THE CHAMP STILL BABY SITS
Marlene Stewart, who started her golfing career with a hole in one and then quickly improved, hasn’t let the glitter of all her trophies dazzle her. Back home in Fonthill, Ont., she’s known as the girl who plays trumpet in the school band as well as Canada’s athlete of the year
THREE years ago when she was fifteen Marlene Stewart played her first season of golf. She scored a hole in one on the 127-yard second hole at the Lookout Point club near her home town of Fonthill, Ont. Marlene, who has since become the best woman golfer in Canada, still plays Lookout Point but has scored no more aces on the second or any other hole. To her golf-wise friends this abandonment of the game’s perfect accident is the truest measure of the great improvement which has taken place in her game. For Marlene no longer uses a long-hitting number two iron as she did when she was a learner making that hole in one. Today when she steps up to the
second tee at Lookout to take her cut she uses a seven or eight just like a good male golfer.
Last season, as an artless, unaffected, seventeenyear-old tomboy, Marlene won two national championships plus the tough Ontario provincial championship. She also was named Ontario’s and Canada’s outstanding athlete for the year.
Away from the golf course, on which she is such a determined, concentrating stoic that she has picked up the nickname Little Ben, after Ben Hogan, Marlene Stewart is the chattiest, cheeriest, chirpiest kid-next-door who ever snapped her bubble gum in the high-school gymnasium. She isn’t the width of a blade of grass. She’s five feet tall and while she was winning her championships last summer she didn’t weigh more than one hundred and eight pounds with her pockets stuffed with golf halls. She has tiny feet (size four) and equally small and rather chubby hands but as evidence of the work she puts into golf she has a callous shaped like a half-moon at least three inches from tip to tip on the palm of her left hand.
Her face is freckled, girlish, sun-crisped and crowned with a cropped thatch of chestnut hair. She wears sweaters and skirts and two-tone saddle shoes and white ankle socks, lives with her mother and dad and thirteen-year-old sister Dolly in Fonthill, a rolling, pleasant little town of fourteen hundred on the side of a hill twelve miles northwest of Niagara Falls. She prepares the family dinner every evening, looks puzzled if anyone asks whether she has favorite exotic dishes.
“Heck, no,” she says, “just lots of meat and potatoes.” She says she likes steaks but has no favorite way of preparing them. “I like eating ’em, not cooking ’em,” she grins. “I just throw it in and cook it.”
Marlene and Dolly, who is called Peanut at
school, are like most sisters five years apart, the older a little patronizing, the younger staunchly aggressive. The family lives in a two-story sevenroom house on Fonthill’s main street, the front of which serves as Harold Stewart’s electrical appliance store. The girls clerk occasionally and Dolly also turns up from time to t'me as a clerk in Sharpe’s drugstore across the street. Both parents are obviously proud of Marlene’s golf achievements but their pride is not cloying. Harold, solemn, slim and sandy-haired, says they have tried to impress on Marlene that no matter what she wins she probably wouldn’t have to look far to find someone who could beat her.
Marlene doesn’t read much; when she does it’s mostly sports magazines. At school, where she is required to read six books a term, Marlene chose a slim volume of Plato “because it was the thinnest.” She is, however, an honor student in grade twelve at the Pelham District High School four miles down the road. She makes the trip by school bus, studies conscientiously every week night. She plays basketball and badminton during the winter and last year was high scorer on the junior basketball team. For variety, she blows a bugle in the school’s girls’ hand. Everybody in school and around Fonthill seems to have a genuine affection for her. Two classmates, Vivian and Sylvia Haist, say that “If anything, she’s even nicer now than before she won the golf championships; she’s so friendly.” The inference is that Marlene goes out of her way to prove nothing has changed.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Marlene’s golf success is the speed with which she achieved it. Golf can he an exacting, perverse, humiliating undertaking, the only game in which excitement and nervous energy cannot be expelled by physical motion. No matter what his opponent’s foibles,
the golier always Las that final battle with himself before his ball will go anywhere. Consequently, most expert golfers are experienced golfers.
Enter, then, Little Ben, eighteen last March 9. How can her success be explained? If there is a secret to Marlene Stewart’s success it is her absolute dedication to the game. She woi Id, literally, rather practice than play. She is fascinated by the very act of hitting a ball and she is satisfied only when she hits it properly. She is a perfectionist. Her instructor, Gordon Mclnnes, estimates that Marlene has hit more golf shots, mostly in practice, in her three years in the game than the vast majority of women golfers have hit in the last ten.
The day Fonthill received her after she won the Canadian championship, rolling her through the town in an open convertible, making speeches about her accomplishment, she drew Mclnnes aside and whispered quickly: “Gee, Gordie, this is great, but when can we get in some golf?” She frequently caddies for Mclnnes, the pro at their home course at Fonthill, when he is playing a round with his friend, Doug Farley, and she does this so she can watch the men hit the ball.
“She’ll ask the odd question about a particular shot,” Farley says, “but she spends most of the time concentrating on the way a man hits a ball, studying the way the hips go through, for example, or the way the weight shifts to the left foot.”
Marlene’s determination and concentration have been her fortes. Her most outstanding facial feature is her jaw, long, jutting and determined. Somebody once noted that it was the same kind of a jaw that King Clancy, the great-hearted former defenseman for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, the world’s most versatile woman athlete, and Johnny Mize, the old clutch-hitting first baseman of the New York Yankees, all had. And all these athletes have one other thing in common. They hate to lose.
In spite of Marlene’s many victories, other women golfers like her, a remarkable tribute from
a notoriously feline group. She is completely unsophisticated and, as Ada MacKenzie has said, “You couldn’t find a nicer type to represent Canada. A fine, natural youngster.”
Ada MacKenzie, the winder woman of Canadian golf for twenty-five years, knew about Marlene months before she became the most sensational young golfer Canada ever had. She found out about Little Ben the one way any golfer ever finds out about another by her reaction to pressure. It w'as in the Ontario championship just about a year ago now that Ada, five times Canadian open champion, five times Canadian close champion and nine-time wfinner of the provincial championship of Ontario, was drawn against the then obscure halfpint from a place called Fonthill. Ada had shot the low score in the qualifying round and she was favored to win another provincial crown.
Thinking back over a fantastic year in w-hich Marlene won all of the major championships, Ada always returns to that early-round meeting. That, to her, was more telltale than Marlene’s victory over Mae Murray, a U. S. national runner-up, in the Canadian semifinal, and over Grace Lenczyk, former U. S. national champion and defending Canadian champion, in the final.
“It was the only time in my life,” says Miss MacKenzie, “that I have ever been six holes down after playing six holes. I was playing pretty well, too, although my four iron was fading a little. But that unbelievable child was four under fours for six holes. Just feature it; she played the first six holes in twenty strokes! She’d had twro twos and four fours. I never faced anything like that.
“Still, I wasn’t too perturbed. I’ve played enough golf to know that youngsters can blow up quickly and I was confident that this little cherub was too inexperienced not to be bothered by her lead. I settled down, too. I won four of the next seven holes and the other three we halved. I felt I had her now, knowfing that psychologically she would be becoming
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The champion practices all summer, all winter.
Continued from page 17
desperate as her big lead dwindled. And then, suddenly, she proved herself to me.
‘We were on the fourteenth green, each lying three. I was about six feet away and she about five. My putt hit the back of the cup, rimmed it and the ball stayed out by an inch. This was the putt Marlene had to make. If she missed, I felt she would blow up completely because the pressure had been on her since the sixth hole.
‘Well, that youngster walked up to her ball as confidently as though she were on the practice green. She stroked the ball cleanly, followed through beautifully and dropped the putt. And so, three down with four holes to go, I couldn’t catch her after her rejuvenation on sinking that putt. It was no surprise to me a few months later when she beat Grace Lenczyk for the Canadian championship. In fact, nothing that little girl does in golf from now on will surprise me.”
Started as a Caddie
These qualities are filling the happy Stewart home with trophies. In one year, fourteen pieces of silver in various shapes and sizes have been added. Two of the tallest of these glisten on top of the family’s television set in the living room, where the door which opens into the electrical shop is usually ajar. Like the woman who just happens to have three dozen pictures of her baby in her purse, Mrs. Stewart will proudly tell customers — particularly American tourists—about the trophies if they should happen to ask about the reflection.
But neither father nor mother can explain where Marlene’s affinity for a par comes from. Both parents played games “a little” when they lived in Cereal, Alta., where Marlene was born in 1934. Dad played hockey and Mrs. Stewart “played at” softball in “a very poor league.” Harold Stewart says Marlene first showed her determination when she was nine. He gave her a bicycle which she had great difficulty learning to ride. But she picked herself up off the ground repeatedly, knees and hands and elbows bruised, until she mastered it.
When she was twelve the boys with whom she skated and skied in the winter and played softball in summer began going to the Lookout Point club to caddie. They got one dollar for eighteen holes. That was for her. Then
she found she could earn a little extra money if she shagged balls when the pro was practicing. The pro, Gordie Mclnnes, a stocky quiet man, rewarded his tireless caddie by letting her hit a few shots and showing her how to do it.
That, for Marlene, was when the game became a fascination. In the next couple of years, although she played a round only once a week when the caddies were permitted on the course, she spent hours on the practice field hitting golf balls. Mclnnes, attracted by her obvious love of golf never tired of correcting her faults, encouraging her in his quiet patient way. The more she learned the more she wanted to know and Mclnnes recalls that “every time I turned around I nearly tripped over her,” whether he was playing a round or working in his pro shop.
Marlene saved her caddie money until 1949 when she had enough to buy a set of golf clubs from Anne Sharpe, a very good Fonthill player and another of Mclnnes’ protégés. She practiced constantly and that year entered her first tournament, the Ontario Junior, at the very exacting Toronto Ladies’ course in Toronto. She was third in that event with a score of 104. In 1950 she was second, with a 90, and last year, with her first brand-new set of matched irons (she kept her old woods, of Tommy Armour model which she finds just right) she wound up her sensational season with a 76 that won the junior championship by a fourteen-stroke margin over her nearest rival.
What Now, Little Ben?
She had never won a tournament before 1951 when she won ten of the fifteen she entered. Some of these were one-day club affairs at such widely scattered Ontario towns as St. Catharines, Oshawa, Kingston, London, Brantford and Toronto. Her worst tournament score all season was 86 and her best was 74, which she scored twice. Her average was around 78 and she improved so steadily that she cut her national handicap from ten to two.
She and Mclnnes became good friends. The champ often sits with the Mclnnes children when the pro and his wife go out.
Mclnnes puts her success down to three factors, “determination, enthusiasm and guts.” “She’ll average two hundred and twenty yards off the tee, although she can go forty yards farther, and that’s plenty because she’s still growing,” her thirty-two-year-old instructor says. “The more she plays the more confident she’ll become and
she'll be able to step into the ball more, j She has an orthodox, effortless swing, with good rhythm and perfect timing. Most of all, she knows what she’s doing with her swing and is learning to correct little flaws as they crop up. She knows the left hand is the power hand, the control hand. She has the straight left arm and the firm grip, j Her big, wide stance gives her proper balance and her grip is always tight at the top of the backswing—that ’s where eighty-five percent of people go wrong; they relax their grip at the top. Her left foot leads the swing and her fast action with her body gives her a sharp pivot and a terrific follow-through. Most women do it with their hands and arms; she gets her whole body going through.”
Mclnnes is not too well known among Canadian pros because he has devoted his time to club, rather than tournament, activity, selling equipment, giving lessons. With George Clifton, club pro at the Niagara-on-the-Lake club, he started winter golf schools at St. Catharines and nearby Thorold two winters ago. Through the winter Marlene spends every Saturday afternoon hitting every variety of shot off a mat into heavy suspended pieces of canvas at one of the two schools.
Although she’s won almost everything in sight at home Marlene still feels she has much to learn. She was invited to a professional tournament in Tampa, Fla., last January where, with her game rusty from winter idleness, she was twentieth behind such accomplished professionals as Louise Suggs, the winner, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, the Bauer Sisters and Patty Berg. The latter impressed her most (“Her concentration is marvellous”) and the only thing that pleased her about her own game was that it improved with each of the four rounds. She had a 76 on her last round that included a back-nine 35 that was the best last-nine of the entire tournament.
Ada MacKenzie says there are ] defeats in store for Marlene but that j she apparently has the temperament ¡ and the determination to benefit by I them. “1 have one hope,” says Miss MacKenzie, “I hope the pros leave her j alone, that they won’t be chipping in j with advice every time they see her. I She’s got a wonderful instructor in her own Gordon Mclnnes and she doesn’t | need outside interference.”
Where is she going?
“That’s all up to her,” says Mclnnes. “As long as she doesn’t get married there’s no limit. Once her interests get divided she’ll probably stop improving. Not that that matters, naturally; it’s just whatever she wants to do.”
Right now matrimony or even boy friends are far from Marlene’s mind.
“I have the odd date,” she grins a little self-consciously, “but, honest Injun, I’d rather play golf.”
So that’s where Little Ben will be this summer—on the golf courses, wearing her sloppy joe sweaters and a tweed skirt she’d swap anytime for a pair of slacks if the tournament committees condoned them. She’ll be out there under her battered black-andwhite tartan cap with the red bob on the top, a cap she “borrowed” from Gordie Mclnnes last summer. She says she isn’t superstitious about it, that it is only a coincidence she has worn it in every tournament. She’ll be out there worrying about nothing except her concentration, not about her weight (she eats anything), not about school (she bears down on that all winter), not about anything in the ¡ world, except maybe if her grip is tight enough at the top of her backswing. * i