- The Washington Times - Monday, July 5, 2004

The greatest female athlete of the 20th century lay in her hospital bed recovering from colon cancer surgery and prayed, “Please, God, let me play [golf] again.”

Her prayer was answered, if only temporarily; she returned to play well. The following year, on July3, 1954, Babe Didrikson Zaharias stormed to victory by a whopping 12 strokes in the U.S. Women’s Open in Peabody, Mass., thus reclaiming her throne as the LPGA’s pre-eminent and dominant figure.

The story does not have a happy ending. In the summer of 1955, while undergoing surgery for a ruptured disc, Zaharias was told the colon cancer had returned. After telling her distraught husband, she lapsed into golf terminology: “Well, that’s the rub of the green.”

Raging unimpeded through her once-muscular body, the colon cancer claimed her life in September 1956 in her hometown of Beaumont, Texas. She was 45.

A half-century after her greatest triumph, the U.S. Golf Association museum in Far Hills, N.J., has unveiled an exhibit honoring Zaharias appropriately titled “Let Me Play Again.” The display includes videos showing her early golf swing in a movie short filmed in 1933, highlights of her stunning performances in the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and footage of her last Christmas at home.

Zaharias’ sporting feats are available for viewing only on grainy, black-and-white newsreel film, but there is little doubt she was the best female athlete ever. In his 1954 autobiography, “The Tumult and the Shouting,” legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice says, “It is an odd turn that perhaps the two flashiest figures in sports were called Babe, Ruth and Didrikson. … They stand above the mobs and the multitudes. They will still be alone and above the others when you and I are dust.”

Rice and the sporting world first fell under Babe Didrikson’s spell at those Los Angeles Olympics. Just 21 years old and at the height of her physical powers, she was upset because officials allowed her to enter only three events rather than the six or seven she wanted.

Good thing, too, or she might have carted every medal in sight back to Texas. Didrikson won the 80-meter hurdles and the javelin and tied for first in the high jump. In addition, she was a three-time All-American in basketball, played competitive baseball, tennis and softball and was an expert diver and bowler.

Christened as Mildred, she became Babe — nicknamed for Ruth, of course — after hitting five home runs in a softball game. She once pitched in an exhibition game for the St. Louis Cardinals.

What couldn’t she do?

“Play with dolls,” Zaharias once said.

After the Olympics, she concentrated almost solely on golf, putting in thousands of practice hours until her knowledge and discipline matched her physical skills. And, of course, there was the competitive spirit that motivates all great athletes.

Didrikson was a golfing novice when Rice lured her into a friendly match against two other notable sportswriters of the early 1930s, Paul Gallico and Westbrook Pegler. The match was even heading to the 17th hole, and Rice was worried when Gallico, who fancied himself quite a jock, drove the green.

“Babe, we’ve got to do something,” Rice whispered.

Didrikson smiled. “I’ll handle this. … Hey, Paul — race you to the green.”

Gallico was not the sort to resist a challenge, and they were off. When they reached the green, he collapsed. When it was his turn, he four-putted. Rice and Didrikson won the match easily.

Nor did she shy away from official competition against men. Sixty-five years before Annika Sorenstam tried it at the 2003 Colonial, Didrikson entered the PGA’s Los Angeles Open in 1938, where she was paired with pro wrestler and future husband George Zaharias. She entered again in 1945 and made the cut before returning to her dominance of women’s golf.

While still an amateur, Babe won three Western Open titles and the U.S. Women’s Amateur in 1946. In 1946 and 1947, she captured 17 straight tournaments — let’s see Tiger Woods, Sorenstam or anybody else beat that. After turning pro, she took the U.S. Women’s Open in 1948 and 1950 while becoming the leading money-winner on tour and helping to found the LPGA. Unsurprisingly, she won two of its first three events and eight of 14 during its first season.

But then came the cancer. And the comeback.

Only three months after the surgery, she won a tournament in Miami. Two other victories followed. After winning the 1954 Open despite visibly tiring on the last six of 36 holes she played the final day while wearing a colostomy bag, Zaharias described it as one of her athletic highlights — thus demonstrating a talent for understatement that matched her other skills.

After shooting rounds of 73 and 75 for a 72-hole total of 291, Zaharias became the first prominent athlete to discuss her battle with cancer — thereby becoming a role model for future survivors like Mario Lemieux and Lance Armstrong.

“Now I’m happy because I can tell people not to be afraid of cancer,” she said. “I’ve had over 15,000 letters from people, and this victory is an answer to them. It will show a lot of people that they need not be afraid of an operation and can go on and live a normal life.”

For her career, Zaharias won 82 tournaments and 10 major titles — and irritated some rivals with her exuberant, self-confident and even pushy manner.

“Babe and I got along, but we were not friends,” recalled Louise Suggs, one of her principal rivals. “She was arrogant, and she was cocky — I didn’t appreciate the way she acted sometimes.”

A half-century later, though, any negative aspects to Babe Didrikson Zaharias are long gone. All we remember, as we should, is that no other female — and few if any males — were as superbly and successfully athletic.

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