From the Golf Journal Archives - The Orange Blossom Circuit

Dec 31, 2010

Each January, many of our best women amateurs assemble in the warmth of Florida for a touch of camaraderie and competition.

By Robert Sommers

(Note: This article originally appeared in the March/April 1980 issue of Golf Journal.)

EACH JANUARY FOR THE LAST 14 years, Lancy Smith, a dental technician and accomplished woman golfer from Snyder, N.Y., has faced a choice. Snyder is a suburb of Buffalo, and as everyone knows, Buffalo can be frigid in winter. Miss Smith has had to choose between spending January staring at decaying molars in upstate New York, or escaping to Florida to play golf in the warm sunshine.

For the last 14 Januarys, it has been no contest; Miss Smith, a stalwart on two United States Curtis Cup Teams, has gone to Florida to play in a loosely organized series of four tournaments known as the Orange Blossom Circuit. It begins in early January with the Harder Hall Invitational, played at Harder Hall, a resort hotel and golf course in Sebring, in the south-central part of the state. From there, it moves to the coastal region above Daytona Beach for the Women’s South Atlantic Championship, at the Oceanside Country Club, in Ormond Beach. The tour then turns southward to Fort Lauderdale and the Helen Lee Doherty Challenge Cup, at the Coral Ridge Country Club, finally concluding in Hollywood, near Miami, with the Women’s International Four-Ball, at the Orangebrook Golf Course.

When it ends, the women will have played a variety of courses under an assortment of conditions. Harder Hall, for example, is an inland course; its fairways are tight, bordered by tall Australian pines. By contrast, Oceanside is whipped by winds off the Atlantic Ocean that create problems of shot control different from those at any of the other three courses. Coral Ridge is possibly the most testing of the four, and Orangebrook is a public course.

Traditionally, the Orange Blossom Circuit attracts many of the best women amateurs in the game. In addition to Miss Smith, others who played, this winter included Mrs. Marlene Streit, from Canada, 11 times the Canadian and once the U.S. Women’s Amateur champion; Phyllis (Tish) Preuss, of Colorado Springs; Mary Hafeman, from West Bend, Wis., who, with Miss Smith, was named to the 1980 Curtis Cup Team; Mrs. Leslie Shannon, of Hialeah, Fla.; Michelle Gibault, of Pointe Claire, Quebec; Mrs. Alice Dye, of Delray Beach, Fla., the USGA Senior Women’s Amateur champion; Mrs. Cecile Maclaurin, of Savannah, Ga., the 1976 USGA Senior Women’s Amateur champion, and Nancy Rubin, of New Kensington, Pa., a suburb of Pittsburgh.

The Harder Hall and South Atlantic are stroke-play competitions; the Doherty and Four-Ball are played at match play. Miss Smith won the Harder Hall, Sherrie Ann Keblish the South Atlantic, and Nancy Rubin the Doherty. The team of Barbara Charles, of Quakertown, Pa., and Reggie Hawes, of Rye, N.Y., won the Four-Ball.

THE ORANGE BLOSSOM CIRCUIT traces its roots to the middle 1920s, during the original Florida land boom. Hotel owners and resort promoters wanted a means to remind the world that while people might be snowbound in the North, boys and girls were playing golf in Florida. In those years, the cast of amateurs was relatively stable, and many of the same players returned year after year. Maureen Orcutt, who won everything in golf during that period except the national championship, was a consistent entrant.

“Those were big tournaments then,” Miss Orcutt recalls. “Glenna Collett played in them, and Helen Hicks and Virginia Van Wie. We were known as the Big Four.” Well they might be. Miss Collett won the Women’s Amateur Championship six times, Miss Van Wie three, and Miss Hicks once. Miss Orcutt was runner-up in the 1927 Women’s Amateur.

British players used to come over, too. Diana Fishwick and Enid Wilson, both British champions, made several trips to Florida. So did Kathleen Garnham, who was not quite up to their level but was a good player nonetheless, and Betty Dix Perkin.

The circuit began at the Miami Biltmore. Other tournaments were played at Palm Beach and St. Augustine. It was such a big thing that schedules were printed. One year the pictures of Misses Collett, Van Wie, and Orcutt appeared on the cover, and since the Rules of Amateur Status were considerably more strict and more encompassing than they are today, the USGA took a rather dim view of it Miss Orcutt was asked if she had been paid.

“I told them I hadn’t, but I also said I would have taken money if they had offered,” she laughs.

Some of the tournaments were over courses owned by the Florida East Coast Railroad, founded by Henry Flagler, and the Flagler Trophy, a gold cup, was among the prizes. It was presented to the winner of the Women’s Winter Championship of Florida played at the Palm Beach Country Club.

“The first year I won it,” Miss Orcutt recalls, “they wouldn’t let me take it home with me. They gave me a little replica instead. You had to win it three times to keep it. Well, I did win it three times and they gave me the trophy to keep. When I got home, I found out it was only gold-plated.” One of life’s deceptions.

The group that played these tournaments was a congenial bunch; they lived together during the tour, played together, and they relaxed together.

The cast changed considerably in the years immediately after World War II, but the group still lived and played together. Mrs. Dye remembers that during the Palm Beach tournament, The Breakers, an elegant Palm Beach hotel, offered maids’ rooms to the players.

“They were small rooms,” Mrs. Dye remembers, “with two twin beds – I’d guess you’d call them cots now – a chifforobe, a wash basin, and a medicine cabinet screwed to the wall. It was American plan, I remember, and when I went to the dining room, I just ordered the menu. I weighed 105 pounds then,” she smiles wistfully, “and one year I ate so much I was sick and I had to go home. Players went from the hotel to the golf course by horse-and-buggy, and I remember that the golf pro was a woman named Bessie Finn.”

By the time Mrs. Dye first played the circuit, in the middle 1940s, the Big Four was no longer around, and the era of Patty Berg had come and gone. The players of that era included Louise Suggs, Polly Riley, Dorothy Kirby, Mary Lena Faulk, and Mary Agnes Wall. This was also the era of Babe Zaharias. From mid-1946 through 1947 she won 17 tournaments in succession, including the 1946 United States Women’s Amateur and the 1947 British Ladies Championship, and she also won six Florida tournaments.

THE CIRCUIT IS DOWN to four tournaments now, and except for the Harder Hall, where, naturally enough, they stay at the hotel, the players see each other only at the golf course or at planned social gatherings, such as the annual cocktail party that precedes the Harder Hall Invitational.

This is the youngest of the four tournaments. It began 25 years ago, and at first it was played at a golf course across the road from the present location. Two years later, the hotel opened a new course that was designed by Dick Wilson, who also gave us Pine Tree, in Boynton Beach, Fla. The tournament has been played over the Wilson course every since. (The hotel, incidentally, gave the old course to the city of Sebring.)

Lancy Smith won this year after what must have seemed a career of frustration. She had been runner-up five times, but had never been first. In January she finished one stroke ahead of Mrs. Leslie Shannon, with a score of 297 for 72 holes. Miss Smith shot 18-hole scores of 74, 72, 77, and 74. Mrs. Shannon shot 70, 74, 78, and 76.

Miss Smith went into the final round two strokes behind Miss Patti Rizzo, of Miami. On the third hole, however, Miss Rizzo took nine strokes, losing five strokes to par on that hole alone, and finished the round with 87. Miss Rizzo’s approach to the third hole buried itself in the sand, and when she tried to play out, she kept slamming her ball into the lip of the bunker. By then, Mrs. Shannon had taken the lead, but Miss Smith birdied the third, and when Mrs. Shannon lost strokes on the seventh, eighth, and ninth holes, Miss Smith moved ahead. Sally Voss, of Bethesda, Md., was third, at 299, followed by Amy Benz, of Clearwater, Fla., runner-up in the 1979 United States Girls’ Junior Championship, with 300.

The Women’s South Atlantic, the oldest of the four tournaments, began in 1926. It has an impressive list of past winners. Virginia Van Wie won it four times, Patty Berg twice, and, in later years, Polly Riley, Barbara Romack, Pat Lesser, Anne Quast, Judy Bell, Barbara McIntire, Debbie Massey, and Sandra Post were winners. Tish Preuss won it five times and Lancy Smith won it four. Miss Smith was, in fact, the defending champion when the clan convened this January, but she did not last very long. She shot 69 in the opening round, she thought, but when she added her hole-by-hole scores, it showed 68. She added again, and again it came out 68. After at least one more attempt, Lancy gave up, signed the scorecard, and turned it in. Later she went over the round once again, and found that she had made an error on the fourth hole. She took four strokes, but marked 3 on the scorecard. She disqualified herself.

That left Sherrie Ann Keblish, who once played for the University of Miami (Florida), alone in first place at 69, four strokes ahead of Mari McDougall, of Midlothian, Ill., who shot 73. Sally Austin, of Raeford, N.C., and Pat Rizzo shot 74s. The weather was ideal throughout most of the month, sunny and windless, and it was particularly pleasant in Ormond Beach. Miss Keblish took advantage of the conditions and shot 72 in the second round. With 141 for 36 holes, she led the field by nine strokes and seemed to be in for an easy week.

That all changed the next day. She shot 82 in the third round and lost six strokes of that lead. Now she led by three with 18 holes to play and the weather turned bad. Rain fell throughout the morning and then the wind rose in the afternoon. Miss Keblish played the first nine in 37 and kept control of the tournament, but her game fell apart as she turned for home. The first five holes of the home nine played into a stiff wind. Miss Keblish bogied all five. She was not overly concerned, though, because everyone else figured to have trouble, too.

The course turns around after the 14th. Playing with the wind, Miss Keblish was a stroke under par for the remainder of the holes. She had 40 on the second nine and finished with 77 for 300. Miss Rizzo climbed to within two strokes of the leader after the first five holes, but she dropped back steadily after that and finished third, with 79 and 305. Beverly Davis Cooper of Southern Pines, N.C., picked up two strokes on Miss Keblish on the last day and took second place, with 304.

THEN IT WAS ON TO Fort Lauderdale and the Helen Lee Doherty Challenge Cup. The Doherty began in 1933 at the Miami Biltmore, in Coral Gables, and it remained there for 10 years, until the Army took over the hotel during World War II. The tournament moved first to the Miami Country Club, and then it was taken over by the Dade County Port Authority in 1953, and moved to the Miami Springs Country Club for 1954 and 1955. Miami Springs is a public course, and because the tournament dates conflicted with the peak of the tourist season, the arrangement was not very satisfactory. In 1955 Robert Trent Jones, the golf course architect, had just completed building the Coral Ridge Country Club, in Fort Lauderdale. Jones agreed to have the Doherty at Coral Ridge (he also owns the course). It has been there ever since, and Jones and his wife Ione (pronounced Eye-own), have been closely associated with it. This year, Jones flew in from Europe, changed planes in New York, and went right on to Fort Lauderdale.

The Doherty is a very well-run tournament. The course is well-conditioned, the hazards are clearly marked, and any Rules questions are arbitrated by Lew Worsham, the 1947 United States Open champion, who is the Coral Ridge professional.

Because this was the 25th anniversary of the move to Coral Ridge, all the past champions were invited. Many of them accepted the invitation, including Cynthia Hill, the 1975 winner, who is now a professional and, therefore, couldn’t play. Those who played included Mrs. Marlene Streit, who won four times, including three in succession in 1959-60-61; Tish Preuss, three-time winner; Nancy Roth Syms, another three-time winner, who will be the non-playing captain of the Curtis Cup Team in June; Mrs. Dye, who did not play in the South Atlantic because she had injured her foot skipping rope, believe it or not, and of course, Lancy Smith, who had won in 1977 and 1979.

All of the former champions qualified for the Championship Flight except Mrs. Syms. The medalist was a most unlikely young lady – Debra DiSteffano, 18, of Rochester, N.Y., who shot 71. She has been playing golf less than two years. Miss DiSteffano did not last long; she was eliminated in the first round by Miss Preuss, 2 and 1. This was not unexpected, because Miss Preuss was playing very well. She eliminated Mrs. Streit, 3 and 1, in the second round, went to the semifinals, where she lost, 2 and 1, to Mrs. Toni Wiesner, of Fort Worth, Texas. Miss Preuss is very popular in Fort Lauderdale. She grew up in Pompano Beach, the next community north, and she attracts large galleries, even though she has left Florida and lives now in Colorado Springs.

Mrs. Wiesner is a student at Texas Christian University, although she is not fresh out of high school. She has been married for nine years to Robert Wiesner, a geophysicist who searches out oil deposits. The Wiesners used the tournaments as a vacation, and while Toni was playing, Bob spent his days carrying her bag. One was tempted to ask why he wasn’t out looking for oil.

Mrs. Wiesner is a left-handed player; she is very strong and at times her putting is superb. At times, too, it is a bit less than that. This was her first appearance in the Doherty. Miss Rubin, on the other hand, was playing for the third time. She reached the final of the consolation flight in her first Doherty and went to the final of the championship itself last year, losing to Lancy Smith. This year she defeated Miss Smith, 1 up, in the second round in a very well-played match; both were even-par 74. In the semifinal round, Miss Rubin defeated Mary Hafeman, the Women’s Western Amateur champion, 2 and 1. The five par-5 holes at Coral Ridge were the key to her victory: she birdied four of them.

AS THE FINAL ROUND began, however, it looked as if Miss Rubin would be frustrated once again. She was 3 down after nine as Mrs. Wiesner birdied the seventh, eighth, and ninth, holing putts from 12, 42 and three feet. It was really exciting stuff, but that was as close to winning as Mrs. Wiesner was to come. Miss Rubin played two powerful shots to the 10th and won with a par 4; won the 13th when Mrs. Wiesner three-putted from 50 feet, and then played a marvelous 4-iron to the 14th that hit the flagstick. She was then even. Mrs. Wiesner pulled her tee shot on the 15th behind some trees, and Miss Rubin went ahead, 1 up. She played the second nine in 36, had 76 for the round against 79 by Mrs. Wiesner. They went to lunch with Miss Rubin 1 up.

Miss Rubin was still 1 up after eight holes of the afternoon, won the ninth with a birdie and the 10th with a bogey 5. That, effectively, was the end of Mrs. Wiesner, although she did win the 14th hole, a par 4, where Miss Rubin hit her ball behind a low-growing palmetto and made 6. Miss Rubin was then two holes up, and that is the way the match ended, 2 and 1.

A week later the team of Reggie Hawes and Barbara Charles won the Florida Women’s Invitational Four-Ball, defeating Lucille Ray, of Fort Mill, S.C., and Robin Weiss, of Fort Pierce, Fla., on the 37th hole. Miss Charles holed a five-foot putt for a par four on the extra hole after both Miss Ray and Miss Weiss missed the green. The match took two days to complete. Florida weather had been delightful until that week, but heavy rains fell the day of the final, and the match was suspended after 18 holes with Miss Ray and Miss Weiss leading by one hole. The weather cleared the next day, the match resumed, and the Hawes-Charles team quickly caught up and then won.

WITH THE CONCLUSION of the Four-Ball, normalcy returned. Lancy Smith went back to her bicuspids, Alice Dye went back to skipping rope, Mrs. Syms began plotting strategy for the Curtis Cup Match in June, college girls went back to school, wives went back to their husbands, and Bob Wiesner finally went back to looking for oil. Wish him luck.

The powerful swing of Nancy Rubin, of Florida International University, near Miami, winner of the 48th Helen Lee Doherty Challenge Cup. (USGA Museum)

Mrs. Toni Wiesner, runner-up to Miss Rubin in the Doherty, may be the best left-handed golfer among the country’s women amateurs. (USGA Museum)

The players are a friendly group. Alice Collins, a college-mate of Miss Rubin, missed qualifying, but stayed around to caddie. (USGA Museum)