Things were roaring, all right, in the 1920s for the Berg family living at 5001 Colfax Av. S. in Minneapolis. Herman was making a killing as a pre-Depression grain dealer and member of the get-rich-quick Chicago Board of Trade. He was harvesting enough cash to join the lofty Interlachen Country Club in Edina.
Devout Catholics, the family had four kids — the third was a red-haired, freckled-faced tomboy named Patricia Jane. She quarterbacked the neighborhood football team, the 50th Street Tigers. One of her blockers, Bud Wilkinson, would become a coaching legend at the University of Oklahoma.
Her mother, Theresa, finally had enough of her daughter’s bruises and torn skirts. Her parents urged her to try different sports. In the winter, Patty excelled at speedskating. But when she was 13, Herman started bringing her to the country club for golf lessons.
She would go on to win nearly 90 tournaments, serve as a founder and first president of the Ladies Professional Golf Association and teach thousands of would-be duffers at decades of clinics sponsored by the Wilson Sporting Co. One of the first woman to braid business, athletics and charisma into a lucrative living, Berg was named the Associated Press female athlete of the year in 1938, 1943 and 1955.
She burst on the scene, though, as a precursor of Hubert Humphrey, Bud Grant and Walter Mondale: famous Minnesota runners-up best known for their second-place finishes.
Busting 80 is a big deal for golfers. So let’s jump back 80 years to the 1935 U.S. Women’s Amateur golf tournament hosted at the aforementioned Interlachen.
Virginia Van Wie had won the title three straight years, but had just retired. That left Philadelphia’s Glenna Collett Vare the odds-on favorite. She’d won the tournament five times between 1922 and 1930.
Enter a 5-foot-2, 130-pound 17-year-old, well-versed with the Interlachen landscape despite being only weeks away from her junior year at Washburn High School. Berg had played competitively for only three years, winning some city and state titles. But she was light years away from Vare — who dominated the women’s game as Bobby Jones did the men’s game in the ’20s.
Yet here was Berg, a kid among the game’s elites. When she wasn’t grinning, Berg pressed her lips “into a thin, determined line, pressing her opponent every foot of the way,” according to newspaper accounts.
A 45-foot putt on the 18th hole won her a quarterfinal match. She needed to win the 16th and 17th match-play holes and make another huge putt on 18 to extend her semifinal match, which she won on a third extra hole.
By then, “4,000 tense fans were craning their necks to glimpse … as Miss Berg again proved to the multitude what a marvelous competitor she is as she canned a 30-foot uphill putt,” the Minneapolis Tribune reported, calling her “Patty Berg, sensational 17-year-old golfing idol of the tournament’s stampeding record-breaking crowds.”
In the 36-hole marathon final, Berg would fall four holes behind Vare, only to ignite the hordes by stealing the 31st and 32nd holes to cut the deficit in half. In the end, the experienced champ won, but American Golfer magazine insisted that Berg “made the tournament the success it was.”
With the Depression squeezing Americans far away from Interlachen and other private clubs, the 1930s were a tough time for golf. Many private clubs went belly-up or opened their courses to the public. The women’s game exploded, though, growing by 20 percent in each year between 1930 and ’36.
Berg, the Minneapolis teenager, is credited with sparking much of that boom. In 1938, she won 10 of 13 tournaments she entered, including the U.S. Amateur, before enrolling at the University of Minnesota at 20. By 1940, she’d turned pro and entered a long-term sponsorship with Wilson — who slapped her name of a set of popular women’s golf clubs.
A 1941 car crash wrenched her knee, but she showed her trademark tenacity and came back to win 15 major pro tournaments — including the first U.S. Women’s Open in 1946 — after a stint as an honorary recruiting lieutenant for the Marines during World War II.
Berg never married and, although she won her last tournament in 1962 at 44, she played professionally until 1980 when she was 62. She kept playing with friends after a hip replacement, well into her 70s. She died in Fort Myers, Fla., in 2006 at 88 after a two-year struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.
When she was inducted into the LPGA Hall of Fame, she flashed back to the 50th Street Tigers and admitted her mother was right. “I’m very happy I gave up football.”
“I had tried speedskating and a lot of other sports,” she told this newspaper in 1988. “But golf was the great challenge for me. So much to do with tempo, rhythm, balance. I learned so much about patience. That’s the key, patience. Then concentration and confidence.”
Curt Brown’s tale on Minnesota’s history appears each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@star tribune.com.