Born in Port Arthur on June 26, 1914, the greatest athlete this country has ever known was a legend before she ever touched a golf club.
It was at the suggestion of legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice that Mildred Didrikson started playing golf in 1935, three years after her remarkable performance at the Los Angeles Olympic Games where she won two gold medals and a silver, breaking world records in the javelin throw and the 80-meter hurdles. Mildred was nicknamed Babe in her youth, after Babe Ruth, by playmates when she hit five home runs in one game. She won the 1935 River Crest International in Fort Worth. Subsequently, she was declared a professional due to her baseball and basketball earnings.
Married to professional wrestler George Zaharias in 1938, the Babe became American’s greatest women athlete, excelling in tennis, swimming, diving, roller-skating, bowling and softball.
In January 1938, she competed in the Los Angeles Open, a PGA (Professional Golfers' Association) tournament. No other woman competed against men in this tournament until Annika Sörenstam, Suzy Whaley, Michelle Wie and Brittany Lincicome almost six decades later.
After not competing professionally for three years in any sport, Zaharias regained her amateur status for a time and won the 1946 U.S. Women's Amateur and the 1947 British Ladies Amateur – the first American to do so – and three Women's Western Opens.
Zaharias then formally turned professional in golf 1947. She dominated the Women's Professional Golf Association and later the Ladies Professional Golf Association. She was a founding member of the Ladies Professional Golf Association, in 1950.
She won 31 tournaments, including five majors. In 1953, she was stricken with cancer and underwent surgery. She recovered enough by 1954 to win again.
Her colon cancer recurred in 1955. Despite her limited schedule of eight golfing events that season, Zaharias won her last two tournaments in competitive golf. On September 27, 1956, Zaharias died of her illness at the age of forty-five at the John Sealy Hospital in Galveston, Texas.
She won 17 straight women's amateur events - a feat that has not been equaled or beat. By 1950, she had won every golf title available. Totaling both her amateur and professional victories, Zaharias won a total of 82 golf tournaments.
Zaharias has a museum dedicated to her in Beaumont, Texas the Babe Didrikson Zaharias Museum. Several golf courses are named after her. A Tampa, Florida golf course that she and her husband owned, the Babe Zaharias Golf Course, was given landmark status.
- 41 LPGA Tour Victories
- 10 Major Championship Titles
- Member World Golf Hall of Fame
- Winner LPGA Grand Slam 1950
- Winner 17 consecutive women's amateur events
- Named the 10th Greatest North American Athlete of the 20th Century by ESPN, and the 9th Greatest Athlete of the 20th Century by the Associated Press.
- 1957 Bob Jones Award recipient
- 1976 National Women's Hall of Fame inductee
- Commemorated in 1981 U.S. Postal Service 18 cent stamp
- 2021 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient
A Legend is Born
The teen aged legend of Babe Didrikson grew to the point that the Employers Casualty Insurance Company of Dallas hired her as a secretary in order for her to be eligible for the company's AAU basketball team. Her acclaim leading the team to a national championship in 1931 prompted the company to form a Track and Field team. In the 1932 AAU Track and Field Championships Babe competed in eight events winning five and tied for a sixth. The Employers Casualty Insurance Company of Dallas won the national championship with a team that consisted of only one member, Babe Didrikson.
In the 1932 Olympics Babe laid claim to the title "greatest woman athlete of all time".
At the time women were restricted a maximum of three events by the International Olympic Committee. Women were deemed too physically delicate to compete in more. Clearly the IOC had never met Babe.
Didrikson set four world records and won three medals, two gold and one silver for track and field. In the 80-meter hurdles, she equaled the world record of 11.8 seconds in her opening heat. In the final, she broke her record with an 11.7 clocking, taking gold. In the javelin, she also won gold with an Olympic record throw of 43.69 meters. In the high jump, she took silver with a world record-tying leap of 1.657 metres (5.44 ft). Fellow American Jean Shiley also jumped 1.657 metres, and the pair tied in a jump-off when the bar was raised to 1.67 metres (5.5 ft). Shiley was awarded the gold after Didrikson was ruled to have used an improper technique.
Didrikson remains the only track and field athlete, male or female, to win individual Olympic medals in separate running, throwing and jumping events.
A New Challenge
In 1935, at the suggestion of legendary sports writer Grantland Rice, Babe began playing golf seriously. She had been declared a professional athlete a few years earlier after accepting money to barnstorm in other sports. The opportunities for professional competition in the women's game were severely limited so Babe competed against men and also played in exhibitions and conducted clinics.
After regaining her amateur status she began winning important tournaments including four majors, three Western Opens and a Titleholders Championship. Officially turning professional in 1947 she would help found the LPGA Tour, win 22 tournaments in the next three years and claim six more majors in her Hall of Fame career.
Taking on the Men
While seven women have played in PGA Tour events Babe Didrikson Zaharias is the first, and only one of two to have qualified rather than rely on a sponsor exemption. She is also the only woman to have made the cut against the men.
Due to her accomplishments in track and field and payments sh received
In 1938 she qualified for and missed the cut in the Los Angeles Open only three years after taking up the game seriously. By 1945, however, the Babe was a polished golfer and played three PGA Tour events in January of that year. She qualified for each and made the initial cut in all three, missing the second cut in Los Angeles, finished 33rd in Phoenix and 49th in Tucson.
In 1948, she became the first woman to attempt to qualify for the U.S. Open, but her application was rejected by the USGA. They stated that the event was intended to be open to men only.
Babe was such an accomplished athlete it wasn't considered unusual that she would play against the men. The runner up of that 1945 L.A. Open, Byron Nelson recalled, "You can't believe how little publicity there was in those days," Nelson said. "There was no TV, and if you did radio, you had to drive to the station. There wasn't much fuss made about Babe, as I recall it."
In 1953 Zaharias was diagnosed with colon cancer. After undergoing surgery, she made a comeback in 1954.
In the comeback year Babe won her only Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average, and her 10th and final major championship, the U.S. Women's Open. The major win was one month after the surgery and the margin of victory was 12 strokes, while wearing a colostomy bag. She became the second-oldest woman to win a major LPGA championship tournament.
Her colon cancer recurred in 1955. Despite her limited schedule of eight events that season, Zaharias won her last two tournaments in competitive golf.
Lee Trevino - Mildred Babe Didrikson Zaharias
Deep dive video interview
Lee Trevino - Mildred Babe Didrikson Zaharias
Babe on the course
Urging a putt to go at the 1940 Women's All American Championship
The musical side of Babe
A portrait of young Babe Didrikson Zaharias
Posing on the green
Didrikson took gold for javelin at the 1932 Summer Games
The first woman in history to make the cut at a PGA TOUR event. L.A. Open 1945
Pick-up hockey with the New York Rangers
A multi-decorated olympian
Hoisting the 1933 Doherty Jones Women's Challenge Cup
Babe Didrikson Zaharias had 48 professional Tour wins
Lacing up the boxing gloves
Babe with her Wilson staff bag
The iconic swing of Babe Didrikson Zaharias
Zaharias admiring a shot
A love of basketball
Babe competing in the 80-meter hurdles at the 1932 Summer Games
In 1934 Didrikson pitched four innings in Major League spring training exhibition games
First woman to appear on a Wheaties Box 1934
Celebrating the wedding of Babe and George Zaharias