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Louise Suggs, Jackie Pung and the infancy of golf in Hawaii

I met Louise Suggs once and she made a stronger impression in that lone encounter than some people I’ve met several times over. The occasion was an LPGA Tour press conference in Manhattan probably 20 years ago, likely a promotional effort that the tour did from time to time to get their players more deeply ingrained in the minds of the New York-area media members.

Suggs did nothing that day to affect the reputation she had of being, as she was often quoted saying, “one tough broad.” She was dressed top to bottom in a black leather outfit, pants and jacket. When she spoke she exuded a tough exterior, kind of a no-nonsense manner that I didn’t take to be the real Suggs. Her reputation for being rough-hewn was definitely being projected, but I had the impression she was doing that to let people know she wasn’t a pushover. She was likely 65 to 70, long past her prime but she was a hard competitor on the course and the tough demeanor that seemed omnipresent was part of her resolve to appear she wouldn’t be intimidated.

Louise Suggs on a tour of Hawaii in 1952.

Louise Suggs on a tour of Hawaii in 1952.

Highly honored longtime golf writer Ron Sirak knew Suggs, who died in August 2015, as well as any media member and quoted her in a 2011 story as saying her strongest attribute as a player was, “When I had someone down, I put my foot on her throat.”

Suggs comes to my mind this weekend because the pro tours are hopping around Hawaii in January as they usually do, providing the majority of America with some well-needed visions of golfers on a tropical golf course while cold and snow are viewed out the window. These pictures from Hawaii, though, as I’ll explain in a bit, can be credited in some small way to Suggs herself, born a long way from Hawaii in Georgia, and who was an LPGA Tour pioneer with 11 majors in a World Golf Hall of Fame career. She made a promotional tour of the islands back in the 1950s, helping put golf in Hawaii in the mainstream as the sport slowly emerged out of infancy in the land that would become a U.S. state in 1959.

It’s been more than 50 years since the Hawaiian Open (now called the Sony Open in Hawaii) and its pineapple-shaped tee markers, blue skies, ocean waters, beaches, palm trees, and shots of hula girls has been on the PGA Tour schedule. But amateur and pro golf have been no stranger to the islands and predate this visual tour delight. Hawaii’s First Lady of Golf, Jackie Pung, the 1952 U.S. Women’s Amateur winner, served as an ambassador for golf in Hawaii for decades, passing away last March at age 95.

For the record, the first Hawaiian Open was played in 1965, won by Gay Brewer at Honolulu’s Waialae Country Club, where the Sony Open in Hawaii is still played. And here’s a surprise: The Hawaiian tour stop wasn't in its present January configuration on the tour schedule at first. From 1965 to 1969, the tournament was played in November, except for late October in '66. But after the event took a year off in 1970, it went to February in 1971 and has been held toward the start of the calendar year ever since.

The Hawaiian Open had been attracting pros well before that, however, while Hawaii was a territory. Waialae hosted a tournament in 1928, attracting a group of well-known mainland pros returning from a tour of Australia. From then until 1965, a Hawaiian Open was held every year but five, spread over five venues, but mainly played at Waialae. During that time, star mainland players such as Gene Sarazen, Craig Wood, Horton Smith, Harry Cooper, Tommy Armour, Olin Dutra, Ed Dudley, Billy Burke, Paul Runyan, Denny Shute, Jimmy Thomson, Ed Furgol, Leo Diegel, Cary Middlecoff, Lloyd Mangrum, Lawson Little, Bob Rosburg and Jerry Barber competed along with a host of local talent, led by Francis H. I'i Brown and 1966 winner Ted Makalena.

Golf in Hawaii was promoted in many other ways, of course, over the years, with resort promos and advertising. But one clever and ambitious promotion for the time took place in 1952, when the PGA of Hawaii invited Suggs, that year's National Open winner, to spend three weeks on the islands starting October 22. While representing the MacGregor club company, she played numerous exhibitions at a number of courses, including a team match against Pung. The personable Suggs gave a few clinics as well, done in her inimitable dynamo style and flair.

Red McQueen, a Honolulu sportswriter, wrote approvingly of her, "Miss Suggs, a trim number with a fetching smile and cracker drawl, is a stylist in every sense of the word. She is as fast a player as ever appeared here. She walks up to her ball, selects a club, fixes her little tootsies and without hesitation or hula, smacks the ball cleanly toward the pin."

That's not quite the ideal language to use these days, but for the time, PR material of any kind was helpful to describe the joys of golf in Hawaii. With the PGA Tour once again wrapping up a two-week stay in Hawaii this weekend, and the Champions Tour coming in this week, you're likely to see some of the men hesitate over the ball but let's hope, like Louise Suggs, none of them will hula.

 

Cliff Schrock