By Ron Driscoll
Museum Moment: Susie Maxwell Berning’s Knack for Women’s Open Success
Aug 04, 2011
Susie Maxwell Berning’s introduction to golf was as unusual as they come, but the native Californian turned a chance encounter into a lifelong love of the game and one of the more successful careers in women’s golf, which includes three U.S. Women’s Open titles.
Her family had recently moved to Oklahoma from Pasadena, Calif., when 13-year-old Susie Maxwell lost control of her quarter horse, which dashed across some fields and onto a local golf course, leaving some damaged greens in its wake.
The course was Lincoln Park Golf Course in Oklahoma City, and the pro, U.C. Ferguson, struck a deal with her: if Berning would provide horseback riding lessons to his children, he would forgive the damage caused to the course.
“Fergie got me interested in golf, and then he got me to attend a clinic that Patty Berg gave,” said Berning. “Well, Patty Berg was just the most interesting person in the world, and after I went to her clinic, I said, if that’s what golf is about, that’s what I want to do.”
Berning won three consecutive Oklahoma high school championships, and she went on to earn a golf scholarship to Oklahoma City University. The school didn’t even have a women’s team at the time, so she played on the men’s squad, which was coached by Abe Lemons, who is better known as one of the most successful coaches in men’s college basketball history.
Berning graduated in 1963, and immediately earned Rookie of the Year honors on the LPGA Tour in 1964. A year later, she captured the Women’s Western Open, which was considered one of the four LPGA Tour majors at the time. In April 1967, after she earned her third LPGA Tour victory, at the Louise Suggs Invitational in Boynton Beach, Fla., someone told her there was room for improvement.
It was acclaimed teacher Jim Flick, who was Jack Nicklaus’ swing coach for more than 20 years, who suggested that Berning work on her ball flight.
“He told me I could really improve if I learned to hit the ball from left to right,” said Berning. “I wanted to tell him, hey, I just won the tournament. But he was right; I had always played a low hook, and he taught me to hit more of a power fade, with a higher flight. It definitely helped me to win U.S. Opens.”
Berning tied for second place later that year in the U.S. Women’s Open, then began her run of three Open titles in six years in 1968, when she defeated four-time champion Mickey Wright by three strokes at Moselem Springs Golf Club in Fleetwood, Pa. She followed that up with victories in 1972 and 1973, which puts her in some rather illustrious company.
Berning is one of just six women who have won three or more U.S. Women’s Opens – the others are Wright and Betsy Rawls, with four each, and Babe Zaharias, Annika Sorenstam and Hollis Stacy, with three apiece. Berning posted 11 official victories on the LPGA Tour in her career, and four of them were majors.
“I loved the atmosphere of the Women’s Open, the aroma of it,” said Berning about her notable success in the championship. “I grew up playing ‘cow pastures’ in Oklahoma, and I was in awe of the golf courses we would play the Open on, the conditioning of them. Somehow I had better concentration. Once you put me on those tree-lined fairways, I would get tunnel vision.”
Berning later donated the sand wedge she used in her three victories to the USGA Museum. The R-90 Wilson wedge was instrumental in her success.
“In all three of those Opens, I was able to get up and down from bunkers really well,” Berning recalled. “I was such a good sand player at the time; if I couldn’t reach the green, I would aim for the bunkers. Especially in 1973 (en route to a five-stroke victory at the Country Club of Rochester, N.Y.), I made sand saves on 16 and 18 the final day. I was 100 percent that day getting up and down.”
The most thrilling finish came in her 1972 victory. She was trailing Pam Barnett by one stroke when she made a crucial birdie 2 on the 200-yard 17th on Winged Foot’s East Course, then parred No. 18. Barnett bogeyed No. 17, and Berning edged her, Judy Rankin and Kathy Ahern by one stroke. Her victory provided a dubious distinction as well, which she doubts will ever be matched. She shot an opening round of 79, the highest ever for a champion. However, she closed with a round of 71, one of just eight rounds all week that matched or bettered par.
“It was very wet that week at Winged Foot, and the course played extremely long,” Berning said. “I was hitting 4-wood into several of the par 4s. When I shot 73 the second day, I thought, well, at least I’m in the tournament.”
Despite her late heroics on No. 17 at Winged Foot that year, Berning was not known for making birdies in batches.
“I was never a big birdie shooter,” she said. “In a U.S. Open, par meant something. That was something I always admired the USGA for – they always made their courses tougher.”
Berning’s 1968 U.S. Open victory came just seven weeks after she was married to Dale Berning. She has two daughters, Robin and Cindy, born in 1971 and 1978, and her emphasis on family kept her from playing the LPGA Tour on a full-time basis. Berning played more than 15 events in a season only eight times in a 25-year stretch.
Another accomplishment of note is that Berning and her daughter Robin are the first mother-daughter duo to compete in an LPGA event together. Robin played collegiate golf at Ohio State, and they both played in the Konica San Jose Classic in 1989, and later in an LPGA event in Rochester, N.Y. Robin also caddied for her mother for a while, and for good friend Patty Sheehan, a two-time Women’s Open champion.
Berning joined the Jack Nicklaus/Jim Flick Golf Schools as an instructor after leaving the LPGA Tour, and she now teaches golf at Maroon Creek in Aspen, Colo., during the summer and at The Reserve Club in Indian Wells, Calif., in the winter. She turned 70 on July 22.
“I’ve moved up a set of tees, to about 6,000 yards,” she says, “but I still shoot par on occasion.” Many of her rounds these days are playing lessons with her students, or what she calls “hit and giggle” rounds. “I play with the members a lot. My wrist tells me when I’ve hit too many shots.”
Berning shot a closing round of 64 in 1997 to win the Sprint Senior Challenge, one in a series of events for senior women professionals. An annual competition for women’s college teams, the Susie Maxwell Berning Classic, will be held in October at Jimmie Austin G.C. in Norman, Okla. The inaugural tournament in 1976, won by Nancy Lopez, was held at Lincoln Park Golf Course, the same Oklahoma City course where Susie Maxwell chased down her horse so many years earlier.
Today’s LPGA Tour is far different from the one that Berning traveled in the 1960s and 1970s, and though the life wasn’t as lucrative, it had a camaraderie not found today.
“Patty Berg was such a sweetheart to all the rookies,” Berning recalled. “And we were all friends. Marlene Hagge was very protective of Judy Rankin and I; she would mother us… make sure we didn’t go places that we shouldn’t. And players would root for each other. I remember Mickey Wright taking me on the range to try and correct my overswing, which was leading me to hit duck hooks. I would start my backswing and she’d tell me, when I say ‘Stop,’ stop your backswing.’ Would you see that today?
“I remember staying in a Holiday Inn with Judy, Marlene and Donna Caponi, and it cost us $3 apiece per night. Well, Judy’s clothes got mixed up with mine, and I just assigned everyone a corner of the room. They called me the organizer.”
The LPGA Tour of the day was a traveling road show, with the emphasis on road. “We would drive in caravans to the tournaments,” Berning said. “Once we were driving an Olds Toronado through Pennsylvania, and we were the last car in a group of five. We got stopped for speeding – the last car in the line! – and we had to go pay some justice of the peace $20 so we could get back on the road. The others didn’t know what had happened to us; of course, there were no cell phones in those days.”
Many of the events of that time were held in smaller cities, like Towson, Md., and Odessa, Texas, where the members would caddie for them or arrange for host families to house the players. Berning made lifelong friends with many of them; she just attended the wedding of one of the sons of Bill and Betsy Morse in Rochester, N.Y., who hosted her when an LPGA Tour event was established there after the 1973 U.S. Women’s Open, when Berning won her third title.
“In those days, we played golf to win golf tournaments,” said Berning. “I know there is a lot more money out there today, but I’m not sure the commitment is as strong among the players. The money is important, I understand, but if your goal is to win a certain amount of money, then your goal is not high enough.”
Spoken like a three-time U.S. Women’s Open champion.
Ron Driscoll is the USGA’s manager of editorial services. Email questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Susie Maxwell Berning holds the U.S. Women's Open trophy after winning the 1972 U.S. Women's Open at Winged Foot Golf Club, Mamaroneck, N.Y. (USGA Museum)
Susie Maxwell Berning, hitting out of a bunker during the 1968 U.S. Women's Open, later donated the sand wedge she used in her three victories to the USGA Museum. The R-90 Wilson wedge was instrumental in her success. (USGA Museum)
Berning is one of just six women who have won three or more U.S. Women’s Opens – the others are Wright and Betsy Rawls, with four each, and Babe Zaharias, Annika Sorenstam and Hollis Stacy, with three apiece. Berning posted 11 official victories on the LPGA Tour in her career, and four of them were majors. (USGA Museum)