Late to the Game: Spieth Before Spieth


Assistant editor Chris O’Connell isn’t from Texas; he’s from New Jersey. That’s OK though—he’s here now. But without growing up in a place that cherishes college sports the way many parts of the South—and especially Texas—do, Chris has taken it upon himself to learn more about all aspects of college athletics in a series we like to call Late to the Game.

Golfer Jordan Spieth made waves last week in becoming the No. 1 ranked golfer in the world. He’s also the first Longhorn to ascend to the top spot. 2015 has been a coming-out party for the youngster, one that was teased with Spieth’s tied-for-second finish at last year’s Masters Tournament.

Since then, he’s won the Masters and the U.S. Open, and has placed in the top five in The Open (T-fourth) and last weekend’s PGA Championship (second). With his two major victories, Spieth has already surpassed Longhorn golf great Tom Kite and tied arguably the greatest men’s golfer to wear the burnt orange and white, Ben Crenshaw. Crenshaw won his second major in 1995 at age 43; Spieth just turned 22.

Inevitably, TV talking heads and hot-take bloggers will ask: Is Spieth already the greatest men’s Longhorn golfer of all time? Is he on pace to become the greatest men’s golfer ever? But that’s not what this is about, figuring out who is the best.

It’s about pointing out that Spieth has a Longhorn historical analogue in the world of professional golf. Her name is Betsy Rawls.

Betsy Rawls was essentially the mid-century, female version of Spieth. Growing up in Arlington, not far from the Spieth home in Dallas, Rawls didn’t pick up a golf club until she was 17. Four years later—and the year after that as well—she won the Texas Amateur. In 1950, a scant five years after her first foray into the game and still retaining amateur status, Rawls finished second at the U.S. Women’s Open. She graduated that year, and turned pro in 1951, at age 23. She immediately improved on her showing from 1950, winning her first major tournament, the U.S. Women’s Open. This is almost exactly how Spieth put himself on the map—though, of course, Spieth first hit a golf ball before he started kindergarten.

For the next decade, Rawls racked up major titles, including two at both the Western Open and the Women’s PGA Championship, and three more at the Women’s U.S. Open. Rawls ended up with eight majors in all, which is still sixth all-time. When the LPGA created its Hall of Fame in 1967, Rawls was an inaugural inductee, and she was also president of the LPGA from 1960-61. She became an inspiration to young women, a symbol of confidence and accomplishment in a pre-Title IX world. After her career was over, Rawls was asked about her life in professional golf. Her response is the greatest self-reflection from an athlete that I have ever read:

“I thought I was going to be a winner, and as I went along, winning became easier and easier. It was something I expected to do. I always played well under pressure because it didn’t bother me, which is why I won so many tournaments. I don’t take much credit for it, but I could perform under tense situations. It was my physical makeup to allow that to happen.”

How perfect is that quote? Winning, to Rawls, was no more fantastical than a cup of oatmeal to start the day, and yet she’s essentially saying that the crux of her achievements hinged on an innate ability to withstand pressure—a power for which she will also not take credit. It is at once humble and ferocious, passive and audacious.

This is where the Spieth/Rawls comparison has to meet its logical end, because we don’t know what’s next for Spieth. We can only look to Rawls’ legacy and hope that Spieth’s mental acuity is as sharp as advertised.

So where does Rawls land in the pantheon of the great female golfers? From a historical perspective, Babe Zaharias is the Babe Ruth of women’s golf, and not just because the two share a nickname. Zaharias, a native of the Gulf Coast, was the LPGAs first superstar. A latecomer to the game, she tore through the competition of her day, and became a role model for young female golfers across America. Grantland Rice, the namesake of ESPN’s longform sportswriting wing, described Zaharias this way:

“She is beyond all belief until you see her perform … Then you finally understand that you are looking at the most flawless section of muscle harmony, of complete mental and physical coordination, the world of sport has ever seen.”

That would make Rawls the Paul Waner in the annals of the LPGA. Waner began his career just as Ruth hit his prime; the same can be said about Rawls’ entry onto the LPGA scene once Zaharias had already established herself as the greatest. Numerous courses across the country bear the Babe Zaharias name; 13-year-olds from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon play in Babe Ruth Leagues. But do you ever think of Paul Waner? His 3,152 career base hits are more than Rogers Hornsby, Lou Gehrig, and yes, even Babe Ruth. Similarly, Rawls wasn’t the first LPGA star—that would be Patty Ward. She didn’t dominate in a 24-hour sports world like Annika Sörenstam. And of course, she wasn’t beloved by the press like Zaharias was. Perhaps no female athlete ever was. But she was special, the greatest female Longhorn golfer to ever pick up a club. And early reports say that so is Jordan Spieth—on the men’s side, that is.

Spieth has a long way to go before he’s legitimately mentioned in the same breath as Jack Nicklaus, or even the now-maligned Tiger Woods, for that matter. But if Spieth has a career that even remotely mirrors Rawls’, he’ll be, as they say, in the conversation.

Illustration by Melissa Reese.


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