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As a competitor and then as a rules official, tournament director, and certainly humanitarian, her ambition was to share her love and passion for golf with everyone who crossed her path. And she succeeded brilliantly!
A native of Spartanburg, South Carolina, Rawls grew up in Texas and took up golf at age 17. Within four years she captured the first of back-to-back Texas Amateur championships. In 1950, while still an amateur, she placed second at the U.S. Women’s Open.
A graduate of the University of Texas with degrees in Mathematics and Physics, Rawls considered a career as a physicist before deciding to take her chances on a golf career instead. She joined the LPGA Tour in 1951, its second year of existence.
Over the course of a playing career that spanned nearly a quarter century, she built a collection of 55 victories that included four U.S. Women’s Opens (1951, ’53, ’57, 60), two LPGA Championships (1959, ’69), and two Women’s Western Opens (1952, ’59). She also claimed the Vare Trophy, for having the LPGA’s lowest stroke average, in 1959.
Following her retirement in 1975, Rawls spent six years as the LPGA’s tournament director before leaving that post to become the Executive Director of what was then the McDonald’s Championship. Under her leadership, the McDonald’s Championship (later to become the McDonald’s LPGA Championship) became one of the most successful events in all of women’s sports and donated more money to charity than any other LPGA event.
She also served the game as a rules official and became the first woman to serve on the Rules Committee for the U.S. Open Championship. Rawls put considerable time and energy into assuring golf’s future. To that end, she launched the Betsy Rawls Junior Championship, an all-star event of sorts for junior girls.
Virtually every player in the field had ambitions of playing on the LPGA Tour and the tournament was structured to replicate a Tour experience as much as possible, including an event that saw tournament competitors paired with sponsors and media members to give them a sense of what playing in a pro-am was about.
Rawls did all this with a graciousness and charm that left a lasting impression on all who knew her. When you were in her company, you were made to feel like the most important person in her world, regardless of whether you were the number-one player on the LPGA Money List, a tournament sponsor, or just a reporter from a local media outlet still trying to figure out what tournament golf and the LPGA Tour were all about.
The achievements of Betsy Rawls the golfer are chronicled in record books but those achievements are transcended by the legacy of Betsy Rawls the person.
Words: Rick Woelfel