There are quite a few professional golfers who do not exhibit athletic bodies or grace. In golf history, one golfer can truly claim to have been an extraordinary athlete in addition to being a championship golfer. Mildred "Babe" Didrikson, the two-sport Hall of Famer, helped found the Ladies Professional Golf Association. Arguably, however, golf was not even her best sport. She played baseball, basketball and tennis. In the 1930s she attended a national track meet as the lone representative of her team. She competed in eight of 10 events and single-handedly won the national championship. She finished first in five events. In the 1932 Olympics, she won three gold medals in track and field. WONDER GIRL: The Magnificent Sporting Life of Babe Didrikson Zaharias by Don Van Natta Jr. is the story of "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias, the name she assumed after her marriage to professional wrestler George Zaharias in 1938. This month and year mark the 100th anniversary of Babe's birth, and Van Natta's book covers her entire career in a thorough and well-written biography.
WONDER GIRL is the life history of an athlete Sports Illustrated selected as the second greatest female athlete of all time. In fairness to this essay, specific attention must be paid to her incredible golf achievements. In the contemporary world of women's professional golf, it is not unusual for pre-teenaged golfers to appear at tour events. Some have contended in tournaments before they were old enough to drive. Babe Didrikson did not come to golf until she was in her 20s. The byzantine rules of the United States Golf Association denied her amateur status, and no real women's professional golf tour existed. In 1938 she played in the men's Los Angeles Open. While Babe missed the cut, she did meet George Zaharias, and 11 months later they were married.
During her golfing career, Babe would return to the men's tour, and unlike modern LPGA professionals who have attempted to play in men's events, she survived the cut on many occasions. After regaining her amateur status, she won the U.S. and British Women's Amateur. In 1950, one month after undergoing surgery for cancer, she would win the U.S. Women's Open. As a professional golfer, she essentially created the women's tour, and many of her golfing records stand today.
WONDER GIRL is a remarkable tale of a professional athlete who was forced by her uniqueness to market herself and attain levels of accomplishment that her male counterparts could not fathom. In today's world of braggadocio and personality, Babe Didrikson Zaharias would fit in well. Indeed, a woman of her talent and personality might save the present LPGA from its precarious future.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on June 1, 2011