From the Golf Journal Archives - The Great Gundy

Apr 02, 2010

Ah, Jo Anne Gunderson Carrier – friendly terror in those gentler days, cruising down summer fairways and into our hearts.

By Rhonda Glenn

(Note: This article originally appeared in the January/February 1983 issue of Golf Journal.)

THERE WAS ONCE a rather stodgy old British golf writer who was of the opinion that women hit the ball with a muffled “click” rather than a decided “WHACK!” Even today, when the muscular young women coming out of college have clearly bypassed the “WHACK,” they hit the ball with a very definite “WHOMPF!” I get a little tense thinking about it. Perhaps he never saw Patty Berg, Babe Zaharias, or Mickey Wright, who were hitting the ball with a “WHACK!” some 25 years ago.

With some remorse I admit, however, that in the women’s amateur ranks of that time, the “click” was rather more prevalent than the “WHACK!” and at times the “click” even degenerated into a very modest little “thud.” The “WHACK” wasn’t heard very often among those of us in the skirt-and-visor set, with our gentle, stylish swings. We worked on rhythm, timing, finesse, and “feel,” and if a mere “click” was our reward, so be it. We got results all right and results are what it’s all about, but that was mainly because we were straight, and we could chip and putt like crazy and hit dead-on-the-flag-stick fairway woods.

Except for one of us – JoAnne Gunderson Garner, The Great Gundy, who had only a passing acquaintance with a fairway wood.

I FIRST SAW Gundy during the Palm Beach Championship, part of the Orange Blossom Circuit, played in Florida each winter. The Palm Beach tournament was played at the venerable Breakers Golf Club, which meandered through old Palm Beach like a park. The golf course spread out on both sides of County Road, the ocean side dominated by that rambling dinosaur, The Breakers Hotel, which was a lovely old place if you had an attraction to lawn bowling. Of course, none of the players ever stayed there; even at special tournament rates it was priced far beyond our meager expense money. We bunked instead at somewhat seedy motels across Lake Worth, on U.S. I.

On the other side of County Road, a weather-beaten little pro shop was tucked among the coconut palms. It was run by the indomitable Miss Bessie Fenn, who impressed us all because she was one of the earliest women golf professionals. Miss Fenn, a rotund woman in wire-rimmed glasses, had played in the U.S. Women's Amateur Championship during the early 1920s, and in her later years, she was running her pro shop with an iron will.

At that time, the Duke of Windsor was enjoying the hospitality of Palm Beach; simply put, it was royal treatment – which meant, to him, gratis. The Duke played frequently at the old Breakers course. One balmy day, according to a popular story, he teed off and had reached the first green before Bessie charged down the fairway roaring, “Dooook! Dooook! You forgot to pay your green fee!” The Duke paid.

Miss Fenn died a couple of years before JoAnne Gunderson played at the Breakers, but the Great Gundy would have felt a certain kinship with so irreverent and bold a spirit. Probably the feeling would have been mutual.

THE OLD BREAKERS was a wonderful place for women’s amateur golf. We had small but loyal galleries, with perhaps 300 showing up for a final match. We saw the same spectators every winter, and we were fond of them.

We had bigger crowds around Miami and Fort Lauderdale, but many of those who came out to see us were tourists who had a certain new vagabond interest in watching golf. We heard about some slick, mysterious fellows who would place large bets on our matches at the Doherty, for example. I don’t believe any of them actually approached a player, but one woman noticed a couple of these characters with their heads together after she had won her semifinal match. When she showed up for the final, her trusty old sand-wedge, which she had used with the delicacy of a neurosurgeon, mysteriously disappeared from her bag scant moments before she teed off, and miraculously reappeared just after she had lost.

The Breakers crowd was decidedly less exciting, and we’d see them scattered around the course, seated on shooting sticks under the palms, wide-brimmed straw hats shading their eyes, silk scarves tucked around their necks. They were older people and well-to-do for the most part, and they discussed the game knowledgeably, chatting about Barbara Mclntire's ability to feather the ball, and the intense concentration of feisty Polly Riley.

“Ahhh, moved her head” they’d tsk-tsk when one of us hit a shot into a bunker.

The old course was shortish and narrow, but graceful swings could keep it at par – except at the 15th hole, which was a real hear of a par-3. It was about 187 yards, heading squarely into the prevailing easterly winds off the ocean. Facing into that winter blow with a long carry to an elevated green, most of us swung our gentle little 3-woods, or even drivers, hoping to get there.

IT WAS at the 15th, in 1963, that I first saw Gundy hit a shot. With the winter wind cutting in against her, she pulled a 3-iron from her bag. While I staggered at the very folly of it, she whipped the club back with a quick wrist-cock, her hands pausing shoulder high, then her tremendously powerful legs drove down and through the shot. WHOMPF! The ground fairly rocked. The ball tore through the wind, grabbed the green, and spun back not eight feet from the flagstick.

“Ahhhhh!” cooed the galleries.

“With an iron!” I muttered.

In our hot competitive wars, it would have been easy for us to dislike such a player, one who struck the ball so viciously and so well. Big, strong girls who invaded your turf for a brief battle, soundly whipped everyone, then rode off into the sunset with the gleaming booty in their saddlebags inspired about as much affection as a hit-and-run driver. You could learn to hate someone like that.

But it was impossible to feel even the slightest twinge of animosity for JoAnne; this big, smiling girl, who sailed down the fairway like the Queen Mary, cutting doglegs and flying the ball over distant bunkers, plowing under anyone in her path. Of course, I spent much of the rest of my career trying to stay out of her match-play bracket, and, at this, I succeeded.

I imagine a lot of us felt like that. It was the “Let-Mclntire-play-her” school of strategy, because Barbara Mclntire, with her own beautifully steady pace, had nailed her fine, precise shots close enough to the flag-stick to defeat JoAnne for the 1964 Women's Amateur Championship. Marlene Stewart Streit, the wonderful Canadian player, also managed to pull it off in the 1956 final, and Carole Jo Kabier (Callison) defeated Gundy for the 1955 Girls' Junior Championship.

But that was about it. Most of the time, Gundy romped through the amateur fields, winning the Doherty, the Western, the North and South, the Girls’ Junior, and five Women's Amateur Championships. She played on the United States Curtis Cup Team four times.

SHE HAS BEEN playing on the LPGA Tour since 1970, and she says now that amateur golf was more laughs. Perhaps it was because the amateurs were a small and close group of players. Amateur golf wasn’t cut-throat, but financially it was a tough way to go, and Gundy was part of a small group with the money to stick it out year after year.

It wasn’t exactly life on Tobacco Road, but for many of us it was at least genteel poverty. These were expenses above and beyond college, beyond even minor concerns like domicile and nourishment, so there were maybe 35 regulars when everybody showed up. In that sparse collection, you played the same people over and over, and you knew whom you could beat and who could beat you. Once in a while, some future pro would roll out from under a rock and beat your pants off, but you could always spot them: a big, bright golf bag from their future sporting goods company and a couple of prosperous-looking future sponsors hanging around the practice tee. These future professionals always seemed to have new shoes. While the rest of us played practice rounds with lumpy, X’d-out balls we bought for 50 cents, these big sticks teed up balls that were perfectly round. At a time when we worked to develop rather slick techniques with ball retrievers, they’d hit one into a pond and merely shrug.

But our tournaments were only a passing whim for them. They’d play for a season or two, then hit the professional Tour; we were back to our matches with Nancy Syms, Judy Bell, Phyllis Preuss, and Carolyn Cudone – and sometimes, unavoidably, the Great Gundy.

BY ANY STANDARDS , we had a group of very fine players – Mclntire, Bell, Syms, Preuss, Riley, Mary Ann Downey, Fifi Matthews, and Connie June Day. In the summer we’d be joined by Carole Sorenson, Judy Eller, Anne Quast, Jean Ashley, and Sally Carroll. And there were the married women: Phyllis Semple, Betty Probasco, Alice Dye, and Carolyn Cudone,

And, of course, we had JoAnne. The Great Gundy. She was like us in that you’d find her practicing a lot, talking golf a lot, or laughing over a beer. But she was different, too: bigger, stronger, better. She won everything and she won it with a flair.

“I feared no one, no hole,” she says now. She had analyzed the different players, and she knew there were certain opponents she had to get the jump on. If she won the first hole, she had the match won. So she would stroll sedately to the first tee, grin, and just whomp that first drive as long and as straight as she could.

“I’d start ‘em off being intimidated, and beyond that, I’d just play. Today, oh, I just sort of put that first drive in play,” she says.

She was a wonderful sport in a group that knew sportsmanship. When Marlene Stewart Streit conceded a putt, she didn’t just squint and mutter, “That’s good.” She’d pick up your ball and walk all the way across the green to hand it to you. With a smile. Even when it meant she had lost the hole. In that atmosphere, Gundy’s sportsmanship was still notable.

I was playing a close match at the Breakers, and I had hit a fairly good drive on the 18th hole. Gundy was strolling to the clubhouse after leaving some opponent in wreckage on the 12th. She cut across the 18th fairway, slapped me on the back, and said, “That was a real good tee shot.” That from the player who had driving contests with Mickey Wright during practice rounds at the Women’s Open. That from a player who didn’t even know me. In my own mind, I became for a while the player who Gundy thought “hits real good tee shots.”

It does a lot for a 17-year-old’s psyche.

She explains her behavior, her kindness, this way: “I’m very sentimental. I’ll never forget going to a movie in college. It was a real tear-jerker and I’m there sobbing away and the other girls are looking at me, poking one another and giggling. But I’m sentimental and I think that’s why I try to help people. I’ve been through it. I’ve been in a slump. I know how hard they’re trying. I don’t give players, advice as much as I may tell them, ‘You’re swinging great!’ or ‘Hey, it looks terrific!’ Oh, sure, it jumps up and bites you every time and they’ll come back to beat you. But I’d always do it in my amateur career and I do it now. Back then, my friends helped me – then I’d go out and beat ‘em the next day.

"I loved to beat them, but I didn’t want to kill them. I’d try to win. I’d start out and get 4 up and mess around and be daydreaming away, still trying to win every hole. They’d get back to even, or get me 1 down. All of a sudden I’d think, hey, get with it! Every once in a while I’d go too long and give them too much of an edge, and then I’d lose. Basically, I’d always lose to players I could beat very easily. I’d seldom lose to a good player. I’d be up for that.

“When I lost, I got lectures that I didn’t have the killer instinct. I remember that I was once told, ‘If you're playing your grandmother and you can beat her 10 and 8, beat her 10 and 8!’

“I said, ‘If I’m playing my grandmother, I don’t think I’d really want to beat her.’ You know?”

ON THE PROFESSIONAL Tour today, JoAnne Gunderson Garner is regarded as a colorful, downright flamboyant player – the exuberant Mrs. Garner, with her chorus-line kicks, wisecracks, and her deep, rumbling, Beatrice Arthur voice. You can depend on her for a little razzmatazz. Yet, in her amateur heyday, she was the most serene player on the course, marching, head high and elbows out, down the middle of the fairway. The Queen Mary.

“Well, you have to be so stoic in match play.” she says. “You can’t show your emotions. As a pro, you can yell and holler and do anything, but as an amateur you can’t because you’re playing your opponent. Of course, I always figured my opponent was going to hole everything. But, in match play, they hit it in the bunker and you wanna yell, ‘Whoopee! I’m gonna win this hole!’ But you can’t do anything, so you just go Harrumph,’ pretending like you’re coughing when, actually, you’re smiling.”

Gundy had reason to smile; she was beating everybody and she had one of the treasured golf scholarships at Arizona State University, At that time, only two schools offered golf scholarships for women – Arizona State and Odessa Junior College. When a bunch of us heard about Odessa, our parents must have marveled at our sudden, wild desire to pick up a college education at an obscure little school in West Texas. A scholarship, however, would ease the financial pressure of the amateur circuit, and we could at least have our expenses paid to some of the college tournaments.

That was important, because most of us had to scrape pretty hard to make expense money, Doris Phillips played jazz piano in small nightclubs, Nancy Roth (for a time) picked up golf balls at a driving range, and I had the sign-on shift at a small radio station for $30 per week.

The whole mad dream was to make the Curtis Cup Team, where every two years the best amateurs were selected to play against a similar team from Great Britain and Ireland. To make the team, you had to play well in a number of tournaments. In winter, we’d play on the Orange Blossom circuit, in Florida, and in the spring, we’d go to Pinehurst for the North and South, and maybe to Montgomery, Alabama, or New Orleans, Louisiana, for the Southern.

The biggest tournaments were played in the summer, and that’s when the matches were tougher and victories more dear; the college girls and school teachers joined us on the tournament trail. That’s when we saw more of Gundy and had to face her magic. After college, she worked as a substitute school teacher in Rhode Island. It was a good job for three reasons – June, July, and August. That’s when the bigger tournaments were played.

Sometimes we’d play in a professional event. If you lost early in the North and South, it was a short, hop to the Raleigh Invitational, where it was great fun to be paired with Patty Berg, or Betsy Rawls, or Mickey Wright. Yet, few of us were really comfortable there. The pros were sharper, smoother, and better players than most of us. So, for your pride, you’d try to shoot a couple of rounds in the 70s, then go home to make enough money for the next amateur tournament.

THERE WASN’T ANY money in all of this, however, and there was no real future other than golf itself. Amateur golf was a commitment one made to one’s self. We did it because it was fun, because we could play great courses like Pinehurst and The Broadmoor, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and because it was a chance to put yourself on the line against fine players. A lot of it had to do with the opportunity to just play the game, to feel our spikes crunching into damp early-morning turf, to hit soaring 5-irons and zingy little 4-woods on bright summer days.

There was another reason, more subtle. I remember us at the Breakers during those years. The special policeman would hold up his hand on County Road, long lines of Cadillacs and sparkling Rolls Royces would glide to a halt, and we’d walk across to the fifth tee, our spikes clacking on the pavement, our heads down, brows furrowed in concentration, our little galleries trooping behind us. We were so very earnest. We tried so very hard. I think now that there was a great deal more to it than just the glory of the game, although that was a big factor; it was also that those soaring iron shots and pinpoint fairway woods really mattered. They meant something. Those were different times in the 1950s and early ‘60s, and for women, the doors of business and management had opened only a hair. This was a chance to achieve, to do this one thing really well.

It’s not that we were so pure; it was just a different, more naive time. At a few clubs we had only recently been allowed to wear shorts and slacks – instead of skirts – and for a time we could wear Bermuda shorts only if they came to the middle of the knee. No one lugged her own golf bag then, except to get it out of the car. And I never heard anyone swear.

GUNDY WAS A PART of all that. She shone as an immense talent and a unique personality in our little group. I remember the Women's Amateur Championship, at the Taconic Golf Club, in Williamstown, Massachusetts. It was 1963, and the banquet in the magnificent old clubhouse was a warm and lovely affair. The committee in navy blazers at the head table, the players with toe-pinching high heels on their sparkling white feet. Candlelight. Harp music. Inspiring speeches about sportsmanship and the glories of golf. Glenna Collett Vare was remembered. The ghost of the Babe hovered about the room. This was our national championship, a time to be in awe.

As defending champion, Gundy was asked to say a few words. She walked staidly to the head table. She was lovely and slim in the candlelight, blonde hair gleaming. Our champion. The committee smiled expectantly. The room was hushed.

Gundy turned up one corner of her mouth in a wry smile, then her voice rumbled up from the Bankhead depths. “A lot of people have noticed that I’ve lost a lot of weight,” she said, quietly. “Well, it’s because I’m in love.”

We held our collective breaths. “Yeah, I WANNA tell you,” she bellowed, “I’m in love – with MYSELF!”

She then regaled us with just how she fell in love with herself after her third national championship, and the positive and gratifying aspects of falling in love with one’s self.

We almost fell on the floor. Loosening his striped tie, the Tournament Director threw back his head and roared. There was a strange, wonderful energy in the air; nothing was sacrosanct.

It was, Gundy had just reminded us, a game.

AFTER 15 YEARS, the Great Gundy left all of this – and all of us – behind. She won the Burdine’s Tournament, an LPGA event, in Miami, in 1969, and became a professional. Just before that decisive move, perhaps in the flush of that startling victory by an amateur in a field of professionals, Gundy said she could get together a team of amateurs and whip any team the pros had to offer.

The pros, of course, were insulted, and today JoAnne rather regrets that statement. But more than one of us listened to this flagrant display of sheer guttiness and thought, “Yep, that’s Gundy. The game is on!”

She’s one of them now. She’s still big and powerful, funny and brave. I walked a few holes with her this spring during a practice round in New Rochelle, New York. We sauntered along, chasing her big, looping drives that faded into the right rough, from where she’d absolutely cream the next shot to the green. Playing the nine holes from the right rough, she was a couple under par.

“Has any of the, uh, added weight affected your endurance?” I asked.

“Heck no. I’m in pretty good shape. I’m gonna play until I'm 90!” She told me about her three-month layoff with tendinitis a few years earlier. “Sat around for three months. Never been so bored in my life. Gained 45 pounds. When I had recovered, the first tournament was in Wheeling, West Virginia – you know, mountainous. When I got to the course, ol’ fat Pepper, the caddie, looked me up and down and said, ‘Mama, you ain’t never gonna make it.’

“Well, I looked him up and down, and I said, ‘Pepper, if you can make it, I can make it!’ So, every day I’d come chugging up the hill to the 18th green, breathin’ hard, y’know, and the caddies would all be standing around the green and they’d clap and yell, ‘You made it! You made it!’ ”

The Great Gundy laughed and winked. "Heck, I didn’t care as long as I could play."

I left her after nine; told her I’d come out the next day to be in her gallery.

“Yeah,” she said. “Good to see you. See you tomorrow.” I began to walk in, but halfway down the fairway I heard her bellow.

“Hey! Hey!” she roared, “Tomorrow stay out of the right rough!”

I laughed and I turned away and thought back to those earlier days on the amateur circuit. A small part of the Great Gundy will always belong to those of us who remember those earnest times from summers past.

(USGA Museum)

(USGA Museum)

(USGA Museum)