Museum Moment: Van Wie’s Brilliance, Camaraderie During Brief Career Swelled Ranks of Women’s Golf

Feb 10, 2011

By Michael Trostel

At age 12, Virginia Van Wie received an order from her doctor that many of us would long to hear from our physician, spouse or boss: Play more golf.

Van Wie was frail and often ill during her childhood in Chicago. Her parents kept her out of school, deciding it best to tutor her privately. After suffering a back injury, Van Wie took up golf at a doctor’s urging to get more exercise and fresh air.

Thanks to that recommendation, Van Wie went on to develop into one of the greatest amateur players of the interwar period. In a seven-year stretch from 1928 to 1934, Van Wie made the semifinals of the U.S. Women’s Amateur six times, finishing runner-up twice before winning three consecutive titles in 1932, 1933 and 1934. She is one of only five players to accomplish the feat. Much like Bob Jones, her male amateur counterpart, Van Wie retired from competitive golf on top, walking away from the game following her victory in 1934 at age 25.

Throughout the years of the Great Depression, the number of men playing golf declined dramatically, but women took up the game at an unprecedented rate. Each year between 1930 and 1936, the population of women golfers increased some 20 percent. As the editors of Golfdom wrote in May 1934, “The army of women golfers is fast outnumbering the male addicts to the game.” Van Wie, Glenna Collett Vare and Patty Berg dominated the amateur ranks and inspired a new generation of women to take up the game.

Van Wie learned the game from her cousin – a member of the University of Michigan golf team and a state champion. The two often played together growing up, frequently using methods that Van Wie carried over to her competitive career: “Some days we’d just take one club and a putter for the fun of it. That way you learned to play different shots.” Throughout her career, Van Wie never carried a club more lofted than a 9-iron, a testament to her ability to craft shots from inside 100 yards.

Starting in the mid-1920s, Van Wie, known as “Gino” to her golfing brethren, spent her winters in Florida and became a regular on the competitive golf circuit, winning two Palm Beach Championships and four South Atlantic titles.

In her early tournaments, however, Van Wie was unfamiliar with the complete Rules of Golf. She told a story from one of her first encounters on the competitive circuit in a 1991 oral history.

“We got to the 18th green in the qualifying round and I had hit two putts. [They] didn’t go in, so I knocked [the ball] away. The girl I was playing with told me I couldn’t do that. It took me two more putts to get it in the hole to qualify. I found out later I would have been medalist had I not done that. When you five-putt the last green, it can be rather disastrous.”

Van Wie had bowed out of the U.S. Women’s Amateur in the first round in 1925 and 1926, but a growing confidence in her swing – described as “perfection” by renowned British golf writer Bernard Darwin – helped her advance to the final of the 1928 championship. The 36-hole match was a disaster, however, as six-time Women’s Amateur champion Glenna Collett annihilated her, 13 and 12, the largest margin of victory in a USGA championship match to that point, and a record that stood until 1961.

Two years later, the pair met again in the Women’s Amateur final, with Collett prevailing for the second straight time. Van Wie later said, tongue-in-cheek, “I only lost by 6 and 5, so that was rather encouraging.”

In 1932, the two rivals squared off for the third time in the championship match of the Women’s Amateur, with Van Wie jumping to an 8-up advantage after the morning round. A bystander said, “You must feel pretty safe with that lead.” But Van Wie was still worried, replying that if she had won eight holes in the morning, Collett could certainly win eight or more in the afternoon.

This time, however, Van Wie finally exacted revenge on her rival, beating Collett soundly. The 10-and-8 victory gave Van Wie the national championship that she had tirelessly pursued.

The following year, Van Wie defeated close friend Helen Hicks in the final to capture her second straight championship. Van Wie and Hicks were often roommates while on the road, with the 1933 Women’s Amateur being no exception.

“It’s a weird, peculiar feeling when you finally get there,” Van Wie said. “You’re pulling for each other and then all of a sudden you’re going to play against each other.” After Van Wie triumphed, 4 and 3, the two went out for dinner and a night of dancing despite having played over eight hours of championship caliber golf.

By the following spring, however, Van Wie was starting to lose some of her competitive fire. When asked in April 1934 how it felt to be a two-time national champion, she gave a surprising answer.

“Elegant one moment and a bit disappointed the next,” Van Wie told Harry Evans in an interview for The Family Circle. “Winning the title gave me a tremendous kick because I worked so hard for it, but somehow the whole thing has been a little disappointing. I can’t exactly express it. The worst part of it is that I am definitely not as keen about golf now as I used to be.”

Despite her misgivings about continuing her career, Van Wie played well during the 1934 season and six months later outlasted 19-year-old Dorothy Traung, 2 and 1, for her third consecutive Women’s Amateur title.

Unlike many of her contemporaries – including Hicks, who was the first woman to turn professional – Van Wie never gave up her amateur status. She turned down a contract offer from Wilson’s Sporting Goods, citing that she was “burnt out” from competitive golf.

Reflecting back on her career and subsequent retirement after the 1934 Women’s Amateur, Van Wie said, “I was worn out after that. I had lost about 15 pounds playing in the national championship. I figured I had proven I could do it and that’s all I wanted to do.”

Fierce rivals, but also close friends, the mutual admiration between Virginia Van Wie and Glenna Collett was evident. The pair squared off an incredible five times in either the semifinals or finals of the Women’s Amateur between 1928 and 1934, with Collett winning three of the matches. Both also worked with the same swing coach, Ernest Jones.

Collett called Van Wie one of her toughest opponents in her book, Ladies in the Rough, and ranked her as one of the longest hitters of the era. “Trying to imagine her as a frail young girl strains the imagination.”

Van Wie called Collett “the greatest” player of her generation and lauded her outstanding sportsmanship. “She didn’t give you the feeling she was out there to annihilate you at all. In fact, I think she made anyone more comfortable that played with her.”

While Van Wie feared picking up bad habits from watching other players swing, she said, “[Collett] was the one person I could watch and it didn’t interfere with my game [because] she had such a smooth swing.”

“There was only one Glenna Collett,” Van Wie said in a 1991 interview. “To me, she had all of the shots. What else is there?”

In 1935, the year after Van Wie retired from competitive golf, Collett, 32, won her sixth and final U.S. Women’s Amateur.

To learn more about Virginia Van Wie and women golfers of the early 20th century, visit the USGA Museum in Far Hills, N.J. Several of Van Wie’s artifacts are on display, including photographs from the earliest Curtis Cup Matches and her “special niblick,” manufactured by Hendry & Bishop, that she used to win three consecutive Women’s Amateur titles.

Michael Trostel is the curator/historian for the USGA Museum. E-mail questions or comments to mtrostel@usga.org.

Virginia Van Wie's niblick, which she used in winning three consecutive U.S. Women's Amateur titles (1932-34), is on display at the USGA Museum in Far Hills, N.J. (USGA Museum)