Ten Women Who Changed The Game Of Golf

We look at some of golf's most famous names and how they’ve left their mark on the sport

Ten Women Who Changed The Game Of Golf
Dame Laura Davies won the US Open in 1987
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Laura Davies
It’s hard to put Davies’ longevity into context but she played on the GB&I Curtis Cup side in 1984 and she is still going strong today. In the interim there have been 87 professional wins, including four Majors. Starting with the inaugural Solheim Cup she played on the first 12 European teams, while these days she’s happy to be an assistant, repeatedly stating that she would never want the captain’s job.

From 1985 to 2010, except from in 2005, she won at least one title somewhere around the world and she was the first golfer, male or female, to win on five continents in one year. In 2004 she played on the men's European Tour, and in 2018 she was the first woman to play on the men’s senior tour in Europe.

Davies is an absolute phenomenon; she swings the club her way, she will often hit driver off a clump of earth and she’s far more partial to having a bet than practising her putting. She became a Dame in 2014, is an honorary member of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews and a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, but she hasn’t changed one bit over the years.

While her biggest win was no doubt the 1987 US Women’s Open, it was another victory that sums her up nicely. At the 1996 Evian Masters, Davies was fined for watching England vs Spain in the European Championship football on a portable TV during the final round – she would end up winning by four.

Mickey Wright
“She had the finest swing I ever saw,” Ben Hogan once said of her. Byron Nelson agreed. 

Kathy Whitworth, the only woman player to have won more events than Wright, added: “She was the best I’ve ever seen, man or woman. I’ve had the privilege of playing with Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and all of them. And some of our ladies had wonderful swings. But nobody hit it like Mickey, just nobody.”

Wright won 13 Majors, second only to Patty Berg, and these wins came over just an eight-year period with five being by five shots or more. In 1963 she won 13 times and she prevailed for 14 successive years on tour. 

Sponsors would pull out if she wasn’t playing which meant that she would always play. And by the age of 34 she had retired. Reports say she had an aversion to sunlight and flying, tallied with foot problems, but Wright was quick to point out that she wasn’t a recluse and she would still hit balls in her back yard in Florida.

“I’m not a gut-level, gritty competitor in any way. Perfection motivated me, doing it better than anyone had ever done it, just as simply as that. I would practise for hours and hours. I beat balls and beat balls and beat balls. I could hit it so well. I used to say the second-greatest feeling in the world was a high 2-iron to a well-trapped green. I swung the club. That’s it. The key word is swing, not turn. Not ground your feet like they were in cement so your body doesn’t move. That’s not a swing to me.”

Babe Zaharias
Mildred (Babe) Didrikson Zaharias didn't take up golf until she was 21. By the time she died at just 45 she had won three US Women’s Opens, helped found the LPGA and her last seven wins came after she was diagnosed with cancer and had a colostomy.

Before taking up the game she won gold medals in the javelin and 80-metre hurdles at the 1932 Olympics, she might have won the high jump had she not been disqualified. She also excelled at basketball and baseball. In 1949, she was voted the greatest female athlete of the first half of the 20th century by the Associated Press.

In 1950 she would complete the Grand Slam of the three women's Majors of the day. Of her ten Major wins, three of which came as an amateur, her final one at the 1954 US Women’s Open was her most striking, winning by 12 just one month after surgery for the colon cancer and wearing a colostomy bag.

Kathy Whitworth
Whitworth has won more LPGA Tour   titles than anyone who has played the game, indeed she has more wins than Sam Snead on the PGA Tour.

“I don’t think about the legacy of 88 tournaments. I did it because I wanted to win, not to set a record or a goal that no one else could surpass,” she said. 

Whitworth never won her national Open but there were six Majors and she would later captain the Americans in the first two Solheim Cups.

Another great Whitworth stat is that she became the first woman in golf to earn $1m. She turned pro at the end of 1958 and she would achieve it in 1981. In her first 26 events she made less than $1,300 and nearly quit before a visit to Harvey Penick saved her. In 1996, Karrie Webb became the first woman to accomplish that feat in a single season.

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Ten Women Who Changed The Game Of Golf

Annika Sorenstam was the dominant player in the women's game in the early 2000s

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Annika Sorenstam
There are a multitude of Sorenstam stats that are incredible, but maybe the number of LPGA Tour wins is the standout one. The Swede won 72 times from 1995-2008, including a staggering 11 in 2002. The previous year she became the first woman to break 60, which remains a record.

The following year, such was her stature, she was invited to play in a PGA Tour event, the first time since Babe Zaharias did it in 1945. Sorenstam would lead the field in driving accuracy on day one and threatened to make the cut before missing out.

“She’s a machine. I’ve never played with someone that didn’t miss a shot,” said her playing partner Dean Wilson.

Sorenstam retired at 37 to focus on starting a family and she now runs a number of business interests.

Last year she featured in the US Senior Women's Open and led from start to finish, eventually winning by eights shots. Just like old times.

Se Ri Pak
Going into the 1998 LPGA Championship, no Korean had ever won a Major, indeed Pak was the only Korean on the tour. Now we have 34 Major wins by a female Korean and it all began with Pak. Ask any of them where the inspiration comes from and they will likely say Pak.

Inbee Park has seven Majors, the first of which came at the 2008 US Women’s Open. She started playing two days after Pak made the initial breakthrough.

“My parents were really big fans of golf and I had no idea why they were watching like three o’clock in the morning. It was just so big in Korea and a lot of people picked up golf after that.”

Pak’s career ended with a total of 25 titles, five of them Majors and a place in the World Golf Hall of Fame. In 2016, she was captain of the Olympic side where Inbee Park claimed gold.

Fanny Sunesson
Sunesson actually wanted to go to college in the States to play golf but an injury got in the way and she gave caddying a go instead – she then caddied in more than 750 tournaments around the world, six Ryder Cups and amassed an incredible 25 professional tournament wins

Alongside Sir Nick Faldo the pair landed two Masters titles and two Open victories, Sunesson was similarly dedicated which made for a lethal combination. “I never thought of myself as a female caddie - just a caddie. To be a successful caddie you have to be precise, you have to know golf and most importantly you have to know what to say at the right time,” she once explained.

Sunesson would later win The Players on Henrik Stenson’s bag but she will always be associated with Faldo and those halcyon days.

“Shortly after my 50th birthday, Nick turned 60 and invited me to a party in England where he presented me with this wonderful gift (of a silver miniature of the Claret Jug). Since then, I’ve been wearing it every day.”

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Ten Women Who Changed The Game Of Golf

Fanny Sunesson won four Majors on the bag of Sir Nick Faldo

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Alice Dye
In among all of Dye’s achievements, the most iconic was her role in the design of Sawgrass’ island 17th hole. When her husband and the course’s designer, Pete, had mined so much of the sand from that area that he needed elsewhere on the course, he hit the stumbling block of where to put the green? His wife suggested to make a lake and to leave an island green.

While Dye is one of golf’s best-known course designers, it was Alice, a Curtis Cup player, who would point out that average golfers had to be considered too. She was also known as the ‘Patron Saint of the Forward Tee’ having worked to get the two-tee system for women.

“They didn’t do it for the glory or fame, they just loved golf,” said course builder Allan MacCurrach. “They ate their TV dinners to the Golf Channel and had breakfast while watching and talking golf. It was golf, all the time.”

Nancy Lopez
Lopez’s arrival on the golfing scene in 1978 was spectacular to say the least. The 21-year-old Mexican-American would win nine times, including the LPGA Championship and five on the bounce, to make history by capturing the Rookie and Player of the Year as well as, unsurprisingly, having the lowest stroke average. The following season she won another eight times.

At the peak of her powers Judy Rankin once joked: “They’ve got the wrong person playing Wonder Woman.”

Better still she was hugely likeable, and she very quickly became the face of women’s golf.

The US Women’s Open would elude her, finishing second four times, and she shot four rounds in the 60s – the first woman to do so – but lost by a stroke to Alison Nicholas in 1997. She would later captain the Solheim Cup team.

Karrie Webb
In Webb’s World Golf Hall of Fame induction speech she explained that it was Greg Norman who first lit the flame in the young Aussie about making golf her career. “I remember the day when I boldly came home and told my parents I wanted to be a professional golfer. I had just been down to the Gold Coast to watch the 1986 Queensland Open. I had gotten to watch my hero, Greg Norman, play for the first time.”

As Tiger Woods would put together the Tiger Slam in the men’s game, Webb’s achievements were equally as impressive. In the 2000-01 Majors her finishes were W-9-W-7-2-W-W-15, and many by a distance

“For those two years, everyone felt like they were playing for second place,” added Juli Inkster.

She would finish her career on seven Majors with her most recent, in 2006, one of her most dramatic. Webb holed a 116-yard shot from the fairway to eagle the 18th hole before making a birdie at the same hole in a play-off with Lorena Ochoa to win her second Kraft Nabisco.

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Ten Women Who Changed The Game Of Golf

Karrie Webb claimed seven majors in a glittering career

(Image credit: Getty Images)
Mark Townsend
Contributing editor

Mark has worked in golf for over 20 years having started off his journalistic life at the Press Association and BBC Sport before moving to Sky Sports where he became their golf editor on skysports.com. He then worked at National Club Golfer and Lady Golfer where he was the deputy editor and he has interviewed many of the leading names in the game, both male and female, ghosted columns for the likes of Robert Rock, Charley Hull and Dame Laura Davies, as well as playing the vast majority of our Top 100 GB&I courses. He loves links golf with a particular love of Royal Dornoch and Kingsbarns. He is now a freelance, also working for the PGA and Robert Rock. Loves tour golf, both men and women and he remains the long-standing owner of an horrific short game. He plays at Moortown with a handicap of 6.