nonchalantly gave the wall another solid whack. “Check inside. Follow the noise.”

I reluctantly let myself into a cool foyer. Positioned loosely in a brass umbrella stand by the front door was a cluster of ancient clubs: spoons and cleeks and a well-worn brassie. These clubs were gorgeous relics, totems from another age. I touched one, wanting to feel its talismatic spell. I felt like a child taking a peek at Christmas toys hidden beneath the bedskirts.

On a table beside the umbrella stand, I noticed, stood a magnificent brass statue of a woman smashing a golf ball – the famous compact swing, model of power and grace, a youthful Glenna Collett frozen in time.

A young fair-haired woman appeared in the hallway, frowning slightly and clutching a broomstick. She was dewy from wall-banging, I noticed.

“Are you Mrs. Vare’s daughter?” I asked.

“No,” she replied courteously. “I just work for her in the summer. Mrs. Vare is in back. Go back, if you like.”

AT THAT MOMENT a comfortably upholstered version of the splendid statue strolled into the foyer, a no-nonsense amble that had accompanied her from the fairways of youth to the hallway of old age. She had on a bright green skirt and a yellow knit shirt, open on a tanned leathery throat.

Grass-stained tennis shoes completed the ensemble. She was carrying another old golf club, a trusty spoon.

“You’re probably the one who called,” she began without preamble, in a smoky, bossy contralto.

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied.

She fixed me with her alert gray eyes.

“Have you ever had raccoon piddle in your rafters?” she demanded, though not unkindly.

I admitted that I hadn’t.

“Well, it’s a nuisance. I can tell you that,” she went ahead firmly. Then she gave the wall of the foyer a solid whack.

“Look up there,” she said, scowling at a corner of the ceiling.

Naturally, I did what I was told. The ceiling, in the spot where she aimed her club, had been discolored by brown hieroglyphics.

“That’s raccoon piddle,” she informed me briskly. “Every spring, when I come up from Florida, I find that raccoons have spent the winter having a party in my house. It’s a real annoyance. We think there is a mother and her babies in there now. This man’s supposed to come out and do something. I don’t know where he is yet. But, anyway, you see, if we could find the hole they use, chase them out, and seal the hole up, the problem would be solved. Don’t you see?”

I agreed it sounded like a solid theory.

“But I don’t want the creatures hurt,” she injected soberly.

“No, ma’am.'”

She nodded at the wall, as if her game plan for evacuating the unwanted houseguests was irrevocably set. Then she turned her handsome face on me again.

“Now what can I do for you?” she said, clearing her throat.

“I just wanted to ask you a couple questions about golf,” I proposed somewhat weakly. “Do you remember the first golf ball you ever hit?” It was a serious tactical mistake.

She waved an irritated hand. “Oh, heavens, no. Of course I don’t. Do you? Listen here, I don’t like to talk about golf,” she grumped with irritation. “I have a terrible memory. Everything I did was so long ago, you know. If you want to know something about me, there are history books that can tell you what you need to know. Don’t waste your time and mine, young man.”

I thought I was about to be permanently dismissed – or forced to thump walls with the other hired help. But instead, she put her own club down and said, “You’d better come with me to the porch.”

She led me through the grand old house onto a beautiful sun porch. Potted geraniums blazed in pink and red splendor, and the surface of Narragansett Bay shimmered like a billion jewels beyond the saltmarsh that began at the edge of the yard.

She fixed me a hearty gin and tonic and sat down facing me with a glass of tomato juice.

“My game,” she said with a sigh, “is really very bad. I’m sorry to say that. Very bad. You probably wanted to know about Bobby Jones or something, didn’t you? That’s what reporters usually want to know. It’s like I’m some living monument.”

A patch of silence fell between us, a requiem for a game she once loved for the thrill of playing the game. A sailboat, I noticed, crossed on the horizon behind her silver-capped head.

Finally, in a surprisingly quiet voice, she leaned forward in her wicker chair and inquired, “Did you say you play golf?”

It sounded, I thought, a little like an accusation.

“Yes, I do,” I told her. “Anywhere from 10 to 15 handicap.”

For the first time she smiled. Something amused her. She picked at a leaf of a geranium. “That’s funny,” she allowed a little wistfully, “Mine’s about a 15 now, too.”

“That’s what I read,” I told her. “To tell you the truth, that’s one of the reasons I came. I had it in my mind that it would be fun to play a round together. A head-to-head match.”

I smiled; she frowned.

“What do you say?” prodded I.

“You must be dreaming,” replied she, chastely, sipping her drink.

IN A GAME famous for individual superlatives, Glenna Vare’s beginning in golf was the stuff of sporting legends.

One summer day in 1917, at Metacomet Country Club, in Providence, R.I., an insurance man and retired cycling champion named George Collett invited two of his cronies to watch his precocious daughter Glenna hit her first shot on a regulation course.

Glenna was 14; she may have weighed 70 pounds. The ball she hammered flew well over 100 yards and split the fairway into neat halves.

George Collett’s cronies were astonished and deeply impressed. The willowy child could slug a ball as competently as most men. But the display was hardly a surprise to George Collett. At 9, Glenna had been an accomplished diver and swimmer; at 10 she drove the family car. For a while she even played baseball and could throw the ball farther and more accurately than any boy on her block. At 12 she was winning tennis matches left and right.

About that time she happened to take in a golf exhibition match with her father. The match featured three of the brightest young names in the game – Alexa Stirling, Perry Adair, and Bobby Jones. “I was so thrilled by what I saw them do,” she reported, “that the next day I went out and broke 50 on nine.”

She was a year younger than Bobby Jones. That fact suffused her with inspiration. The next spring, George Collett took his daughter to see Alex Smith, a Scottish teaching pro who had won the U.S. Open twice. The chemistry was right. “He, Alex, was a go-getter. He insisted I practice all the time,” recalled Glenna. “Without him I might never have gone very far at all.”

But go she did, and fast. In 1922, just 19 years old, Glenna won the U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship at White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., and suddenly a nation of sports fans hungered to know more about the politely restrained and winningly attractive schoolgirl from Providence who was so superstitious she often wore the same hat and clothes ensemble, the same color of red fingernail polish, through a five-day tournament. In 1924 she played 60 golf matches and won 59 of them. The next year she fulfilled an important criterion of greatness: She won the Women’s Amateur for a second time, at St. Louis. Over the next five years she nailed down three more national championships and enjoyed an international following. Her matches against Britain’s Joyce Wethered became headlines in sports pages around the world. Glenna was asked to write about women in sports; her charming pieces in Saturday Evening Post and Liberty Magazine were ground-breaking advocacies of the importance of women emerging in athletics.

In 1931 she married a wealthy Philadelphian named Edwin Vare. The couple had two children, and Glenna played less competitive golf than before, took up bridge, needlepoint, and trapshooting, and continued in her role as advocate for women’s athletics in America.

But she was not through with golf and it was not through with her.

In 1935, the female Bobby Jones, as the press declared her, began an historic comeback. At Interlachen, in Minneapolis, appropriately where Jones had won the 1930 Open, the third leg of his Grand Slam, Glenna was matched in the final against a popular hometown girl named Patricia Jane Berg. Glenna was old guard; Patty Berg was part of a newly emerging breed – young women who, like their male counterparts had done for years, were destined soon to become professionals and play the game for something more than its aesthetic rewards. The press and 6,500 spectators swarmed after the two. On the 34th hole of play, Glenna dropped a heart-stopping putt to make her par, winning the championship for a record sixth time.

Glenna’s game had driven her into immortality.

GLENNA VARE had been sitting perfectly still on her porch for several minutes. The sun lay serenely on her square brown face. She looked very peaceful, her tanned hands folded – a czarina at rest.

Her eyes fluttered open and she glared at her wrist-watch with annoyance. “Oh,” she fretted, “it’s almost noon. I have to go get Jimmy.”

She asked me to ride with her. A few minutes later we got into her blue Fleetwood Cadillac, and she cranked the engine up, revving with a heavy foot. A golf ball rolled out from under the seat and I picked it up. The word dammit was written on it.

It didn’t occur to me to ask who Jimmy was, and Glenna’s mind was elsewhere, focused on the annoying green sportscar that buzzed in front of her as we rolled along in sluggish U.S. 1 traffic. She braked abruptly and puffed her cheeks in dismay. Every spring since the death of her husband 10 years ago, she explained, she and Jimmy drove north from Delray Beach, Fla., Glenna’s winter home, and every year just lately her daughter Glenny, who lives in Venezuela, has insisted that she no longer make the drive. “She thinks I’m getting too old, though I don’t agree with her,” said Glenna. “She worries, I suppose, about people getting in my way. Hah. Listen, I love driving. I’d hate flying. And so would Jimmy. He just wouldn’t stand for it.”

Jimmy, it turned out, was her constant companion – a small beige Norwich terrier.

A few minutes later, he was delivered into her sturdy arms from a local pet grooming establishment. His hair was clipped and he looked embarrassed by the light blue bow that someone had tied around his neck.

“Oh, Jimmy,” said Glenna with sympathy, depositing him on the seat between us, “they really did a number on you, didn’t they?” She untied the ridiculous bow and patted his head. Jimmy sat down loyally beside her on the front seat, sniffed at me, then looked out over the vast hood, ready for action.

As we passed back through thick Narragansett traffic, the street became snarled with traffic wedged around a mammoth condominium construction project that was visible from Glenna’s yard.

She closed her eyes, disgusted. “It’s really awful, what's happened to Narragansett,” she complained. And then she told me the story of how she and Edwin had bought the Narragansett house in the late summer of 1938 – just a few weeks before the hurricane of the century struck New England. “That night,” she explained in the voice of a storyteller, “Edwin was playing backgammon down at the Dunes Club. He left there just before the storm hit and everything got demolished. You know, hundreds of people were killed . . ..”

Her voice trailed off into private thoughts for the rest of the ride home.

ON THE PORCH, we settled into her comfortable chairs again, while Jimmy looked the place over for changes.

“Do you like tomato soup?” asked Glenna politely. “It’s homemade.”

I said I did.

“Good,” said she. “I made it. But I’m not so sure it’s any good.”

The young fair-headed girl who had been thumping walls with the broomstick brought us each a bowl of Glenna’s homemade soup. The house had grown peaceful and silent. I imagined the raccoons getting some sleep at last.

“How’s the soup?” she asked seriously.

“Excellent,” I told her honestly.

“I don’t know,” she said, cautiously.

As we’d informally agreed, for the moment at least, there was little or no discussion of golf. The subject, it seemed, was too painful and familiar, like an overgrown yard in which a beautiful flower bed had once blazed in the sun but now had gone rank.

Her own handsome yard was green and a bit overgrown. We talked about gardening for a while, about the 12-meter sailing races she can see from her porch; about children and bridge. When I casually mentioned I was engaged to be married, she took a genuine interest in the place, the date, and details about the wife-to-be. Inevitably, we wound our way back to tomato soup.

“At the Gulfstream Golf Club, where I belong in Florida,” she said, “everyone’s become too old to play good golf, so a lot of people have quit playing and taken up gourmet cooking. That’s where the real competition is now.” She laughed. “I had to either join them or be left alone on the golf course.”

“Do you have many friends left in Narragansett?” I quietly asked her.

She thought a moment. “Not too many,” she conceded. “People still come to see me. Reporters discover I’m still alive and call up. I don’t enjoy reporters because I can’t remember everything properly. They want to know what Bobby Jones was really like, or what the golden age of amateur golf was like. I wish I could tell them, but I can’t tell them ... But there are all these stories still floating around.”

She wagged a finger at the air, chasing away history like an intruder.

Since she had raised the subject, I risked earning her ire and mentioned a story I’d recently read in Golf Magazine. It went thus: Years ago Glenna was competing in an important championship in Philadelphia. Halfway through the final round of play it became clear to the tournament’s sponsors that Glenna was going to be the runaway winner. But there was a big problem. The Philadelphia jewelry company had not delivered the tournament trophy. Thinking quickly, an official raced home to get a temporary replacement trophy from his own book shelf. He was a champion dog breeder. When the victory was hers, as the press looked on, Glenna was handed the substitute trophy. The inscription read: “Best Bitch in Show.” Glenna supposedly flung it down and stomped away in disgust. “You know,” she said with surprising pleasantness, “I’ve heard that story for years. It’s followed me everywhere. They keep printing it. But it’s absolutely not true. Not one word. Once, I thought I might threaten to sue them for perpetuating that myth. Then I thought, ‘Oh, no, let it go….’ ”

She gave me a look that reminded me I was skating on thin ice.

Then she calmly sipped her drink again. “So the soup is good?” she said, eyeing me.

“Great,” I chorused.

“Well, soup’s easy," she said skeptically.

I said, “Sort of like golf – at least for you.”

Her face darkened quickly. “Oh, the heck it was,” she fired at me defensively. “Golf’s hard. Anybody who thinks golf is easy is nuts.”

I apologized and explained that I meant that her famous compact swing and courageous putts had been a role model for countless thousands of young female golfers. And men, too.

“In fact,” I said, “I’d love to see you play. If you won’t play with me, perhaps I can come watch you play in the Point Judith Invitational.”

American’s greatest woman golfer, the woman who seemed to have outlived history, turned and looked out to sea. The pale blue lens of the sky was set on infinity. “Oh, no,” she said in a firm but distant voice, “I just couldn’t even allow that.”

Then she transferred her stern gaze to me again. It was a withering look. “Do you want some more soup?” she asked, the very soul of politeness. “Now listen, tell me something more about that young woman you plan to marry ...”

TWO WEEKS LATER, on a morning wreathed in sea mist, I ignored Glenna’s objections and snuck out to the Point Judith Country Club to watch the living legend set yet another record – appearing in her 62nd straight club championship.

I loitered around a yew hedge and Glenna never saw me, or if she saw me, she chose not to speak. She was teamed with three women who were perhaps a third her age; she was dressed in bright yellow, looking like a daffodil in the ocean gloom.

As I watched, she strolled to the tee and placed her ball without a fuss. The other women ceased taking their practice swings and watched respectfully. There was an instant of stillness. Glenna’s driver met the ball squarely, and the ball flew well over 100 yards, dead straight. One by one, the other women took their first shots. Glenna outdrove them all.

“She always could pound the cover off it,” remarked a man who was suddenly standing beside me. We began to chat about Glenna Vare and I discovered, to my delight, that my fellow voyeur-spectator, a pharmaceutical salesman from St. Louis named Ed, had once been Glenna Vare’s caddie “years and years ago,” he pointed out. “I’m sure she’s forgotten me, but I could never forget her.

“I haven’t heard about her in 25 years,” he reflected. “Geez. She’s so old. I wonder what she does now.”

I told him someone said she made soup.

Glenna appeared ahead one final time in my view – a last glimpse of a yellow dot burning far down the fairway, headed resolutely for her ball. From that safe distance I thought she seemed to be charging after her errant ball, chasing it as one might chase a phantom bossily into the thinning sea mist.

In earlier times, when Glenna Vare ruled women’s golf in the United States. (USGA Museum)

Mrs. Vare’s long, graceful and exaggerated backswing helped her generate great power. (USGA Museum)

While the swing is no longer supple, the determination lingers on. (USGA Museum)