Long before she became a golf champion, personality, promoter, teacher and LPGA founding member, Patricia Jean Berg competed against the boys on south Minneapolis’ sandlots.
Born in Minneapolis in 1918 and raised on Colfax Avenue while the 1920s roared, Berg ran track and was a winning park-board speedskater at Powderhorn Park. She played pickup hockey and basketball as well as intramural volleyball, basketball and softball when there were no girls’ or women’s teams.
Most famously, the red-haired, freckled tomboy later known everywhere as “Patty” quarterbacked a neighborhood boys’ team called the 50th Street Tigers that included a blocker named Bud Wilkinson. That kid went on to lead the Gophers to three consecutive national championships in the mid-1930s and later legendarily coached Oklahoma.
“I was the quarterback because I was the only one who could remember the plays,” she told the Star Tribune in 1999, seven years before she died at home in Florida at age 88.
The one she remembered calling mostly — known as 22 — went like this:
“Everybody ran wherever they wanted,” she said. “We didn’t have any tight ends or wide ends. We only had loose ends. We didn’t lose any games — just teeth.”
Her father, Herman, was a prosperous pre-Depression grain dealer who joined Interlachen Country Club in Edina. When he bought her brother a city golf pass, Patricia — third of four children — said there was no reason she shouldn’t have one, too.
Her father agreed, provided she dedicate herself. Her mother, Theresa, had cared enough for her daughter’s bruises and torn clothes and was pleased when Patricia embraced golf because of its tempo, rhythm and balance that taught her patience, concentration and confidence.
She swung her father’s clubs in the backyard — “I murdered all his flowers” — and busted the first hickory club she hit. The next day, Herman bought her steel-shafted clubs. He took her to Interlachen for lessons when she was 13.
She reached the 1935 U.S. Women’s Amateur final at Interlachen at 17, won the first of 15 major championships two years later and the 1938 Women’s Am a year after that, at age 20.
Berg turned pro in 1940 and signed with Wilson Sporting Goods, a sponsorship that lasted her lifetime. Her signature Patty Berg clubs became classics for both girls and boys for generations. She conducted 10,000 or more clinics in her life.
A 1941 car accident and World War II — she served 2½ years in the Marine Corps — sidetracked her career until she won the first 1946 U.S. Women’s Open. She won 88 amateur and pro titles. Eight of her majors and 22 of her 60 pro victories came before she and 12 others founded the LPGA in 1950.
Early in her career Berg won a $100 war bond; Last year South Korea’s Jin Young Ko won $2.8 million.
Her presence lives on at Interlachen, where the Patty Berg Room, vintage photos and a set of her clubs remain.
“She was one of golf’s first real entertainers,” said Jock Olson, a former longtime Interlachen pro who caddied for Berg in an Iowa exhibition when he was 13. “She had a charisma like Arnold Palmer had and it helped the game — and the women’s game for sure. She was so funny. She was special.”