From The Golf Journal Archives - Marlene Streit: Another Good Thing in a Small Package

Oct 08, 2010

Her roots are in the Canadian frontier, and her courage and competitiveness may well be products of this start, logical results of rigorous tests of character.

By Rhonda Glenn

(Note: This article originally appeared in the August 1989 issue of Golf Journal.)

Marlene Stewart Streit, when she first flashed upon the American women’s amateur golf scene, was something of an underdog. For one thing, she was Canadian. For another, there was her size – a diminutive five-footer seldom makes much of a dent in athletic arenas. No yardstick, however, could measure the size of her competitor’s heart.

In many ways, Marlene Streit was like the other fine players of her time: She worked hard at her studies at Rollins College, in central Florida; she was frugal, wearing her worn old golf glove until it was too stiff and hard to be of any use; she was sporting and polite, conceding a great number of short putts to her opponents (too many, some said); and she was tempered by the limelight shed upon her by competitive golf – it gave her polish, and she could stroll through the most luxurious resorts with dignity and finesse.

And so in her conduct she was a lot like the other golfers of that era. Her childhood, however, rooted in the rugged rural outposts of the Canadian frontier, seems a generation removed, light years from the smooth green fairways and the lilting tinkle of glasses on the clubhouse porch. When you have been up against plagues of locusts and rumbled through the northern wilderness in horse and wagon, when you have forded the Red Deer River in your mother’s arms, even The Great Gundy can’t stare you down.

Perhaps that adversity is why other players use the words tenacious and determined to describe Marlene during her playing days.

Her mother agrees.

“Marlene was so determined that if there was a wall of fire and she wanted to go to the other side, she’d walk right through it,” she said.

Against great odds, Marlene Stewart Streit became one of the finest players in the game. Look at her record: She is one of only two golfers – the other was Dorothy Campbell Hurd Howe — to capture the U.S., British, and Canadian Women’s Amateur championships. She won against great match players like JoAnne Gunderson Carner, Anne Quast Sander, Barbara McIntire, Polly Riley, and Barbara Romack. She won the U.S. Women’s Amateur, the National Women’s Collegiate, four Doherty titles, two North and South Women’s championships, 11 Canadian Open Amateurs, the British Women’s Amateur, and was low individual scorer in the Women’s World Amateur Team Championship.

In winning the U.S. Women’s Amateur, in 1956, she beat JoAnne Carner by 2 and 1, roaring back from four holes down with 11 to play. She nearly won the Women’s Amateur again, in 1966, when she battled JoAnne for 41 holes, the longest final in the championship’s history, and lost by bunkering her approach, then missing a 15-foot putt.

That gives her a one-hole advantage over Mrs. Carner in their 76 holes of final match-competition, remarkable when you consider that sending Marlene in against JoAnne was a little like sending in a hummingbird to fight a bear. If there had been a weigh-in before their matches, Marlene would have been logged at 5 feet, 115 pounds, JoAnne at 5-feet-7-inches, 150 pounds.

You could out-hit Marlene Streit, but you couldn’t out-fight her. She competed during the golden age of women’s amateur golf, the years from 1950 through 1966, when girl golfers were the darlings of the sports pages.

Sports at that time had no player strikes, no agent scams, and no drug busts. There was plenty of room for daily coverage of women’s amateur golf. Reporters wrote about them, and included breathless accounts of their families, dogs, weddings, and stylish wardrobes, which tended to be skirts, sweaters, and Bermuda shorts.

It was a more innocent era, with strict standards. In a 1956 edition of Tee Talk, the publication of the Women’s Metropolitan (New York) Golf Association, Joan Flynn Dreyspool, one of the nation’s leading sportswriters, created a short verse that ended . . .

“Speaking of shorts, a short word to thee
When we say ‘Bermuda,’ we mean to the knee.”

Golf coverage in those days had a sort of happy charm. The Los Angeles Times covered the romance between Pat Lesser, a Curtis Cup player, and John Harbottle, while Golf World magazine devoted five full pages to the 1956 U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship, in which Marlene defeated 17-year-old JoAnne Gunderson.

The exploits of girl golfers generated a lot of emotion. The writer Jimmy Mann reported that a handful of Canadian rooters shed tears of joy at the end of the match, and Marlene was photographed clasping the Canadian flag to her chest. Amateur golf was serious stuff.

Last winter I ran into Marlene Streit at the Doherty Invitational, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. I hadn’t seen her in 20 years.

“Hey, decided to tee it up with the tank top crowd, did you?” she called out.

She seemed more jovial than in the old days, but little else had changed. Her backswing was a little shorter, her finish less full, and her hair was flecked with gray. That’s about all.

She addressed the ball on the 12th tee and planted her neat little feet firmly on the turf. The wind blustered over her left shoulder, A flash of bright yellow sweater. Pop! Whiz! The four-wood shot soared toward the green, holding its line against the crosswind, arching over the steep white bunker face, and dropping to within two feet of the hole.

Little had changed. But even in this sunny resort, for Marlene Streit, the hard, dry prairies of Canada are never far away.

She was born of mostly Irish heritage in 1934, in Cereal, a small town on the Canadian plains, in the southern part of Alberta.

Her father, Harold Duncan Stewart, had grown up on a farm near the town of Chinook, six miles away. Harold Stewart had been a fine-looking youth with fair coloring and curly hair, a top-scoring center on Chinook’s town hockey team when Chinook was part of a rural league. In the winter, after harvest, young Stewart was one of the strapping farm lads who traveled a circuit from Chinook, to Cereal, Sedalia, and Sibbald to battle it out on the ice.

MARY STEWART, Marlene’s mother, grew up in Cereal, the town where her family had settled after a long, hard journey through the American West. Mary’s father, Matthew Smith, had fought in the Boer War, then had sailed to the United States. He settled for a while in Tennessee, then jostled across the great prairies by covered wagon to Idaho. Moving again, the Smiths crossed the Canadian border to Carstairs, a town just a bit north of Calgary.

Like most Canadians in the early part of the century, the Smiths were farmers, but Mary remembers the day when life on the farm came to a halt. Her father had been working in the fields when black clouds rolled overhead and the wind ripped through the wheat. Lightning flashed and thundered across the sky. Matthew Smith was trotting to the farmhouse when he was struck by a great bolt of lightning and killed.

Julia Smith took her three children into Cereal, the nearest town, and became a dressmaker. Cereal was a frontier town with board sidewalks. School classes were taught in a deserted Chinese restaurant near the pool hall on Main Street. To make ends meet Julia made sausage in washtubs in a butcher shop. There was no electricity or refrigeration, and Julia’s sausage was in great demand during the wheat harvest. The butcher would load up his old Model T truck and rumble out into the fields, where he sold the sausage to threshing crews.

For the young widow and her three children life on the plains was hard but tolerable, and the community get-togethers and sporting events were something to look forward to.

“In the winter I played basketball, and I could skate for two hours steady, without stopping, in 40-below-zero weather in an outside skating rink,” Marlene’s mother remembers. “If you skated for two hours, you could outskate everyone.

“In the summertime we used to have sports days, where we played baseball all day and danced all night. I used to pitch softball for two teams, and I could hit a home run every time I stepped up to the plate. Sometimes we’d drive to other towns for sports days. We’d dance all night and maybe have a flat tire coming home. It was during the Depression, and you couldn’t afford tires, but you did it because you were young and crazy.”

WHEN MARY married young Harold Stewart, he was freshly out of Calgary Technical Institute, where he had studied electrical engineering. The Great Depression gave scant encouragement to new businesses, so the young couple began to farm.

Marlene, who was Harold and Mary’s first child, was born in March of 1934. The Stewarts could have had a fine life if fair weather and fate had been on their side, but the following spring, the small farms along the prairie were attacked by hordes of locusts. They rattled through the fields like a hail storm, cutting the crops to the ground.

“They went straight ahead. If there was a house, they went up over the side, across the roof, and down the other side,” Marlene’s mother recalled. “They plugged up car radiators, and were so thick on the inclines the cars would slide off the road.”

The Canadian government supplied the farmers with bags of poison mixed with sawdust, and Mary would hook up horse and buggy, put Marlene on the side, and drive across the fields shoveling the poison over what was left of the crops. It was a losing battle. The grasshoppers attacked the crops again the following spring and, in August of 1936, Harold, Mary, and two-year-old Marlene left the farm.

“We just picked up and left,” Mary said. “It was what you did.”

Harold hitched a team of horses to the cook car, a long wagon seating 25 men during the harvest, which became their home for the six-day journey across the prairie to the richer irrigation lands in the south. Crossing the Red Deer River was their first hurdle. Mary held Marlene tightly under her arm while the wagon was pulled across the river by a winch to hold it against the swirling currents.

“When we got to the other side, we had to drive the horses up a narrow road to the top of a cliff,” Mary said. “All we could see was the cliff and the rocks down below. I held Marlene under one arm and a log under the other. If the horses jumped, I was to throw the log under the wheel to keep the wagon from sliding back down.

“We finally got to the top, and we were in the irrigation district. Across the road we could see great fields of green oats. Everything just looked like heaven. A farmer came over to us and we told him that we were moving from the dry land, and he told us to take the horses into the fields and get any feed we needed. Two days later we rode down to Ranier, and our neighbors, who had been there a long time, brought us vegetables and fruit, things that we had never seen before, like melons, because we couldn’t grow them in the dry land.”

WHILE LIFE looked so promising in this rich new land, the irrigation district had its hazards.

“We had bad, bad sand storms,” Mary Stewart said. “The sand would blow down off the dry lands like a dirty snowstorm, and it would shut out the sun. The sand was so fine it blew into the house, into the beds, everywhere. It blew into the tractor mechanisms, and when Harold tried to start the tractor, the sand had ruined the motor.”

The Second World War began, and in 1941 Harold Stewart sought to sign up for the Royal Canadian Air Force. As an electrician, he was sent instead to work in an Ontario factory to help the war effort. The Stewarts never went back to the farm. After the war, Marlene’s father opened an electrical shop in the town of Fonthill, in Ontario, about 12 miles from Niagara Falls.

When she was 12 years old, in one of those happy coincidences, Marlene was introduced to the game she grew to love. One day Ann Sharpe, an older friend and good player, invited Marlene to caddie for her at Lookout Point Golf Club.

“Caddying appealed to me. I loved sports, and it was something I could do for others,” Marlene remembers.

She went often with Ann to Lookout Point, and Gordon McInnis, the professional, began to let Marlene caddie for him, carrying a small canvas bag.

“I couldn’t help but notice her,” McInnis said. “Every time I turned around, there she was. I had to teach her to play, because she was always under my feet.”

McInnis helped Marlene learn the rudiments of the game. He put spikes in her street shoes, and because her hands were so small, he rewrapped her leather grips to make them smaller.

“She was really handicapped because she was so small,” McInnis said. “But right from the beginning, after she had some help in getting her proper grip and ball position, she could pull off the shots. She had a real long, sweeping backswing and a good shoulder turn, so that she got everything out of her little old body that was possible.

“At times she would drop by the house to get help with her swing. She was so interested she wouldn’t go home for meals. Her mother would telephone, and I would have to lie for her and say she had just left, even though she was standing right beside me.”

MCINNIS USED the techniques in Ben Hogan’s book Power Golf, and he taught Marlene that the left side was dominant in the swing. He was also uniquely influenced by his wartime days in the Royal Canadian Air Force.

“Everything was procedure,” McInnis said. “In gunnery, there was a certain way to take down a gun and a certain way to put it together again, and this is how I teach, by procedure – grip, stance, takeaway, start-down, finish.

“But it was all real talent,” he said. “There’s no mystery about it. Nothing has come easy for her; it was all toil and work. Nobody had any confidence in her except my wife, Bunny, and me, and her parents. She was so persistent in her practicing. She got it right from the beginning, and she stuck to it.”

As a teenager, Marlene won the Ontario championship. Before making the huge financial commitment demanded by amateur golf, Harold Stewart asked McInnis to assess his daughter’s talent.

“Her father said to me, ‘How far can she go?’ ” McInnis remembers. “I knew what she could do, how she could concentrate, and how much stamina she had. I said, ‘She can go the limit. She can be the best.’ ”

McInnis was right. Marlene Stewart went on to become a great champion and one of Canada’s national heroines.

After college she married J. Douglas Streit, and today they have two grown daughters. She competes mostly in senior golf now, and in 1985 she won the USGA Senior Women’s Amateur Championship.

After her round at the Doherty, we sat chatting at a table on the patio of the Coral Ridge Country Club, and she toyed with a glass of iced lea. Marlene was frank in her assessment of her career. Although she has many American friends, she knew it was a long while before she became a gallery or press favorite in this country.

When she won the 1956 U.S. Women’s Amateur, Jimmy Mann reported in Golf World, “It’s unfair to Marlene, a great player and totally deserving of the title, to say that her victory was unpopular, but the main body of the gallery of 2,000 favored the youngster (JoAnne Gunderson) from Seattle.”

MRS. STREIT pondered her unique role in American golf.

“I never dwelled on it, because within myself I know what I did,” she said. “And yet, certainly I felt it when my American friends would win and their pictures were on the cover of a golf magazine, and I would win the British Amateur, or whatever, and there would be a little blurb in there. I didn’t dwell on it because I would never have played as well as I did if I had. Within myself I knew. I guess the players knew. I got enough recognition.”

In recent years, Marlene has captained a number of Canadian international teams, and has worked to promote her country’s junior golf program. One of her proteges was the fine Canadian professional Sandra Post, who won the 1968 LPGA Championship and twice won the Dinah Shore Championship. Miss Post, who is now retired, sometimes felt the nationalism of American fans when she played in this country.

“I may have helped Sandra in that I gave her a kick,” said Mrs. Streit. “I said, ‘Don’t be a spoiled brat; get out there and do it. Beat everybody. Don’t go around with a chip on your shoulder. Just beat ‘em.’

“When I first started, I was away from the center of golfers, and until you could get in there and beat them, they really didn’t pay any attention to you. That’s true anywhere, isn’t it?

“To me, golf is the friends you make along the way,” she said. “Really and truly, all the trophies are wonderful, but they’re really a side benefit. Now I’m seeing the players who are my old friends again. For years and years our paths never cross, then we meet again at the senior tournaments. Where else can you do this?

“It’s fun to win. Winning is great and makes it all a whole lot better I mean I don’t care if I win or lose, as long as I win.” The woman who has won more than most laughed out loud.

I remember playing several matches against Marlene in the early 1960s. She wasn’t intimidating, but her game was so solid, so precise that after five or six holes you began to have that sort of hollow doubt that you get when you know you are going to lose. She made few mistakes. She had total concentration. She won everything there was to win.

TRYING TO determine the qualities of greatness is a futile game, but Pat Ward-Thomas, the British writer, may have said it best when he wrote:

“Rarely indeed does one hear the great players excusing failure; explaining it, yes, but not blaming it on misfortune. Such an attitude of mind leads to defensive thinking. A man who seeks excuses is unlikely to be a champion.”

And, Ward-Thomas wrote, “Ultimately golf is an examination of a man’s mind and heart and nerve.”

Perhaps Marlene Stewart Streit’s motivation came from a desire to prove herself in American tournaments despite her lack of size and her status as a foreign player. We shouldn’t forget, however, that she is a true child of Canada, and a stronger case could be made that she inherited her strength of character from her parents, pioneers whose own hearts were tested on the rugged frontier so long ago.

Marlene and I finished our chat. She rose from the table, walked across the patio, then turned and walked back.

“When you write about me, don’t forget Canada,” she said. She clenched her fist and pounded it on her chest.

“Canada,” she said, “is right here!”

Marlene Stewart Streit went on to win the 1994 and 2003 USGA Senior Women’s Amateur Championships. For more information about the Senior Women’s Amateur, which starts tomorrow at Fiddlesticks Country Club in Fort Myers, Fla., visit the championship website.

Marlene Streit was superb in every facet of her game. She was especially effective around the greens; a small woman, her short game became particularly important. (USGA Museum)

She surprised many observers with her strength off the tees and the fairways. She had excellent balance and used her weight extraordinarily well. (USGA Museum)

In 1956, Marlene Streit defeated JoAnne Gunderson (Carner), 2 and 1, and won the United States Women’s Amateur. The spritely Canadian accepted the Robert Cox Trophy from Mrs. Harrison Flippin (right). (USGA Museum)