Wiffi Smith: LPGA Star's Career Ended Too Soon

Wiffi Smith's story is a great what-if in LPGA history. After a stellar amateur career during which her personality and booming drives made her a star, Smith was expected to become a big star at the pro level, too. And she did: Over four seasons on the LPGA Tour in the late 1950s to 1960, Smith had eight wins and challenged in multiple majors. Her on- and off-course personality endeared her to fans and led one LPGA Hall of Famer to call her "a daring, mischievous angel." But at age 24, her career was ended by injury.

Full name: Margaret Chamberline Smith

Date of birth: September 28, 1936

Place of birth: Redlands, California

Nickname: Wiffi, of course (which, early in her career, was sometimes spelled "Wiffy")

Her Biggest Wins

As an amateur:
  • 1953 Mexican Ladies Amateur Championship
  • 1954 U.S. Girls' Junior
  • 1955 World Women's Amateur
  • 1955 North and South Women's Amateur
  • 1955 Michigan Women's Amateur
  • 1956 French Women's Amateur
  • 1956 British Ladies Amateur
  • 1956 Trans-Mississippi Amateur
On the LPGA Tour:

In the Pro Majors

Wiffi Smith did not win a professional major championship, although she probably should have: Three times she took leads into the final round. But two of those best-chances happened in her rookie LPGA Tour season, when she was just 20 years old, and her career didn't last long enough for her to produce any major chances after she had become more experienced.

That rookie year was 1957. Smith finished runner-up in both the Women's Western Open and the LPGA Championship (now called the Women's PGA Championship), plus fourth place in the Titleholders Championship.

The 1957 Women's Western Open is the one that really got away. Smith led after each of the first three rounds after scoring 71, 70 and 71. She took a five-stroke lead into the final round. But then she struggled to an 80 while Patty Berg, who started the round in second, scored 74. Berg won it by sinking a 35-foot eagle putt on the last hole, a stroke the LPGA cofounder and legend then called "the greatest shot Patty Berg ever made." Smith wound up second, one behind.

A couple months later in the 1957 LPGA Championship, Wiffi once again was the leader after each of the first three rounds (scoring 68-71-75), but once again let it slip away in the final round. She carded a 74 in Round 4, but Louise Suggs had the round of the day with a 68 to relegate Smith to second place again.

The third time she took a lead into the final round was at the 1959 Titleholders, where Smith started the final round tied with Suggs. But while Smith stumbled to a 77, Suggs surged with a 71. Suggs won with Smith falling to third, six shots behind.

All told, in just the years 1957-60 (the extent of her LPGA career), Smith posted eight Top 10 finishes in majors (all of them actually Top 7, and five of them Top 5). In addition to those already mentioned, she was sixth in the 1958 Women's Western Open; fifth in the 1960 LPGA Championship; and, in the U.S. Women's Open, tied seventh in 1958 and sixth in 1960.

More About Wiffi Smith

Margaret "Wiffi" Smith (the nickname stems from the Anglicization of a word used by, according to the family story, a "witch doctor" in Mexico to predict to Smith's mother that she was pregnant, which turned out to be true) spent the first part of her youth in California. But when her parents divorced she moved at age 11 to Mexico with her mother. It was in Mexico that she began playing golf and her game developed.

When she was 16 years old, in 1953, Smith first began being noticed in golf circles. She won the women's amateur championship of Mexico. And in the U.S. Women's Amateur that year, Smith beat Pat Lesser in the quarterfinals before losing to the eventual champ, Mary Lena Faulk, in the semifinals. Back in the U.S. Women's Amateur in 1954, she again lost to the eventual champ, this time Barbara Romack in the quarterfinals. And she reached the quarterinals again in 1955 before falling to Polly Riley.

But Smith did earn a USGA championship during that stretch, claiming, at age 17, the 1954 U.S. Girls' Junior Championship.

Smith noved to Michigan in 1955 and, at age 18, had a great year, winning several big titles. Those included the Michigan Women's Amateur title plus the prestigious North and South Women's Amateur Championship.

Her final year as an amateur was 1956, and Smith made the most of it. She became a star over a three-week period when she first went unbeaten in the Curtis Cup, then won the French Women's Amateur (beating Angela Ward, soon to be Angela Bonallack, in title match), and, in the third successive week, won the British Ladies Amateur by 8-and-7 in the championship match.

One thing helping Smith to stardom was her strength-based game: She was a very long hitter. Another was her buoyant personality. She was once described as having "an abundance of freckles and a sunny disposition (that) endeared her to spectators."

By age 19, Smith had won national championships of four different countries: the Mexican, French and British women's amateurs, plus the U.S. national junior title. She was just the third American winner of the British Ladies Amateur, and she was the first American winner of the French title.

And in that 1956 Curtis Cup, Smith first teamed with Pat Lesser for a foursomes victory, then, in singles, Smith beat Philomena Garvey, 9 and 8 (18-hole match). That remains today the largest winning margin in any 18-hole match in Curtis Cup history, and is tied for the largest winning margin among all matches (including 36-hole matches).

Smith was expected to become a star on the LPGA Tour, both because of her game and her show-business personal style. And become a star she did. Smith showed up to her first LPGA tournament after going pro, the 1957 Sea Island Ladies Open, driving a 1928 Model A Ford touring car. (Later, she toured the circuit in a mobile home eqipped with a piano.)

At the time, Golfdom magazine reported that "the colorful, former amateur queen is being counted on to be one of the leading gate attractions on the women's circuit." She finished fifth in that first pro start.

It didn't take Smith long to get her first LPGA victory. It happened two weeks prior to her loss to Berg at the Women's Western Open. In the Dallas Civitan Open, Smith held off runner-up Berg for win No. 1.

It was quite a debut season for Smith: She won twice in 1957, was runner-up in two majors, fourth in another major, and also runner-up to Mickey Wright at the Wolverine Open.

Fans, as everyone predicted, embraced her. In the book Different Strokes: The Lives and Teachings of the Game's Wisest Women (affiliate link), Polly Riley described Smith this way:

"She was something you couldn't imagine. She'd take chances with shots, we'd think, 'What on earth?' But she'd pull them off whether she needed to or not, then think up another one. It was almost as if she wanted to see how many situations she could escape from. ... She was something wonderful."
And her fellow pros loved Smith, too, as much for her off-course antics as her on-course popularity. Betty Jameson, quoted in the same book: "We'd look up and she'd be walking along on her hands, or there she'd be trotting along on someone's horse, or at a party sliding down a banister. She was everyone's young hope, but in the form of a daring, mischievous angel."

In the 1958 LPGA season, Smith won the Peach Blossom Open for the first of three consecutive years (it was called the Betsy Ralws Open in 1959 and the Betsy Rawls Peach Blossom Open in 1960). She also finished runner-up in an unofficial money event, the Homestead 4-Ball, partnered by Ruth Jessen.

In 1959 she had two wins and two seconds. And in 1960 Smith won three times on the LPGA Tour plus was runner-up again in the Wolverine Open. In what turned out to be her final LPGA victory, Smith won the 1960 Waterloo Open in a sudden-death playoff, beating Kathy Whitworth on the first extra hole.

And then it was over.

Just four years after joining the LPGA Tour, Smith retired after the 1960 season. What happened? During the 1959 season, Smith had an accident on a motor bike. She flew over the handlebars and injured both wrists. She was in pain, but couldn't get a good diagnosis or effective treatment (it turned out she had broken a small bone in one wrist).

Smith played through that pain for a year-and-a-half, adding victories. But as the pain intensified and her play declined over the second half of the 1960 season, Smith decided she'd had enough. She couldn't go on — the career of this bright, young star was over after just four seasons.

Smith was only 24 years old at the end of that 1960 season. Although her playing career ended, her career in golf did not. Smith went on to a long and very successful career as a golf instructor.

Today, Wiffi Smith is a member of the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame.

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