EMU Athletics Mourns Loss of Legendary Golfer Shirley Spork

YPSILANTI, Mich. (EMUEagles.com) – Eastern Michigan University E-Club Hall of Famer Shirley Spork passed away Tuesday, April 12, at the age of 94. Spork, who was the first female inducted into the E-Club Athletics Hall of Fame in 1981, was twice a trailblazer in the sport she loved – golf.

A true pioneer, Spork was one of 13 Founders of the LPGA in 1950. A decade later, Spork almost single-handedly created the LPGA Teaching & Club Pro Division.

Spork, who died in Palm Springs, Calif., was born on May 14, 1927, at the peak of the Roaring 20s. Raised during the depths of the Great Depression, she matured as a golfer during the turmoil of World War II. She was a daughter of The Greatest Generation, and she did it proud.

As important as Spork was in founding the LPGA, she was even more impactful as a coach and as a coach of coaches. She literally wrote the book on how to teach the game and was especially innovative in tailoring instruction methods to the specific needs of women, remaining a coach into her 90s.

A 1949 graduate of then Michigan State Normal College, Spork was a part-time Tour player in the 50s, 60s and 70s, participating in US Opens, LPGA Championships and the Tam O’Shanter All-American Open.

Despite graduating 23 years before Title IX created gender equity in sports in 1972, Spork was able to give back to EMU Athletics in support of the women’s golf team. An endowment to the program is named in her honor de ella to supplement the operational budget and further expand golf opportunities for women. Additionally, EMU has hosted a fall women’s collegiate tournament each October at EagleCrest Golf Club in her honor.

Spork began his golf career early in life. She started playing with one club, a putter, at age 10 when she lived near Bonnie Brook Golf Course in Detroit, Mich. Throughout high school, Spork would participate in the annual City Championship at Palmer Park Municipal, which was only a nine-hole event. While attending MSNC, Spork won the Women’s District Match Play Championship three times in four years. In 1947, she was the winner of the first-ever National Collegiate Championship held for women’s athletics, plus she was the victor of the 1949 Michigan Amateur.

After graduation, Spork became a teacher in the Detroit public schools, but realized she would much rather be playing golf. She turned professional in 1950 and played the tour but along the way, she realized she was still a teacher and in 1959 along with Marilynn Smith, Betty Hicks and Barbara Rotvig, she founded the LPGA’s Teaching and Club Professional Division.

“Becoming a founding member of both the LPGA Tour and the LPGA Teaching Division were highlights along the road,” Spork said in her book From Tee to Green.

“My journey reminds me of a sticker we had in our motorhome… ‘Been There – Done That,'” Spork wrote. “So True! I certainly have been blessed to see and do a lot in my life. A great big thank you to all who support this great game we call golf.”

A longtime resident of Palm Desert, Calif., Spork was on hand each year at the ANA Inspiration at Mission Hills and, from its inception in 2011, Spork was a fixture at the Founders Cup, greeting players as they came off the 18th green, often adding a swing tip to her handshake.

The road to the LPGA for Spork started in the industrial Midwest during the dark days of the Depression. Her family de ella lived off the 17th fairway of Bonnie Brook Golf Course near Detroit, where they moved after her father lost his job and exchanged caretaker work for free rent.

The little red-haired girl bought her first golf club when she was 12, a putter she got for a dollar with money earned from selling golf balls she found. Then Spork endured the laughter of the boys who caddied at Bonnie Brook because she used that putter to hit full shots. But it was her only choice of her; it was her only club.

That experience inspired one of the most consequential journeys golf has known. With the echo of laughter ringing in her ears, Spork began a lifelong fight for her gender and for the game of golf.

Bonnie Brook was the perfect place for Spork to grow up. She was a natural athlete and picked up golf quickly. Eventually, Otto Hinds, the pro at Bonnie Brook, aware she was sneaking on the course with her one club de ella, gave her a 3-, 5-, 7- and 9-iron.

With that primitive set on her shoulder, Spork would ride her bicycle to Redford Golf Club where the Detroit Free Press sponsored free lessons for juniors. By her mid-teens, she was winning regional tournaments.

Then came a crucial decision, not just for Spork but for golf. Spork entered Michigan State Normal School, now Eastern Michigan University. She won the 1947 Women’s National Collegiate Golf Tournament, but more importantly she studied to be a Physical Education instructor and learned how to teach.

On May 6, 1950, while teaching in the Detroit public school system, Spork turned pro and became one of the 13 women who signed the original charter of the Ladies Professional Golf Association.

That fall she began teaching at Bowling Green State University while also studying for her Master’s Degree, teaching Monday through Thursday and playing LPGA events Friday through Sunday.

While Spork competed regularly on the LPGA in those early years, she was always a teacher at heart. She was mentored by PGA professional Joey Rey at Pasatiempo Golf Club in Santa Cruz, Calif, who got Spork her first head pro job at Ukiah Municipal Golf Course.

By 1955, Spork was coaching at Tamarisk Country Club near Palm Springs. In 1959, she convinced the LPGA to create the LPGA Teaching & Club Pro Division, the decision passing by one vote.

In 1983, the first LPGA Teaching Division National Championship was held and now the top eight finishers in that tournament earn spots into the field of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.

Coaching was Spork’s prime passion. In 1960, the first LPGA National Golf School was held at the University of Michigan to educate coaches on how to teach the game to women. In the 1970s, she worked with Dr. Gary Wiren, Director of Education for the PGA, to make it possible for apprentices to get PGA credits while working for an LPGA pro.

She also worked for the National Golf Foundation to create the Golf Teaching Kit, a guide for coaches.

Just last month, the LPGA announced that the eight founders not already enshrined in the LPGA Hall of Fame — a list that included Spork — will be inducted this year in the Honorary Category.

“Getting into the LPGA Hall of Fame is the highest honor ever in our profession, so I’ve climbed the whole ladder and gotten to the top,” Spork said in a news release last month.

Spork was one of only two to be LPGA Teacher of the Year twice – and she did it 25 years apart.

“Through the years I have met a lot of people and made a lot of dear friends,” Spork said. “It was fun to go to work every day and teach because people who came to me wanted to learn how to play. Learning to play the game of golf is like eating an elephant. It’s overwhelming unless you eat just one bite at a time and slowly digest it.”

It was a meal Spork never finished, savoring every bite.

“I have played golf for almost 80 years, and in my life, I have probably eaten six-eighths of the elephant,” she said. “Hopefully, I’ll have time to work on that one next bite.”

Throughout her life, Spork preached the Gospel of golf, instructing and inspiring generations how to bring the game to new players. Her keen insight, kind soul and comforting wit her made her a joy to be around.

LPGA Founder and trailblazing teacher: Shirley Spork was twice a pioneer – and that made her one of a kind.

(Portions of this release are courtesy of the LPGA)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.