(Editor’s note: This story was written and produced by Golf Channel and NBC Sports reporting producer Nicole Gaddie, @NicoleGaddie)
It’s a balmy day in Palm Springs, CA as I cruise down Interstate 10 toward the Coachella Valley.
It’s a golfing haven, with nearly 100 courses within a 20-mile radius. One of the most famous in the area is the Mission Hills Country Club, home to “Dinah Shore”. After a 50-year run, the tournament now known as the Chevron Challenge will be played for the last time in a few weeks, before moving to Houston. A sad but inevitable decision.
I cruise the cape in my rental car, reminiscing about the famous splashes of Poppie’s Pond, before continuing on to a small Indio community where sand-colored houses blend into the desert landscape.
I’m heading to the home of Susie Maxwell Berning, an octogenarian who will join a class of Marion Hollins, Tiger Woods and Tim Finchem at the World Golf Hall of Fame on Wednesday.
The truth is, I hadn’t heard of Susie before the Hall of Fame announcement. But knowing that she was a former LPGA star reaching her golden years, I was determined to learn her story.
This story, I must say, was quite remarkable.
Berning was born in Pasadena, California, the only daughter of four children. The family moved when she was a child to Oklahoma City, where her father rented a house through a local municipality called Lincoln Park Golf Course. When she was 13, her father received a call from a colleague asking if he could look after his two horses. His father obliged, much to Berning’s thrill.
She fell in love with the animals and when the co-worker never returned to collect them, she convinced her father to let her keep them. The food money was earned by selling soft drink bottles she found on the highways.
One day, while riding her horses on a nuptial path built around the golf course, one went wild, prompting the other to break free as well. What ensued was a scene written for the movies. The steeds sped towards the golf course, galloping the fairways and tearing up the greens.
The maintenance vehicles sped after the group, circling the course until the animals were finally cornered and captured. Berning, meanwhile, was taken straight to the pro shop.
Lincoln Park’s chief golf professional was a man named UC Ferguson, a local legend who would enjoy a 61-year career on the course. He looked at the little girl in tears and negotiated a deal.
“He said, ‘Look, I have two young children. If you introduce them to horses and teach them to ride, we’ll forget that ever happened,” Berning said.
For the rest of the summer, Berning did just that. Ferguson became a good friend of the family and repeatedly urged her to try golf.
“I kept saying, ‘No, that stupid game? Are you chasing that little white ball? No, sir, thank you,” Berning replied.
After a year of non-negotiation, Ferguson called Berning and asked her to come to the course for a surprise — she could even ride her horses and hitch them to the pro shop. The surprise was a clinic hosted by 15-time major champion Patty Berg. And that made all the difference.
“His clinics were so funny. I was thinking, is this golf? hey i wanna do this. So I said, ‘Yes sir, please introduce me, please show me how.'”
A year later, when Berning turned 16, she sold her beloved horses for $150 and used the money to buy a car so she could drive to practice. From then on, she remembers being addicted to golf.
Winning came quickly. She won three consecutive Oklahoma State High School championships as well as three consecutive Oklahoma City Women’s Amateur Championships.
She also earned a golf scholarship to Oklahoma City University, becoming the first woman in school history to do so. She played on the men’s team under Abe Lemons, who served more as a chaperone than a golf coach. Lemons was famous in Oklahoma for coaching the school’s men’s basketball team. When Susie first came aboard the golf team, he entered her into tournaments under the name “S. Maxwell” to avoid identifying her gender.
Once at a tournament in Wichita, Kansas, another coach asked if Lemon’s player was named Sam or Steve.
“Coach Lemons said, ‘Sam will do.’ So I played varsity golf with Sam. And the poor boys. I mean, you know, they were kind of shocked sometimes when Sam showed up,” Berning said.
Playing with the men helped Berning develop her length off the tee and after graduation, with financial help from members of Southern Hills, she turned professional.
Berning entered the LPGA Tour behind the founders in the 1960s. The foundations had been laid, but the fields were still small and the purses were only worth a few hundred dollars. Established women like Marlene Hagge have taken young players under their wings by arranging shared accommodation and cooking meals.
“We rode everywhere and became family, in a way,” Berning said. “Everyone got along. Everyone encouraged everyone to play well because we had to play well.
Every Wednesday before a tournament, the women held clinics while Patty Berg hosted. The entertaining clinics promoted the tour and urged people to come out and watch. Each clinic the women donated earned them $25.
There was also evening homework. Every week, the women had to attend a cocktail party. If they missed three, they were fined.
Berning remembered being so strapped for cash that after shopping with Judy Rankin, Hagge and another player, the four decided to split the cost of a costume and take turns wearing it to various functions.
Berning would win 11 LPGA events, including four majors – three at the US Women’s Open. In 1972 she won at Winged Foot, beating Pam Barnett, Judy Ahern and her good friend Rankin by a stroke.
“Because I learned golf on a public golf course, where the greens were very slow and not very smooth, I think when we played in the East, I took it as an honor and a privilege to play such great golf courses,” Berning recalled. .
In 1970, her first daughter, Robin, was born. A few years later, his second daughter, Cindy, followed. Golf continued to help maintain the family income, despite the challenges. In San Diego, she had to pull out of the tournament because she couldn’t find a babysitter and while on her way to a tournament, she lost Robin after the two accidentally got on different planes.
Berning played in his last professional event in 1994. The next act in his career turned to teaching. She joined the Nicklaus-Flick Golf Division and taught at various courses, including Angel Park in Las Vegas, before moving to Palm Springs to teach at The Reserve, where she has worked for 20 years.
“I’ve always liked helping people. What I really want is for people to like the game as much as I do so that they understand how much fun the game gives you. And that’s why I love teaching,” Berning said.
Her career took Berning around the world, put her on TV as the face of Cushman Motor Cars and gave her a second family. On Wednesday, it took her to the World Golf Hall of Fame. When asked what she was most proud of, Berning simply replied, “My two daughters. They are like majors to me.
As I pack my bags and prepare to leave Berning’s house, I take one last look around. Images and statues of horses touch every corner of the place, as do photos of friends and family. In one room hang the flags of the courses where she hoisted the major trophies, alongside a vintage flag from the Lincoln Park golf course.
Berning puts on his cowgirl hat, covered in pins, and heads to his garage to load his clubs into his car. She puts on a smile in her blue camo shirt and leaves to teach a lesson. The words on his license plate are the last thing I can see before his car disappears into the distance.