Golf Pioneer (and LPGA Founder) Opal Hill

Golfer Opal Hill
Opal Hill was a golf pioneer: One of the first female golf professionals in the world, and a co-founder of the LPGA Tour. She also once, for a period of 15 years, held the all-time record for lowest competitive round of golf by a woman.

Full name: Opal Beatrice (Trout) Hill

Date of birth: June 2, 1892

Place of birth: Newport, Nebraska

Date and place of death: June 23, 1981 in Kansas City, Missouri

Nickname: Was sometimes called "the matriarch of women's golf" because, due to her late start in the game, she was usually older (sometimes quite a bit older) than her fellow-competitors.

Opal Hill's Biggest Tournament Wins

All of Hill's tournament wins came prior to her turning professional:
  • 1928 North and South Women's Amateur
  • 1928 Women's Trans-Mississippi Amateur
  • 1929 Western Women's Amateur
  • 1929 Women's Trans-Mississippi Amateur
  • 1931 Western Women's Amateur
  • 1931 Women's Trans-Mississippi Amateur
  • 1932 Western Women's Amateur
  • 1934 Women's Trans-Mississippi Amateur
  • 1935 Women's Western Open
  • 1935 Missouri State Women's Amateur
  • 1936 Women's Western Open
  • 1936 Missouri State Women's Amateur
  • 1937 Missouri State Women's Amateur
In addition, Hill won the Missouri Valley Amateur twice, the Doherty Cup three times, Nassau Invitational twice, and Kansas City Championship nine times.

In the Majors

Hill's competitive career was over before the LPGA Tour even formed. Yet, she does have a record in LPGA major championships — she even has two wins in LPGA majors.

Hill won the Women's Western Open in 1935 and 1936. That tournament, which ran from 1930 through 1967, is retroactively counted as a major championship by the LPGA Tour, and its winners are credited by the tour with winning an LPGA major. Therefore, Hill is credited with winning two LPGA majors.

She also played in another pre-LPGA Tour tournament that is retroactively called a major, the Titleholders, with a best finish of seventh in 1939. She also played the U.S. Women's Open, again prior to the LPGA's creation, with a best finish of 18th in 1947.

The Life of Opal Hill

Opal Hill was born Opal Trout in Nebraska in the last decade of the 1800s, but after her father died when she was just two years old her mother moved the family to Missouri. And Hill has always been strongly associated with Kansas City, Mo.

Her mother was sickly, and Hill's time growing up caring for her mother pointed her in the direction of a nursing career. She went to nursing school after high school and graduated in 1914.

While Opal Trout was working at Swedish Lutheran Hospital in Kansas City, she cared for a patient named Oscar Hill, a prominent local attorney. After his recovery, they fell in love and married.

They had a son, but Opal Hill developed ongoing health issues after giving birth. In 1923, she had a large, unexplained weight loss and was diagnosed with a severe kidney infection. She also had anemia. Most doctors she saw didn't expect her to live more than a few years.

But one doctor recommended she get out in the sun and fresh air and take up some form of light exercise. Hill's husband was a member at Meadow Lake Country Club in Kansas City, so golf it was.

Her Competitive Golf Career Takes Off

Hill was already 31 years old by the time she started playing golf. But she didn't just take to the game, she loved golf, and she worked hard at it: She began practicing up to 10 hours per day, and taking lessons from the club pro.

"I was too young to die, I had too much to live for, so I worked hard at it. I learned that courage is even more important than good health. If you lose your courage, you've lost everything." — Opal Hill
Her health vastly improved over time, as did her golf game. By the mid-1920s she was playing in tournaments, and by the late 1920s was winning them. Including some big ones: The Trans-Mississippi, the North and South Amateur, the Women's Western Amateur. There was no pro golf for women at the time, and these were some of the biggest events any woman golfer could enter.

She ultimately won the Trans-Mississippi four times and Women's Western Amateur three times, along with three wins in the Missouri Women's Amateur and two in the Western Women's Open.

One tournament Hill never won, however, was the biggest one of all, the U.S. Women's Amateur. From 1929-36, she reached the semifinals three times and quarterfinals twice. In 1929, she lost to Glenna Collett in the semifinals; in 1930, to Virginia Van Wie in the semis; and there was another semifinal loss in 1934.

She did twice earn medalist honors in the stroke-play qualifying round: in 1930 with a 79, and in 1931 with an 82.

In 1930 Hill was part of an American team that traveled to England and played a series of matches against British golfers — a precursor to the Curtis Cup, which began in 1932. Hill played on the American Curtis Cup squads in 1932, 1934 and 1936. She was already 40 years old by the time of the inaugural Curtis Cup.

Opal Hill's Record Round

In 1937, in her mid-40s, Hill posted a tournament score that is believed to be the best score ever recorded by a woman to that point, and that wasn't bettered for 15 years.

In the first match-play round of the 1937 Missouri Amateur, Hill holed out on the first hole and again on the second. On the third hole she holed out from the tee, a 152-yard ace. At that point, realizing she had the beginnings of a special round, Hill decided to putt out on every hole and to play all 18, regardless of how the match stood.

She wound up shooting 32 on the front nine, 34 on the back nine for a 66, the best tournament score (and best score of any kind, as far as is known) of any female golfer in the world to that point.

In the ensuing years, several other women posted 66s in competition. But it wasn't until Patty Berg fired a 64 in an LPGA tournament in 1952 that anyone beat Hill's 66. Amazingly, Hill's previous personal best before her 66 was 73.

Going Pro, LPGA Founding and More

In 1938, Hill decided to turn professional. There was very little precedent for a woman trying to earn money as a golf professional at that time. And there was no pro golf circuit for women at that time.

Hill was one of the first three women anywhere in the world to become a pro golfer. Helen Hicks was the first in 1934, and Hicks taught Hill how to conduct golf clinics. Wilson Sporting Goods, for whom Hicks traveled doing clinics, signed Hill to do the same.

In 1942, however, Hill's life as a traveling golf pro and tournament player mostly came to a halt when her husband died. She returned to Kansas City nearly full-time and resumed her career as a nurse. After that point, Hill's tournament apperances were rare, although she did occasionally play (such as in the earliest U.S. Women's Opens). She was 50 years old by that point, too.

Hill was still a big enough name in the game, however, that when the other most prominent women in golf (such as Louise Suggs, Patty Berg, Babe Zaharias) began discussing forming a new pro circuit, they wanted Hill involved.

And in 1950, that group of 13 women created the LPGA Tour. Today we know them simply as "the Founders," and Hill was one of them.

In 1959, Hill played the founder role again, helping create the LPGA Teaching Division. By that point she had, for years, been giving lessons as golf instructor at two clubs in Kansas City.

And Opal Hill was still giving lessons in Kansas City to young golfers into the mid-1970s, when she was in her 80s. She was 89 when she died in 1981.

Along the way, Hill had also served on many boards and commissions in the golf community, including chairing the USGA Women's Committee in 1935. She also served on the women's executive boards for the Missouri Golf Association, the Trans-Mississippi Golf Association and the USGA.

Hill was the first recipient of the National Golf Foundation's Graffis Award, given to honor "outstanding contributions to the game and business of golf." She is a member of the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame.

Photo credit: LPGA Archive/Courtesy of the LPGA Tour

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