Golfer Polly Riley: LPGA's First-Ever Winner

Polly Riley was a lifelong amateur golfer, a practice partner of Babe Zaharias and friend of Ben Hogan, a winner of dozens of top amateur tournaments and the first champion in the history of the LPGA Tour.

Full name: Polly Ann Riley

Date and place of birth: August 27, 1926 in San Antonio, Texas

Date and place of death: March 13, 2002 in Fort Worth, Texas

Tournament Wins by Polly Riley

golfer Polly Riley
Riley is believed to have won more than 100 amateur tournaments. Among the biggest of those wins are these:

  • 1947 Women's Trans-Mississippi Amateur
  • 1948 Women's Southern Amateur
  • 1948 Women's Trans-Mississippi Amateur
  • 1949 Women's International Four-Ball*
  • 1950 Women's Southern Amateur
  • 1950 Women's Western Amateur
  • 1951 Women's Southern Amateur
  • 1951 Women's Texas State Amateur
  • 1951 Palm Beach Amateur Golf Championship
  • 1952 Women's Western Amateur
  • 1952 Women's International Four-Ball*
  • 1953 Women's Southern Amateur
  • 1953 Palm Beach Amateur Golf Championship
  • 1954 Women's Southern Amateur
  • 1954 Women's Texas State Amateur
  • 1955 Women's Trans-Mississippi Amateur
  • 1961 Women's Southern Amateur
(*team tournament, partnered both years by Bee McWane)

And Riley also won a handful of pro tournaments (playing as an amateur):

  • 1948 Women's Texas Open
  • 1950 LPGA Tampa Women's Open
  • 1950 Helen Lee Doherty Match Play Championship
  • 1955 Women's Texas Open

Riley Won First-Ever LPGA Tournament

On January 19, 1950, the first tournament ever played by the newly formed LPGA Tour teed off. It was the Tampa Women's Open in Florida. Everyone expected one of the better-known professionals in women's golf — Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Patty Berg, Louise Suggs, for example — to be the new tour's first champion.

Instead, it was Polly Riley. When the tournament ended on Jan. 22, 1950, Riley was the champion with a 295 total, five strokes ahead of runner-up Suggs.

Riley "whipped the cream of the country's lady professionals," the (brief) Associated Press report said.

More About Golfer Polly Riley

Riley grew up in Fort Worth and started playing golf at age 12. She played out of Fort Worth her entire golf career, living less than two miles from Colonial Country Club until her death from cancer in 2002.

"It was on a Saturday morning in May 1939, when I was 12, that I hit the first shot of my life, a blooper off Colonial's first tee," Riley wrote in a first-person remembrance published in the May 29, 2000, issue of Sports Illustrated. "Pretty soon I was shooting in the 90s, and not long after that I was the top girl in town."

A few months later, Riley played a practice round with Babe Zaharias, who called her "Kid." That was the Babe's nickname for Riley throughout their friendship, which included frequent days spent as practice partners.

Riley also, after her career took off, became friends with Ben Hogan. Hogan and Riley spent many days working on their short games together at Riley's club, River Crest.

Riley played in her first Women's Texas State Amateur in 1940, when she was just 13 years old. A 1941 newspaper article recounted that "Polly Riley, the stocky little Texan, won the first flight of the Southern Amateur championship in 1940 and went to the championship semifinals this year."

Articles of that era often commented on Riley's diminutive size. The Texas Golf Hall of Fame describes her as a "tiny 5-footer who whistled her way around the course."

The biggest thing missing from her Riley's list of achievements is a victory in the U.S. Women's Amateur. She lost in the finals in 1953 to Mary Lena Faulk.

Riley was second in the 1947 U.S. Women's Open, tied with another amateur, Sally Sessions. But in a playoff to determine low amateur, Sessions won. Riley did earn low amateur honors when she finished sixth in the 1956 U.S. Women's Open.

One week after winning that inaugural LPGA tournament in 1950, Riley defeated Marlene Bauer in the championship match to win another professional event, the Helen Lee Doherty Golf Championship in Miami. Although it was not an LPGA tournament, the Associated Press described it as "the second major triumph in as many weeks" for Riley.

Riley finished as runner-up in several other LPGA events in the tour's early years: the 1952 Women's Texas Open, 1953 Fort Worth Open and 1954 Tampa Women's Open.

She played on six Team USA Curtis Cup squads (1948, 1950, 1952, 1954, 1956, 1958), and captained the 1962 team. Riley's six appearance for Team USA are more than all but two other golfers, Carol Semple Thompson and Anne Quast Sander.

In fact, Riley still holds a Curtis Cup record today. Her 9-and-8 victory over Elizabeth Price in the 1954 Curtis Cup shares the record for largest margin of victory.

Riley also won a Women's Texas State Amateur championship match by a 9-and-8 score, which is still the record for that event.

And she beat her friend Zaharias by a 10-and-9 score in a Texas Women's Open match, which is not only the worst defeat ever suffered by the Babe, but remains the tournament record for margin of victory. Riley was a very rare golfer who seemed to have Zaharias' number: They met in match play five times, and Riley won three of those matches.

The whole time Riley was winning amateur tournaments and competing in pro events, she also held down a job. For example, in 1961, at the time of her final win in the Southern Amateur, Riley was a public relations representative for the City of Fort Worth.

According to the Texas Golf Association, Riley continued to compete in the State Amateur well into the 1990s. She qualified for the Championship Flight in 1989, 50 years after her first entry in that tournament.

Later in her career, Riley was known as a top female teacher. A chapter was dedicated to her in the 1999 book, Different Strokes: The Lives and Teachings of the Game's Wisest Women.

Riley was inducted into the Texas Golf Hall of Fame as part of the class of 1980, and that Hall calls her "probably Texas’ greatest female amateur ever." She is also a member of the Texas Sports Hall of Fame.

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