It’s tempting to ponder, as George Demeritt did 60 years ago, exactly what Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias was thinking immediately after completing her dramatic three-day victory march to capture the 1954 United States Women’s Open. Following her whirlwind performance over 72 holes at the Salem Country Club in Peabody — winning by 12 strokes before galleries of more than 4,000 fans — Zaharias paused to collect her thoughts.
“I have a memory of her just sitting in one of the lounge chairs just off the 18th, looking out at the course,” said Demeritt, of Middleton, now a retired hospital executive and longtime Salem CC member, but at the time an 18-year-old member of the grounds crew. “There’s a little terrace we have out there, where you can have a drink and look out on the 18th, the 1st, and the 9th. You could almost imagine the caption, ‘Boy, I just played this place.’ You just had to wonder if she’s thinking, ‘I don’t want to leave here.’ It just seemed like she was so appreciative to be there.”
Given that her victory came only 15 months after doctors in Texas had performed colon surgery to remove a cancerous tumor and told her she would never again play championship-level golf, Zaharias was almost certainly feeling appreciative.
“I wanted to go out with a little flash,” she told writers after just missing a par putt on the final hole, according to Gary Larrabee’s book, “Sensation at Salem,” a chronicle of Zaharias’s spectacular win. “Hope that didn’t spoil it for all those great fans who cheered me on that day.”
The US Open at Salem CC compressed four rounds into three days, with 36 holes on the final day, played in withering heat during the first three days of July. It was a stern test for a woman who was not at full strength, and forced to compete with a colostomy bag.
“She sensed that she might not have a lot of time left,” said Larrabee, a longtime golf writer from Wenham. “She always spoke a big game; ‘I’ll be around another 10 years, 20 years, and I plan to win a lot more championships.’ But it was always in the back of her mind that she might be battling against the clock in terms of her cancer.”
Those doubts were prescient. Two years after storming the Salem CC for her third and final US Open victory, Zaharias, arguably the country’s finest female athlete ever, was dead at the age of 45. The 1954 Open she won would serve as her crowning achievement.
“This victory was the answer to a prayer,” she said during the trophy presentation ceremony at the country club, Larrabee writes in his book. “I was in the hospital in Beaumont, Texas [April 1953] for that colostomy, and I made one prayer over and over. I said ‘Please make me able to play again. I’ll take care of the winning.’ ”
Olympic gold in track and field
“It’s just a fascinating story, growing up in such humble origins in Beaumont, Texas, she emerges from a dustbowl, a dirt-poor farm, to become the greatest women’s athlete of all time,” said Larrabee. “And this event capped off her great athletic career. Winning the 1954 Women’s Open was her greatest triumph, at least since the 1932 Olympics, and it turned out, sadly, to be her swan song.”
In the 1930s, the 5-foot-5-inch Zaharias was then known as Babe Didrikson. Legend has it she got the nickname after hitting five home runs in a baseball game, conjuring images of Babe Ruth, while other accounts suggest her Norwegian mother called her “bebe” from a very early age.
She first captured the country’s imagination during the Olympics in Los Angeles. Two years after taking up track and field, Didrikson competed in five events, winning gold in the javelin and 80-meter hurdles and silver in the high jump. She went on to star in numerous other sports, including basketball, baseball, softball, tennis, swimming, diving, boxing, volleyball, handball, bowling, billiards, and cycling.
In 1949, she was voted the greatest female athlete of the half-century by the Associated Press (the AP also named her female athlete of the year six times). ESPN ranked her the 10th-best athlete of the 20th century, ahead of such luminaries as Hank Aaron, Bobby Orr, Ted Williams, Wilt Chamberlain, and Bill Russell.
With one tournament win under her belt during the 1954 season, she arrived in Salem on June 27 — her 43d birthday — accompanied by her husband, George Zaharias, who was billed at 300 pounds during his years as a pro wrestler.
“He was a mountain of a man,” said Oliver Cook, 75, a Peabody lawyer who attended the 1954 Open as a 15-year-old visiting from Ohio. “I’d never seen anybody that big. He was really a commanding force.”
The Donald Ross-designed course at Salem CC, first opened in 1926, looks much the same today as it did in 1954, said club members. But those lucky enough to be in the gallery caught a fleeting glimpse of Zaharias’s unparalleled athletic ability as she tamed the fairways and the hazards, recording scores of 72, 71, 73, and 75 for a four-round total of 291.
“There’s no question that she got a little tired. You can just look at her scores,” said Cook. “She did bemoan the fact that she made a couple bogies [during the last round] coming in.”
“I remember the last day, when she won it,” said longtime club member Arthur McCarthy of Peabody, 79, who had caddied at Salem the summer before. “I was in the crowd, and I decided to follow her around because she was the odds-on favorite to win. She was a thing of beauty. Very, very aggressive, but smooth at the same time.
“The first hole at Salem is a medium-long par 4, and out about 200 yards, maybe a bit more, there’s a big mound on the left-hand side of the fairway,” said McCarthy. “If you, as a guy, could drive it out to the mound, that was good at the time, with the equipment and all. She got up there and just blew it right over the hill. She hit it just like a male.”
So dominant was Zaharias at Salem that her competitors would actually interrupt their own game to catch a glimpse of her play.
“There was one hole where people had to cross between the 5th and 16th, and the female pros who were participating in the tournament would stop and watch Babe coming up the 4th hole, to see what her shot was like,” said Demeritt. “I thought that was very interesting. They would kind of linger back, and peek over and watch Babe.”
Athlete and entertainer
Zaharias was an exceedingly rare combination of gifted athlete who not only honed those exceptional skills but was also a consummate entertainer. She constantly chatted with gallery members and journalists.
“I don’t think there’s ever been another golfer that’s equal to her. I really think she’s in a class by herself,” said Cook. “Quite frankly, her athletic exploits speak for themselves. But she was involved in movies and advertising. She was just way ahead of her times. Today you’ve got PR businesses, the agents, the promoters. She basically promoted herself. She didn’t need a large entourage to tell her what to say and what to do.”
“There’s no question she was bigger than life,” Cook added. “The galleries were just tremendous. My aunt, Margaret Slaughter — her husband was a radiologist over in Marblehead — asked, ‘Babe, we’re not bothering you, are we?’ And Babe looks around and says in that Texas drawl, ‘The only thing that would bother me is if you all weren’t out here watching me play.’ ”
Cook and others pointed out that Zaharias also had the uncommon ability to engage the crowd without allowing those pleasantries to distract her. “The 18th was a real good par 4. And back then, there were no stakes or ropes and all that jazz” keeping the gallery at bay, said Cook. “It’s sort of a narrow tee, and people who wanted to get a better look crowded in.
“My sister was only about 8 or 9 years old, with red hair in pigtails, and she evidently went down a little further than was reasonable, and was looking back,” recalled Cook.
“Babe was addressing the ball, and she backed off and said ‘Hey, cutie down there on the right with the pigtails, you better move back. I think I’m accurate, but sometimes not that accurate.’ She was just so much fun.”
Larrabee, who has covered local golf for four decades, pointed out that Zaharias’s persona set the stage for great golfers who followed.
“[Arnold] Palmer was an amateur golfer in 1954 when Babe won her last great championship,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Arnold learned a little bit from the Babe, how to treat the galleries, how to treat the people in the game, and how to have that outgoing personality that made him the king of golf. The Babe was the queen of golf.”
‘Inside, she was
What made Zaharias such a dominant player, said McCarthy, was her laser focus. “She was a very special woman, very gracious,” he said. “But inside, she was a warrior.”
“To think what she accomplished that day, and was gone two years later to cancer, it’s incredible,” said McCarthy. “It speaks to what kind of woman she was. She was really indomitable. She didn’t have a negative thought in her head that you could discern at all. She was just out there and she was going to win it.”
Though playful with the gallery, Zaharias was ruthless with her competition, which included such well-known players as Louise Suggs, Patty Berg, Betsy Rawls, and amateur star Mary “Mickey” Wright. Zaharias was confident to the point of being brash, but had the talent to back up her boasts. She often predicted she would win.
Zaharias’s outgoing personality gave way to her competitive side the moment she stepped in the tee box, and she “would look at her playing partner as if to say, ‘You’re going to finish second, because I’m going to finish first. Now get out of my way,’ ” said McCarthy.
Salem CC has hosted several major tournaments since, including the US Women’s Open in 1984 (won by Hollis Stacy) and the 2001 US Senior Open, which is set to return in 2017. None, though, have matched Zaharias’s stunning achievement six decades ago.
“The most historic championship they ever hosted was the 1954 US Women’s Open,” said Larrabee. “Every time people talk about the greatest tournaments, the greatest performances in US Open history, men or women, Babe Zaharias and the 1954 Women’s Open at Salem always comes up.”Brion O’Connor can be reached at email@example.com.