Betty Hicks: Amateur Champ and Women's Pro Golf Trailblazer

Betty Hicks was an early professional in the women's game in the United States. But only after she had won a U.S. Women's Amateur Championship in the early 1940s, the biggest golf title available to women at that time in America. After turning pro, she helped found one tour, and played an important role in the development of another. Hicks also was a pioneer in golf instruction.

Full name: Elizabeth Mary Hicks

Date of birth: November 16, 1920

Place of birth: Long Beach, California

Date and place of death: February 20, 2011 in Aptos, California

Also known as: Betty Hicks Newell; she competed under this name after marriage.

Hicks' Biggest Wins

  • 1939 Women's Western Stroke Play
  • 1940 South Atlantic Championship
  • 1940 Women's Western Stroke Play
  • 1941 U.S. Women's Amateur
  • 1941 California Women's Amateur
  • 1944 All American Open

U.S. Women's Am Win and Professional Majors

Betty Hicks romped to a 9-and-7 victory in the first round of the 1941 U.S. Women's Amateur, but almost got knocked out in the semifinals. She was 1-down to Estelle Lawson Page going to the 17th hole, and made a 15-foot par putt on the 17th green to stay alive.

After winning the 18th hole to square the match, Hicks beat Page on the 19th. In the championship match, Hicks dispatched Helen Sigel, 5 and 3, to claim the trophy.

Trivia question: Who held the U.S. Women's Amateur trophy the longest? That's actually a trick question: Hicks held it for five years because, due to World War II, the USWA was not played again until 1946. Given that Hicks turned pro immediately after winning in 1941, she wasn't around in 1946 to defend the crown.

In the professional championships she played in her career, Hicks had several high finishes. In the 1948 U.S. Women's Open, Hicks finished second. But it wasn't exactly a near-miss: Babe Zaharias won by eight strokes.

Hicks was runner-up again in the 1954 U.S. Women's Open, and again to Zaharias. This time, though, Babe's winning margin was 12 strokes. Hicks also finished tied for third in the 1957 U.S. Women's Open, and in sixth place in the 1955 LPGA Championship.

More About Betty Hicks

Elizabeth "Betty" Hicks was a star softball player in her teens, as a pitcher and a third baseman for her high school team in Long Beach, California. She had never played golf when, in September 1937, at age 16, Hicks signed up for golf classes. It took her only a couple years to become a scratch golfer and win her first tournament title at the 1939 Long Beach City Championship.

That was also the first year she entered the U.S. Women's Amateur, but she lost to Betty Jameson in the semifinals. In 1940, Jameson knocked Hicks out in the second round. Jameson went on to win both years.

Hicks had a string of wins in 1941, including the California Women's Amateur and Doherty Women's Amateur, a prestigious event in Florida. But before the 1941 U.S. Women's Amateur, Hicks felt she was struggling.

Helen Hicks (no relation, but another pioneer of women's pro golf) and Virginia Van Wie introduced Betty to instructor Ernest Jones (of Swing the Clubhead fame). Jones taught Hicks to swing in time to the Blue Danube waltz. And Hicks then went out and won the USWA. For the rest of her life, Hicks used the Blue Danube waltz to key her swing rhythm.

At the end of 1941, Hicks was named the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year.

Hicks turned pro at a time when there was no pro tour for women, virtually no pro tournaments for women, and when it was extremely rare for a woman to work as a club professional. But her pro career was put on hold anyway by World War II, during which Hicks served in the Coast Guard as a public relations officer.

After the war, Hicks went back to school and graduated from Pomona College in 1947, by which time she also had her pilot's license to fly airplanes.

Hicks traveled extensively, particularly in the 1940s and 1950s, promoting golf both as an activity and as a profession (helping teach other teachers). A 1947 newspaper article, describing her visit to Bowling Green University for golf promotion and clinics, began this way:

"Maintaining that the principal thing for golf enthusiasts to remember is to always play the game for the pleasure derived from it, vivacious Betty Hicks emphasized that fun should be the uppermost objective for all young players."
That article also described her as "an extremely likable, petite brunette" who was "the holder of 40 course records with an average of 72."

Fed up with the lack of professional playing opportunities, however, Hicks joined with several other women pros to co-found the WPGA Tour in the mid-1940s. Unfortunately, that tour had a very hard time finding sponsors and organizing events. It struggled along for a few years but was gone by the late 1940s.

The LPGA Tour was founded in 1950, and Hicks played on the LPGA for about 15 years after that. She never won (her win in the 1944 All American Open, a pro tournament, is not counted as an official LPGA win even though that event did later become part of the LPGA Tour), but had multiple near-misses.

In 1953, Hicks lost in a playoff to Patty Berg in the Reno Open. In 1954 she was runner-up to Louise Suggs by a stroke in the Sea Island Open, and lost 1-down to Betsy Rawls in the championship match of the Texas Open. One of her U.S. Women's Open runners-up happened in 1954, as well.

Also in 1954 Hicks stepped in temporarily to serve as tournament director for the LPGA.

She also was a journalist over the years, first writing professionally for the Long Beach, Calif., newspaper in 1939. Later she wrote magazine articles for some of the biggest titles (both in sports and in general) in America. For the LPGA Tour, she conducted radio interviews and served as tour photographer.

Hicks made her last appearance in an LPGA tournament in 1965. By that time she was also serving as women's golf coach at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, Calif., where she also served as coordinator of the school's aviation department.

In 1974, Hicks earned degrees in aeronautics and journalism from San Jose State University, and from 1975-77 she was the women's golf coach there.

Hicks wasn't just a teacher of golf, but also a teacher of flying, as a highly respected flight instructor with more than 6,000 hours flying time. She also served as a Written Test Examiner for the FAA, and in 1971 served a term on the FAA's Women's Advisory Committee on Aviation.

As an instructor, Hicks was known for her dedication to helping others learn how to teach the game. It's something she taught hundreds of clinics on, in addition to co-authoring a textbook. In 1950, the Golf Manual for Teachers (affiliate links used in this post; commissions earned), co-authored with Ellen Griffin, was published. A blurb about the book that appeared in Golfdom called Hicks a "teacher of golf classes at Pomona College, University of Iowa and Iowa State University." Golfdom described the book as "intended to help physical education teachers give their classes the rudiments of golf and then some." The book was used for exactly that purpose at thousands of schools, colleges and universities around the U.S.

In 1958, the LPGA established its first teaching committee, and Hicks served as its first chairperson in 1958-59. In 1959, Hicks, along with Shirley Spork, Barbara Rotvig and Marilynn Smith, became the founding members of the LPGA Teaching Division, what later became known as the LPGA T&CP (Teaching and Club Professionals) division. Members are called LPGA Professionals, just as those certified by the PGA of America are called PGA Professionals. Beginning in the late 1960s, Hicks worked on the staff of the first LPGA National Golf School, established in 1967.

Hicks taught both golf and flying into her 80s. She was 90 years old at the time of her death. Today, Betty Hicks is a member of the LPGA T&CP Hall of Fame (inducted as part of the inaugural class), Long Beach Golf Hall of Fame, San Jose Sports Hall of Fame, Women's Sports Foundation International Hall of Fame and California Golf Writers Hall of Fame. She is also in some aviation-related halls of fame.

In addition to Golf Manual for Teachers, she published a cookbook of meals that she whippped up while on the road titled Travels With a Golf Tour Gourmet. In 1996, Hicks co-authored Patty Sheehan on Golf with LPGA Hall of Famer Sheehan. In 2006, she wrote My Life: From Fairway to Airway, which chronicles her life in golf and her second career in aviation. She also appeared as herself in the 1952 Tracy-Hepburn movie Pat and Mike.

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