- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 8, 2003

Imagine this: You’re playing golf with the club pro at Bel Air Country Club, seven holes into a lesson, when an airplane swoops out of the sky and lands almost on top of you. From the cockpit steps none other than Howard Hughes, who grabs his clubs and proceeds to finish the nine with you.

That happened to Katharine Hepburn once, while she was in Hollywood shooting a film in the ‘30s. Kate was quite the athlete, you know. Why, at the municipal course in Fenwick, Conn., the seaside hamlet that was her favorite summer retreat, she won the ladies’ chipping and putting contest twice — in 1942 and again in ‘49.

Hey, how many times has Annika Sorenstam won it?

Plenty of eulogies have been written about Hepburn, the actress. How about one about Hepburn, the sportswoman? That’s right, Hepburn the sportswoman. Go down to Blockbuster and rent “Pat and Mike” if you don’t believe me. In the movie, Kate plays a two-sport star — a natural — who hooks up with a promoter (Spencer Tracy). As the scenes show, the woman could swing a mean golf club (not to mention a tennis racket).

The best thing about “Pat and Mike,” writes Susan Ware in “Letter to the World: Seven Women Who Shaped the American Century,” is “the chance to see Hepburn (then 45 and still in superb physical condition) excel at various sports, including golf and tennis, against real-life athletes like Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Helen Dettweiler, Betty Hicks, Gussie Moran and Alice Marble.”

Kate was 5-foot-7 and had one of those marvelous metabolisms that allowed her to eat whatever she wanted without putting on any weight. As Tracy’s character says of her in “Pat and Mike,” [Theres] not much meat on her, but what there is is cherce.” She walked at a brisk pace, had little use for the “totally silly” trappings of womanhood (e.g. high heels) and might be described as, well, a tomboy.

“I put on pants 50 years ago and declared a sort of middle road,” she once said. “I have not lived as a woman, I have lived as a man. I’ve done what I damn well wanted to and I’ve made enough money to support myself and I ain’t afraid of being alone.”

And she loved sports. “If there’s a heaven,” she said, “and if that’s where I end up, and if I’m a tennis champion — then I’ll be happy.” In her autobiography, “Me: Stories of My Life,” she talks about doing summer stock in New England in 1930 and engaging in “wild deck-tennis matches” with other cast members. Hughes, with whom she lived for a time in a house that adjoined Wilshire Country Club in Los Angeles, told her, “You could be a really fine golfer if you would only practice.” But that wasn’t Kate’s way.

“I played for fun and exercise,” she said. “Howard played always to improve his game.”

“Pat and Mike” was the only film that allowed Hepburn to show off her athleticism, but sports did seep into some of her other movies. Perhaps you remember the opening scene of “The Philadelphia Story,” in which her husband (Cary Grant) is getting ready to leave her. Kate storms out the front door, dumps his golf bag at his feet, then further infuriates him by breaking a club over her knee. (To which Cary responds by putting his hand in her face and pushing her to the ground.)

Then there’s “Bringing Up Baby.” In that one, she torments her romantic interest (Grant again) by repeatedly playing his ball during a round of golf. This separates him farther and farther from his playing partner, leading to the memorable line, “I’ll be with you in a minute, Mr. Peabody!”

Oh, did I mention that in “Woman of the Year,” she marries a sportswriter?

Had Hepburn been born 50 years later, she might have been cast in the role of Dottie Hinson — the catcher who did splits while grabbing popups — in “A League of Their Own.” She seems perfect for the part. (Tracy described her, not altogether lovingly, as having “dirt under her fingernails.”) Come to think of it, Kate wouldn’t have made a bad “All the Way” Mae, either. She probably wouldn’t even have complained about having to slide in a skirt, rugged outdoorswoman that she was.

Granted, Hepburn wasn’t one of ESPN’s Top 50 North American Athletes of the 20th century, but for an actress she was a pretty agile creature. Near the back of her book there’s a picture of her, well along in years, executing a turn on a skateboard. Kate Hepburn on the half pipe — now that would have been something to see.

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