Her horse got loose and Susie Maxwell Berning chased after it down the fairways and across the greens at Lincoln Park Golf Club in Oklahoma City, until she finally caught up to the colt and angry course officials caught up to her.
So began a relationship with golf, the start of a most peculiar path that led Maxwell Berning to three U.S. Women’s Open titles among her four majors and 11 LPGA Tour victories, all while raising two daughters.
The next stop: World Golf Hall of Fame.
Her election was announced Wednesday. Maxwell Berning joins a 2021 induction class that includes Tiger Woods, Marion Hollins and retired PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem.
“I’m thrilled,” Maxwell Berning said from Indian Wells, California, where she continues teaching. “Golf has been great to me. Throughout my golf career, I was able to raise a family, which was icing on the cake. That’s one reason I didn’t play as many years or as many events. But when I did play, I enjoyed it.”
Maxwell Berning won the U.S. Women’s Open three times — only five others have won at least three — in a six-year span. The first one was in 1968 when she held off a late charge from Mickey Wright.
She had her first daughter in 1970, and two years later she beat Judy Rankin — the maid of honor in her wedding — on the East Course at Winged Foot, hitting a soft cut with a driver on the par-3 17th, which she called one of the best shots of her career.
Maxwell Berning won her third U.S. Open the following year at the Country Club of Rochester.
“My mind was more relaxed than some golfers,” she said. “They’d go home and fret about their round and worry about the next day. So I think having those two years with a young baby and the first year of being just married probably helped me win Opens.”
It wasn’t always easy. The LPGA Tour didn’t have day care for working moms like it does now. Maxwell Berning recalled having to withdraw from one tournament in San Diego because she couldn’t find a babysitter.
Maxwell Berning was elected to the Hall of Fame as a female competitor, winning out over Beverly Hanson, Dottie Pepper and Sandra Palmer. Her election brings hall membership to 164 people. Details for the 2021 induction have not been announced.
Rankin feared players from Maxwell Berning’s era are easily forgotten, especially with a short career from raising a family. She referred to Maxwell Berning as a “significant player” of her time.
Maxwell Berning wasn’t long off the tee. She was a pupil of Jim Flick and now is a renowned teacher herself in California.
“I still believe that we should swing the golf club,” Maxwell Berning said. “We don’t try and hit the ball with our core. My hands are the most important thing I have in golf. And then the second most important thing is my feet. That’s the way I played. I swung the club.”
Typical of a three-time U.S. Open champion, Maxwell Berning said she often found herself grinding harder over a putt for par than birdies. “Par meant something to me,” she said.
“She was very much a worker who learned how to play the game,” Rankin said. “It did not come naturally to her. She was always grinding, figuring it out, listening to new theories.”
Golf almost didn’t happen at all except for her colt getting spooked and breaking free as she walked him on a bridle path near Lincoln Park as a teenager. Her parents didn’t play golf. Two of her brothers caddied at Lincoln Park.
She feared the head pro was going to call the police. But he recognized her and said he would forget the whole episode if she would teach his children how to ride. Then, the pro kept on her about coming to the golf course to play.
“One day he calls me up, and he says: ‘I really want you to come over to Lincoln Park. There’s something I want to show you.’ … He took me down this hill, and there was a bunch of people down there laughing up a storm. Well, it was Patty Berg giving a clinic, and I said to myself: ‘Oh, boy, she’s having a lot of fun. If that’s what golf is about, I think I want to try it.’”
Maxwell Berning was on her way. She won three straight high school titles and was the first woman offered a golf scholarship to Oklahoma City University. She played on the men’s team because there were no other women playing, and famed basketball coach Abe Lemmons served as the golf chaperone. She says he referred to her as “Sam.”
“To this day, I think playing with the young men helped me develop my golf game,” she said.
And then it was on to the LPGA Tour, where Maxwell Berning was rookie of the year in 1964 and before long, a four-time major champion. And now she’s going into the Hall of Fame.
“Just to be in the same room as Mickey Wright, Kathy Whitworth, Judy Rankin and Patty Berg … to be honored alongside them is something I thought would never happen,” she said.
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