Helen Hicks, Pioneer of Women's Pro Golf

golfer Helen Hicks in an old Wilson Sporting Goods advertisement
Helen Hicks won some big golf tournaments in the 1930s, including the U.S. Women's Amateur, but her impact on golf is much greater for reasons other than her tournament success: She was the first woman to earn her living as a touring professional golfer. Hicks went on to become one of the founders of the LPGA Tour.

Full name: Helen L. Hicks

Date of birth: February 11, 1911

Place of birth: Cedarhurst, New York

Date of death: December 16, 1974

Also known as: During the 10 years (1938-48) she was married to Whitney Harb, sometimes called Helen Harb or Helen Hicks-Harb.

Hicks' Biggest Wins

  • 1929 Canadian Women's Amateur
  • 1929 Western Derby
  • 1930 New York State Women’s Amateur
  • 1931 U.S. Women's Amateur
  • 1931 Metropolitan Women's Amateur
  • 1931 Women's Eastern Amateur
  • 1931 New York State Women’s Amateur
  • 1933 Metropolitan Women's Amateur
  • 1933 New York State Women’s Amateur
  • 1933 Bermuda Ladies Golf Championship
  • 1937 Women's Western Open
  • 1940 Titleholders Championship

In the Majors

The LPGA Tour didn't exist prior to 1950. But Helen Hicks is credited with winning two LPGA majors: the 1937 Women's Western Open and 1940 Titleholders Championship. Those two tournaments are today recognized by the LPGA as official LPGA tournaments, and all their winners are credited as major champions by the tour.

In the 1937 Women's Western Open, a match play tournament, Hicks won the championship match over amateur Bea Barrett by a 6-and-5 score. Hicks won the 1940 Titleholders with a 72-hole score of 336, the highest in that tournament's history. She won by one stroke over Helen Dettweiler.

Hicks led going into the final round at the inaugural Titleholders in 1937, but finished in third place, four strokes behind Patty Berg. She also tied for third in 1939, and tied for fourth in 1942.

Turning Pro and Touring for Wilson

When Hicks was 23 years old in 1934, she decided to turn professional and signed a contract with Wilson Sporting Goods Company. It is sometimes said that Hicks was the first woman golf professional, but that is not true: There were at least two women working in the United States as club professionals at the time Hicks signed with Wilson.

But what is true is that Helen Hicks was the first woman golfer to turn pro and make her living as a touring pro. The idea of a woman pro golfer was so new in 1934 that Wilson didn't even call her that, but called her a "business woman golfer." That term was often used in her first couple years as a pro; for example, this blurb by The Associated Press appeared in newspapers in July of 1934:

"Helen Hicks, business woman golfer, clipped eight strokes off the women's record for the Keller golf course, scene of the St. Paul $5,000 Open which starts tomorrow, in an exhibition match today with four other links stars."
There were virtually no pro golf tournaments for women at the time Hicks turned pro; the LPGA wouldn't exist for another 16 years. So how did she earn her living as a tour pro? Exhibitions and clinics, on behalf of Wilson Sporting Goods, which also produced the Helen Hicks Autograph line of golf clubs, and other Hicks signature equipment over the years.

In the book Patty Berg: Pioneer Champion of Women's Golf (affiliate link), author Kevin Kenny wrote about Hicks:

"... (S)he was signed by Wilson to promote its brand and women's golf in general. She also advised Wilson on the design of clubs suitable for women golfers. Along with Gene Sarazen, the Helen Hicks name would feature on Wilson golf equipment. For example, you could buy Helen Hicks Hol-Hi golf balls for 75 cents each, and Helen Hicks 'National Champ' woods for $6 each, with an iron costing $5. She often toured with Sarazen to promote the Wilson brand. A very long hitter, she was a great crowd attraction."
In the first couple years after signing with Wilson, Hicks typically toured with Sarazen, playing exhibition matches, putting on driving range exhibitions and clinics. Sometimes, that duo was joined by Babe Didrikson Zaharias. Hicks and Sarazen also toured together in Australia.

As Hicks became more famous herself, Wilson started sending her on the road as a solo attraction. She was such a success that Wilson started signing other women. In 1938, Wilson signed Opal Hill; in 1939, Helen Dettweiler; and in 1940, Patty Berg. Hicks helped train them all in the art of promoting golf and Wilson through exhibitions, and they all became LPGA founders.

More About Helen Hicks

Called "a dynamic woman with a smile as big as the sun" by the USGA, Helen Hicks' big, warm personality is something that really stood out about her, and helped make her so successful at her job promoting Wilson Sporting Goods.

An article about her on the USGA website includes this:

"In Depression-era America, a small headline saying, 'Helen Hicks is Coming to Town,' could attract several hundred golf-hungry spectators. Although she was a national champion, it wasn’t her skills that stirred up a crowd. It was that bright personality, the patter, and a natural warmth that pulled people in."
Glenna Collett Vare once described Hicks as "debonair, blithe, happy-go-lucky and fearless," and wrote that Hicks "enters into everything she undertakes with the same splendid, joyous spirit."

What stood out about Hicks' golf game? Her length. Some considered her the longest hitter of all the top women golfers, and Sarazen once said that Hicks could hit her drives and second shots as far as many of the best male golfers of the era.

Hicks once won a long-drive contest with a blast of 256 yards. Sounds short by today's standards, but keep in mind this was at a time when male golfers such as Paul Runyan and Johnny Goodman could average in the 220s or 230s off the tee and still win majors.

One thing that helped Hicks with her length was her smooth rhythm, and she used "oompah" — emphasis on the second syllable — to trigger her rhythm, and also represent how she socked it to the golf ball. "Oom" represented taking the club back slowly, "pah" was the accelerating downswing. Hicks' woods had "oomPAH" stamped on them.

Helen Hicks picked up golf at age 15, learning from her father. She played on the boys golf team at her Long Island, New York, high school, Lawrenceville High, where she also starred on the girls basketball team. Her first tournament success in golf was winning the Metropolitan Women’s Golf Association Junior Girls Championship while in high school.

Hicks first played in the U.S. Women's Amateur in 1928, but she first gained national notice in the golf world by winning, at age 18, the 1929 Canadian Women's Amateur — and beating the redoubtable Glenna Collett Vare on her way to the championship. Hicks was runner-up in the CanAm in 1930, and she won the New York state title that year. She also reached the semifinals of the U.S. Women's Am, losing to Collett.

Her age-20 year, 1931, was a huge year, with four big tournament wins. Those included the New York State Women's Amateur again, plus the Metropolitan Women's Amateur and the Women's Eastern Amateur.

The big one, though, was the biggest tournament in American women's golf: The U.S. Women's Amateur. In the second round, Hicks defeated 1921 champ Marion Hollins; in the third round, she downed 1929 runner-up Leona Pressler. In the semifinals, Hicks dispatched Enid Wilson, reigning (and ultimately 3-time) British Women's Amateur champ, 2 and 1.

And waiting for her in the championship match? Defending champ (and eventual 6-time winner) Glenna Collett Vare. Hicks won the championship by beating Collett Vare, 2 and 1.

The following year Hicks failed to advance out of stroke play at the U.S. Women's Amateur, but she did play for Team USA in the 1932 Curtis Cup, the first time that event was staged. Enid Wilson got a measure of revenge by beating Hicks in singles, but Hicks partnered Virginia Van Wie to victory in foursomes. It was a Team USA victory.

In the 1933 U.S. Women's Am, Hicks defeated Maureen Orcutt in the semifinals before falling to Van Wie in the championship match, 4 and 3. Her amateur career was over within a year, as she signed with Wilson Sporting Goods in 1934.

Virtually all women's golf tournaments at the time were limited to amateurs, and Hicks' schedule was tight anyway with travel for Wilson. But in 1936, while in Australia with Sarazen, Hicks played against the men in an open tournament in Adelaide, becoming the first woman to play in any open tournament in Australia.

The Women's Western Golf Association, which had long run the Women's Western Amateur, added an open tournament in 1930, and the Titleholders Championship was founded in 1937. Hicks won both (see "In the Majors" above). She also played tournaments on the short-lived WPGA (Women's Professional Golf Association) Tour that preceded the LPGA in the mid-to-late 1940s.

Hicks had married Whitney Harb in 1938, and Harb, 18 years older than her, died in 1948. At that point, Hicks began working behind the scenes to create a replacement for the foundering WPGA. In 1950, Hicks was one of 13 cofounders of the LPGA. But Hicks was near 40 by the time the LPGA started, and never won an LPGA tournament (not including the two retroactive majors) or finished runner-up.

Many of the LPGA's earliest stars, however, followed in Hicks' footsteps by working for Wilson or other golf companies, and traveling America (sometimes the world) for exhibitions and clinics.

Helen Hicks was 63 years old when she died of throat cancer — at the height of her fame she had been a celebrity endorser of Camel cigarettes — in 1974.

There was another pioneer of women's golf named Hicks, Betty Hicks, and Betty and Helen are sometimes confused for one another. If you are reading older golf books and see references to a Hicks, make sure you know which one the author is talking about. Helen and Betty were almost contemporaries — Betty was about nine years older — but were not related to one another.

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