The choice was golf or college. Now Marjorie Kirkham is Canada’s first woman golf professional
IF HER FATHER had not been a semi-invalid, Marjorie Kirkham, ranking Canadian girl golf star, might never have swung a club. But Mr. Kirkham had been ordered by the doctors to keep in the open air as much as possible, and to indulge in some light form of exercise. This was in 1925, when the Kirkham family was living in Maisonneuve, the eastern suburb of Montreal where the Municipal Golf Course is located. Mr. Kirkham took to wandering over to the golf course, and in due time the inevitable happened; he was bitten by the golf bug.
“Come on, Marjorie,” he used to beg his sixteen-yearold daughter. “Play a round with me. You’ll like it.”
For a long time Marjorie demurred. There were other things in life that seemed much more interesting to a young girl with red hair and keen blue eyes than chasing a silly golf ball around a cow pasture. But one day, tired of a long continuing argument, she said all right, she’d go just this once if that would be the end of it.
The professional at the Municipal Course at that time was Arthur Mundy. He showed her how to hold a club and address the ball, watched her take a few practice swings, and said he guessed she was ready to play with her father. The first tee that day was the scene of an epic event; she smacked her drive some 200 yards straight down the middle of the fairway and something clicked in her brain. Straightway she forgot there was anything else in the world except golf—a lapse of mind from which she has never completely recovered.
She was going to high school then and every afternoon when school was out, about three o’clock, she used to make for the Municipal Golf Course like a rocket. On week-ends she practically camped there; and now it was she who had to coax her father to play, for it seems his mild enthusiasm couldn’t keep pace with this wild fervor.
Two years later he made her a present of the thing she wanted most in the world—a membership in a real, honest-to-goodness golf club. Rosemount was the dub he selected. After the Municipal Course this was heaven, so maybe you can understand why she wanted to spend all her time there. Early that spring she got her first taste of tournament competition. She had begun to attract some attention because of the way she haunted the course, and one lady, impressed by the long ball she hit, invited her to play for the All-Montreal team in its annual brush with the Royal Montreal Golf Club at Dixie.
Before the competition started they asked her what her handicap was, and she told them twenty-one. She broke ninety that day for the first time, and was a little embarrassed when they reduced her handicap to fifteen. Greatly encouraged by this early success, she entered both the Canadian Ladies’ Open and Closed Championships later in the summer, and had the high-voltage thrill of qualifying in both tournaments.
At this time, Miss Kirkham says, she was in love with her wooden clubs. She drove an especially long ball for a girl, and felt supremely confident with a driver, brassie or spoon in her hands. It was the iron shots that were the fly in her golfing dish. Yet she had achieved some measure of steadiness, and her scores in those championship tournaments were somewhere in the nineties.
1 I TIAT WINTER her father’s poor health necessitated his moving the family to California, and they took up residence just outside Los Angeles. By this time she had finished high school, and the question of her future arose.
Her father talked it over with her one day.
“Marjorie,” he said soberly, “you can go to college or you can continue to play golf, whichever you prefer. But I can’t afford to let you do both. It’s a decision you'll have to make for yourself.”
She did not have to deliberate more than a minute. “I’ll stick to golf,” she told him.
So he bought her a membership in the San Gabriel Country Club, one of the many fine courses in the Los Angeles district. The pro at this club was Harry Pressler, who has since become famous as a tutor of women golfers, and it was to him that she went for lessons. To this day Miss Kirkham believes that Harry Pressler is without a master and indeed has few
if any equals as a golf teacher.
Pressler’s fundamental theory was that accuracy is far more important than distance in golf scoring, which was just the opposite to the belief she had held up to that time. She had had a lot of fun hammering the ball a mile off the tee and slugging away as hard as she could with her irons, though she now admits that some of the joy went out of it when she had to beat the rough fiat with her clubs, searching for lost balls. Her first conversation with Harry Pressler opened her eyes.
“Every notion I had about golf and everything I had been doing were wrong,” she says. “I had to go to work and learn the game all over again.”
Pressler was a great iron-shot teacher and he started her off with the irons—those pesky dubs she’d always been afraid of —and made her whip them through by the hour. He’d grab a club and stand in front of her.
“Watch me,” he’d command her. “Don’t swing it like a wooden club. It’s not a swing, it’s more of a punch. Control your body and hit through with your arms.” And he’d show her how it should be done.
It was all very discouraging at first, because whatever kind of a style she had developed in her two years experience was speedily disintegrating, and she got to the point where she wasn’t sure of anything any more. There were times when she thought that any other activity, even going to college, must be better than this. But she careçl enough about the game to stay with it through a period when she really
despaired of ever playing half-decent golf again. The other thing that kept her going, she says now, was that Pressler seemed to think she was worth bothering about.
For many weeks the struggle continued without any
apparent change. Then suddenly one day she hit a shot perfectly. She knew by the feel of the club in her hands, even before her eye picked out the flight of the ball, which travelled like a rifle shot for the green, that she had done it. Her hands trembled erratically with suppressed excitement as she dropped another ball. But again it happened! And from that moment on, she improved with almost unbelievable speed.
While Miss Kirkham was taking lessons from Pressler, the professional was also teaching his wife. Leona Pressler, now Mrs. Leona Cheney, one of the bestknown woman golfers in the United States. The two girls started taking instruction almost at the same time, which was in November, 1927; and four months later they entered the annual mid-winter tournament together at the Los Angeles Country Club, oné of the biggest competitive attractions on the Pacific Coast. It sounds a little unreal, a little too much like a scenario out of near-by Hollywood, but the two of them stroked their waythrough to the final, which Mrs. Cheney won at the seventeenth green after a hard battle.
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That tournament introduced two new girl stars to the world of competitive golf, and it also made Harry Pressler’s reputation. When it became known that A4iss Kirkham had only been taking lessons from him for something like four months, and Mrs. Cheney only a few weeks longer, he was swamped with pupils. Today he is the magician the screen stars turn to when they decide to learn to play golf, one of the few pros who still enjoys a sizable and steady income derived solely from teaching.
Later that same summer, August or September it was, Miss Kirkham won her first tournament victory in the Delmonte tournament. But she kept right on with her lessons. All told, she took an hour’s instruction every day for a year and a half from Pressler, and she used to practice another hour or so on her own. But so thoroughly did she master iron play that many people today believe her to be almost as good an iron-shot maker as exists in the ranks of women golfers anywhere. She laughs now when she looks back and remembers the queer feeling of uncertainty she used to experience whenever she pulled an iron from her bag, and how she was never happier than when laying into a wood shot.
“It’s funny, isn’t it?” she says. “Especially when you consider that I’d prefer to play my way all around the course now with an iron.”
A Winner in Canada
MISS KIRKHAM’S father died out in California, and the family returned to A4ontreal in August of 1929. But before she left, Harry Pressler, who was enormously proud of her as a pupil, gave her a few parting words of advice.
“You’ll run into snags,” he cautioned her, “because everybody does every once in a while. You may start slicing or hooking or doing something like that. When it happens, don’t go running to the first pro you see for advice. He’ll try to tell you right away that there’s something wrong with your swing, and that won’t be true. It’s a beautiful swing, and you don’t want it changed after all the time and effort you’ve put into it. When you run into trouble, just stop and think, and try to
work out your own difficulty.”
Miss Kirkham hadn’t been back in Montreal more than two weeks before she won the City and District Championship. Then she went to Ancaster for the Canadian Ladies’ Open, and let it be known that she must be considered as a threat in that and future Canadian tournament play by finishing second in the qualifying round.
In 1930, she won the Closed Championship, which was played that year at A4ount Brunneau, defeating Maude Smith, of Toronto, in the final. The following year I she lifted her game a notch higher and
managed to reach the final in both the Open and Closed Championships, played respectively over the Rosedale and Lambton courses at Toronto. It was Ada Mackenzie, who is generally conceded to be one of the best competitive golfers that Canada has ever developed, who put her out in the Closed. Maureen Orcutt, the great United States star, took the Open away from her.
It was a dingdong battle with Miss Orcutt in the morning, and the match was all square when they went in to lunch. But Miss Kirkham seemed to fold up early in the afternoon—she doesn’t know exactly why except that she says she suddenly felt awfully tired—and Miss Orcutt eliminated her at the fifteenth hole. Miss -Kirkham, without trying to excuse herself for that defeat, believes that it’s a great mistake to stage these two tournaments in the same week because it’s too much of a strain on the players. But, distances in Canada being what they are, she doesn’t know what can be done about it. It costs money to go jaunting around the country, and entrants come from all over the Dominion to compete in these Canadian classics. It may be that the physical strain involved in playing in them both in the same week is easier to bear than the financial strain of two such trips in one summer.
Her defeat by Maureen Orcutt did not disappoint her particularly, for in the semi-final round she had beaten Alex Sterling Fraser, who had won the United States Open more than once and was generally recognized as one of the few great woman golfers of all time. The match with A4rs. Fraser was decided on the home hole and Miss Kirkham considers it the highlight of her career and the biggest thrill she ever got out of golf, more electrifying even than the one she experienced the day she first learned to hit an iron shot correctly.
The big thrill came, she says, because she really had to win the match twice, as she was five up on Mrs. Fraser on the morning’s play. But coming out after lunch, Miss Kirkham played too carefully, taking few if any chances, and she very speedily dropped one hole after another until the match was all square. Right there she learned one thing about tournaments, namely, that you have to play boldly to get anywhere: With defeat staring her in the face, she completely reversed her tactics and began to take the wildest sort of chances, gambling on every shot by hitting out straight for the pin, unmindful of traps or streams or other obstacles, with the result that she and Mrs. Fraser battled neck and neck to the home hole, where Mrs. Fraser three-putted and laid the victory right in her lap.
Miss Kirkham’s victory in the Open in 1932 at Kanawaki is one for the book. About a week before it was scheduled to take place she slipped on the steps of the Forest Hill Golf Club, tearing and pulling the ligaments and tendons in her left foot. Between then and the opening day of the tournament she was in bed, with doctors in attendance changing compresses and bandages every few hours, in a desperate effort to ready her for the event. Then, against medical advice, she teed off with the injured ankle wrapped so tightly in yards and yards of tape and bandages that she could feel nothing down there but a numbness. It was a striking demonstration of how far the right competitive temperament will carry a golfer, because, with an abbreviated back-swing and an awkward pivot, she marched through the toughest kind of opposition to the final, where she eliminated Mrs. Charles Eddis, of Toronto. Since then she has always been a strong contender for both titles, sharing the spotlight with golfers of the calibre of Ada Mackenzie and Dora Virtue Darling; a possible winner in every tournament she enters, no matter how strong the competition.
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Now a Professional
"DECAUSE OF HER prominence as a tournament player, much surprise and a great deal of interest were evinced early last winter when Miss Kirkham announced that she was turning professional and would conduct a golf school in one of Montreal’s leading department stores. Why was she doing it? Was she fed up with tournaments? A week of strenuous tournament play burns up energy and shatters nerves. Had she decided that she’d had enough of that? Or did she perceive some future for a woman professional in Canada that wasn’t apparent to the public?
There was precedent of course for her move. Joyce Wethered, the great English player, had been the first to make the jump. But word had already gone out that Miss Wethered was applying for her amateur card again and was eager to get back into tournament play. Babe Didrikson, the phenomenal girl athlete from Beaumont, Texas, was another who was impatient to regain her amateur standing so that she could take a flyer at tournaments. Helen Hicks, a former American Ladies’ Open champion, and Enid Wilson, who had succeeded Miss Wethered as holder of most of the British titles, were the only other prominent women players who had made the jump, and Miss Hicks had several times been reported as having regretted it.
“I’d gone as far as I could in tournament play,” Miss Kirkham explained when asked about it. “I could never win an American or British championship because I simply haven’t got enough money to do it, even if I had the latent ability.”
But what has money to do with amateur championships? Plenty, it seems. To play good golf requires a great deal of time, because you have to play every day, not only in the summer but almost the whole year round. That was all right when her father was alive and they lived out in California, but now it was different. Most of the American girl stars had money, she had noticed, and could afford to follow the sun around and play in both summer and winter tournaments. After a winter’s layoff, your swing got rusty. Well, she couldn’t afford to go south in the winters, so she knew she was never going to be a factor in the big competitions south of the line. Already she had had the satisfaction of annexing the Canadian titles, and she could go no farther in that direction.
Besides, there was now the question of earning her own living, which had become more urgent than ever this last year or so. You remember that her father had offered her the choice of going to college or going on with her golf? She had elected to play golf, and her golfing ability was now the only equipment she had with which to make a living. One thing she had noticed, when other girls had asked her to help them with their swings, was that they invariably reported later that what she had told them had helped them a lot. And she also noticed that she had rather enjoyed giving them instruction. Then the notion hit her. If she liked teaching and if she had the knack of passing on her knowledge to others, why shouldn’t she become a golf teacher? Then, too, she had had the benefit of a year and a half’s instruction from the man who was more successful at teaching women than anyone else in the business, and she hoped that what she had learned from Harry Pressler would give her a head start in the profession.
“I have no regrets at turning professional,” Miss Kirkham said the other day. ‘‘I think I made a wise move.”
Watching Miss Kirkham at work in her school, you have no doubt whatever but what she did make a wise move. There is little or no time out in her strenuous work routine. Would-be golfers follow one another in a steady stream in and out of her school. The telephone rings incessantly, and always it’s somebody else wanting to know if she can’t squeeze them in on her program. It was a little slow at first, but it built steadily right up to the last days of spring.
“The only trouble with it,” Miss Kirk-
ham says, “is that it’s just a win er job. No club can support two pros, one for the men and one for women, and there won’t be any room for me at a club. But I like to play golf myself and I’m going to play more than ever this summer. I’m certainly going to miss the tournaments, though. They sort of get into your blood.”
But what Miss Kirkham failed to point out was that the Canadian winter, for her purposes anyway, is about seven months long, and it must be the only time on record when it benefitted a golfer. Thinking once more of her choice of golf over college, you begin to wonder if she wasn’t either extremely lucky or extremely wise. For few of the girls who emerge from the colleges nowadays can find a job for themselves so quickly, particularly one that seems as lucrative as the one Miss Kirkham made for herself.