Helen Dettweiler: LPGA Founder, Major Winner

Golfer Helen Dettweiler in the late 1930s
Helen Dettweiler is best-remembered today as one of the 13 founders of the LPGA Tour. But she also won an LPGA major championship and was a famous golf instructor, and she led a remarkable life off the golf course, too.

Full name: Elizabeth Helen Dettweiler

Date of birth: December 5, 1914

Place of birth: Washington, D.C.

Date and place of death: November 13, 1990 in Palm Springs, California

Dettweiler's Biggest Wins

Dettweiler was an amateur for all of these except the last one:
  • 1934 Maryland Women's State Championship
  • 1937 District of Columbia Women's Championship
  • 1937 Maryland Women's State Championship
  • 1938 Augusta Women's Open
  • 1938 Maryland Women's State Championship
  • 1939 Women's Western Open

Her Major Championship Victory

Dettweiler had one victory in an LPGA major championship, and it happened in 1939, 11 years before the LPGA existed. But the LPGA Tour today recognizes all winners of the Women's Western Open (played from 1934 through 1967) as major championship winners.

The Women's Western Open in 1939 used a match-play format. It was Dettweiler's first tournament since she turned pro about a month earlier. The Associated Press story about the championship match described Dettweiler as a "pretty, 23-year-old Washington, D.C., professional."

In that championship match, Dettweiler defeated the defending champ, Bea Barrett, by a 4-and-3 score. Dettweiler won the first hole and never trailed. She was 2-up after the morning 18, over which she shot 81. Dettweiler opened the afternoon 18 with three pars and a birdie, building a 5-up lead. Barrett won back a couple holes before the afternoon turn, reducing Dettweiler's lead to 3-up with nine holes left. But after her lead was reduced to 2-up following the 28th overall hole, Dettweiler made consecutive birdies to get to 4-up. She maintained that margin until ending the match on the 33rd hole.

More About Helen Dettweiler's Golf Career

Helen Dettweiler was born into an athletic family, and as a child she played tennis, football, baseball and softball. Her older brother Billy was a precocious golfer who, at age 14, played in the National Amateur Golf Championship. Helen began playing golf at age 16 after losing a bet to Billy that she could make contact with the golf ball on four consecutive swings.

Dettweiler started playing at Manor Country Club in Rockville, Maryland (the family later had membership at Congressional Country Club), playing the club's short nine only for a year before stepping up to its big course. Just two years after starting, she entered her first tournament, the 1933 District (Washington, D.C.) Women's Championship, and reached the championship match before losing.

In 1934, when Dettweiler was 19 years old, the Washington Evening Star newspaper headlined a story, "Helen Dettweiler matches men off tee." Roland MacKenzie, a noted amateur player (and later instructor) of the era, was quoted saying:

"It's positively embarrassing at times. She hits 'em so far when she meets the ball you will find few men capable of outhitting her."
The article's author wrote that, "The young lady takes a tremendous cut at the ball with a long, free swing that is bound to knock the ball a long way if it connects properly. And the number of times it does connect right is surprising." The sportswriter claimed he witnessed her smiting a 270-yard drive, which would have been long for most men of the era, enormous for women of the era. As with a lot of long hitters, though, accuracy was a problem for Dettweiler.

That year, she won the first of her three Maryland state championships. Dettweiler lost in the championship match of the District of Columbia Championship in 1936 and 1938, but won that tournament in 1937. She was the Maryland state champion in 1937 and 1938, and won the Augusta Women's Open in Augusta, Georgia, in 1938. At the 1938 Corby Cup, a one-round tournament staged by the District Women's Golf Association, Dettweiler carded a women's course-record score of 78.

In 1939, she decided to turn pro. It was a time when professional tournament opportunities and club pro jobs were very rare for women golfers. Dettweiler signed a contract to promote Wilson golf equipment and for many years to follow she barnstormed the United States holding clinics and playing exhibitions.

One month after turning pro, Dettweiler won her major, the 1939 Women's Western Open. And she never won another significant golf tournament. The reasons are her heavy travel schedule, plus some detours into other areas that are noted below in the "Off the Course" section. She simply was frequently taken away from practicing golf or tied up in administrative duties.

But she did have some other high finishes in majors. Dettweiler was runner-up by one stroke to Helen Hicks in the 1940 Titleholders Championship. She finished eighth in the 1947 U.S. Women's Open, fourth in the 1950 U.S. Women's Open and 10th in the 1951 Titleholders.

She also nearly won the most-lucrative tournament of its time for women golfers, the All American Open at Tam O'Shanter Country Club near Chicago. In 1946, Dettweiler finished second to Babe Zaharias there.

By that time, Dettweiler as already transitioning to a career in teaching, rather than playing, golf. She appeared in a 35-minute instructional film called Good Golf in the early 1940s. That year planning began for a women's professional tour, and in 1947 Dettweiler was elected president of the Women's Professional Golf Association (WPGA). The WPGA tour held tournaments only sporadically for a couple years, however, and disbanded by 1949.

But in early 1950, Dettweiler was involved in the planning of another new women's golf organization, the Ladies Professional Golf Association. The LPGA Tour launched in 1950, and Dettweiler today is recognized as one of the LPGA's 13 founding members. In fact, she was one of the five golfers who signed the organization's incorporation papers, and she was elected the LPGA's first vice president.

She played the tour regularly for its first half-decade or so, but by the late 1950s turned her focus entirely to teaching. Dettweiler had moved to the Palm Springs, California, area in the 1940s. In 1946, she designed a 9-hole course in Indio, California, and became the head pro there.

She taught at numerous clubs in the California desert for several decades afterward, and her clientele often included celebrities. Among those who sought out Dettweiler for help with their golf games were Dwight Eisenhower, Jack Benny, Danny Kaye and Lucille Ball. Dettweiler was well-known enough that she appeared as herself in the 1952 Tracy-Hepburn movie Pat and Mike (affiliate link).

In 1958, the LPGA Teaching & Professional Division began recognizing club pros, and Dettweiler was chosen as the first recipient of its Teaching Professional of the Year Award.

Dettweiler lived out her live in Indio. After finally retiring from the golf world, she ran a clothing shop there. She was 75 years old when she died in 1990.

Dettweiler's Off-Course Accomplishments

We mentioned earlier that Helen Dettweiler's life took a few detours into areas other than golf. She was a highly intelligent, educated person, having graduated from Trinity College (in Washington, D.C.) with degrees in both history and English.

She was a huge baseball fan. In the 1930s, Dettweiler met former Major League Baseball player and manager Clark Griffith, who was then the owner of the Washington Senators team. Dettweiler talked to Griffith of her desire to be a broadcaster of baseball games on the radio. Through Griffith and others, she was connected with MLB and went on a cross-country tour as a guest broadcaster for MLB teams and minor-league teams. The year Dettweiler became the first-ever female broadcaster of baseball games was 1938. It was a tour that garnered lots of attention, especially in local press when she arrived in a city or town to call the local team's game.

Dettweiler was quick to help in the war effort when the United States entered World War II, first as a cryptographer with the United States Army Air Forces' Air Transport Command. She already had her pilot's license to fly airplanes by that point, and in 1943 Dettweiler began flying Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses as part of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). She also served as an assistant to famed aviator Jacqueline Cochran, who was director of WASP, for the duration of the war.

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