From the Golf Journal Archives - Two’s Company, Three’s a (small) Crowd

Sep 23, 2011

It’s a select group that has won the same USGA championship three consecutive times.
Annika Sorenstam and Ellen Port take their shots at joining that elite circle.

By Rhonda Glenn

(Note: This article originally appeared in the June 1997 issue of Golf Journal.)

FOR ANNIKA SORENSTAM, THE questions about the possible “three-peat” began late one Sunday afternoon last June – immediately after winning a second straight U.S. Women’s Open. Sorenstam, a master at handling public attention with a level head, still seems cautiously optimistic. “My chances are just as strong for this tournament as any other I play in through the year,” she said. “I will do my best. That’s all I can do.”

After Ellen Port won her second straight U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur Championship last September, she was given a small display case. The case, which hangs in Port’s St. Louis home, contains her two USGA gold medals. Should there be a need, there is space for a third.

For Sorenstam and Port, the stakes in 1997 are high and they are important, for history is at stake. While 448 players have won USGA titles in the 103-year history of the Association, only 112 have won more than once. On just 57 occasions a champion added a second straight win. Of those, a mere 11 have won three in a row. This summer, in the span of two months, Sorenstam and Port have the chance to inscribe their names to the honor roll.

In a magical four-month period last summer, four USGA champions successfully defended their titles. Sorenstam won her second Women’s Open on June 2, and the others to follow her example were Kelli Kuehne in the Women’s Amateur, Tiger Woods in the Amateur (again) and Port in the Women’s Mid-Amateur. Woods and Kuehne, of course, have since forfeited their chances at extending their streaks by turning professional. That leaves history wide open to Sorenstam and Port.

Next month, when Sorenstam seeks her record third straight Women’s Open, she will be attempting to join a select group of individuals who have won the same championship three or more consecutive times. The list began with Beatrix Hoyt, who won three straight Women’s Amateurs before she turned 20 and the USGA wasn’t even five years old; the most recent entrant to the club was Woods, who secured his third Amateur last August. In that period of 100 years, the others were Willie Anderson, Carl F. Kauffmann, Hollis Stacy, Glenna Collett Vare, Alexa Stirling Fraser, Virginia Van Wie, Juli Inkster, Carolyn Cudone, and Woods in the Junior.

Not since 1990 have two players had the opportunity to win the elusive USGA triple the same year. In 1989, Curtis Strange won his second straight U.S. Open, and Pearl Sinn, the 1988 Women’s Amateur champion, captured a second consecutive Women’s Amateur Public Links.

But decades ago, three straight raised hardly a ripple in the public consciousness. Genevieve Hecker, for instance, didn’t even enter the 1903 Women’s Amateur after winning in 1901 and 1902, nor did Jerome Travers play in the 1909 U.S. Amateur after victories in 1907 and 1908.

Years later, when Ben Hogan finished third in the 1952 U.S. Open after winning in 1950 and 1951, press accounts virtually ignored Hogan’s pursuit of a third straight, instead focusing on his attempt to win a fourth overall. Golf World testified that Hogan had won three in a row anyway, since he won in 1948 and didn’t play in 1949 only because of his near-fatal automobile accident “. . . three putts at the eighth put the final damper on Ben’s chances to make it four national opens in a row,” Golf World wrote.

One player, however, won the triple despite an interval of several years. Alexa Stirling Fraser won the Women’s Amateur in 1916, but the USGA canceled all championships in 1917 and ‘18 because of World War I. When the championships resumed in 1919, Fraser won a second Women’s Amateur, then captured her third straight title in 1920.

The incomparable Bob Jones ranks high among those who failed to win three straight, and the winner of nine USGA championships, more than any player in history, had two chances. He won the Amateur in 1924 and ‘25, and in ‘26 he advanced to the final before losing to George Von Elm, 2 and 1.

Jones rebounded in 1927, winning his third U.S. Amateur in four years. He repeated in 1928. But again California was unkind, for in 1929 at Pebble Beach, John Goodman scored one of the greatest upsets in history, defeating the four-time champion in the first round, 1 up.

After two wins, several amateurs cashed in by turning pro. Among them stands the barrel-chested long hitter, Lawson Little. Little won the U.S. Amateur in 1934 and 1935, twice scoring “the Little Slam” by also winning the British Amateur. Little didn’t try for a third straight in 1936. He turned pro, failing to even qualify for that year’s Open.

Inkster remained an amateur; when she won a third consecutive Women’s Amateur, her husband, Brian, a club professional, took no chances. He left his golf shop to caddie for his wife.

“It was brutal,” he recalled. “I was nervous and Juli was uptight. I couldn’t sleep, then we nearly got knocked out in the first round.” (Inkster was forced to make a 15-foot putt at the 18th to stay alive in her opening match against Caroline Gowan, then won in an extra hole.)

The last player to have a shot at three consecutive Women’s Opens was Betsy King, who finished back in the pack in her 1991 effort.

“There’s a big element of luck involved, obviously,” King said. “I don’t know if anyone is so good that they can gear to be at the top of their game that one week of the year. Annika is already having a great year and I’m sure will come into the championship in good position. In general, her game fits Women’s Open courses well in that she’s a good driver of the golf ball and a good putter. Those are two key elements of playing well in a Women’s Open.”

King also believes the increased media attention at weekly LPGA tournaments softens the relative glare of the Women’s Open spotlight. “The attention that women’s golf in general has been getting is better,” she said. “Not that the media didn’t cover the tour, but there was a time when the Women’s Open was placed in a different class altogether. Now the tour gets more exposure year-round.”

In 1991, a determined King had rough going as she tried for history in the oppressive heat and humidity that stifled Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas. She made the cut by a stroke, then was cast out with a third-round 74. Only then did King make dramatic improvement, but her final-round 68 only moved her up into a share of 28th. “That’s probably a week I would like to forget, not necessarily for having a shot at winning the third, but because of everything else that happened,” she says.

It wasn’t pretty. Visibly strained as the week progressed, King sparred with reporters and lobbed a few charges that she was being misquoted. Several scribes turned against her and by week’s end she was refusing interviews.

“When I look back on things, it doesn’t seem like there was that much pressure,” King recalls, “but at the time, you tend to blow things out of proportion a bit. It was disappointing because I wasn’t playing that well at the time. I never was really in the tournament from the start. You want to play well, but in golf you can’t draw it out of yourself all the time.”

Adding to the difficulty of repeating as champion is the fact that a USGA championship offers what is usually the strongest field of the year. Then the championships are moved around the country, which eliminates course knowledge and positive memories of past performances.

Of the five Women’s Open champions who have won two in a row, Susie Maxwell Berning finished closest to the top, and she wasn’t really very close at all. In 1974, Berning tied for 11th, six strokes behind winner Sandra Haynie.

In 1960, few doubted that Mickey Wright would win a third Women’s Open. After all, Wright had won 16 tournaments in less than six years. Riding the crest of an LPGA Championship win just three weeks before the Women’s Open, Wright was destined to break records, but this wasn’t one of them.

She got off to a fast start at Worcester (Mass.) Country Club, her 71-71 leading by two strokes. On Saturday morning – and this was when they completed play with 36 holes the final day – Betsy Rawls shot a 68 to Wright’s 75 to tie for the lead going into the afternoon round. While Rawls shot a 75 to win her fourth Women’s Open, Wright finished fifth, seven strokes back.

“I had the lead and played the double round with Betsy,” remembered Wright. “I shot 82 and lost. Whenever something like that happened, it would just haunt me, and that tournament haunted me longer than any tournament.”

Perhaps adding to Wright’s torment was that in ‘61, when she could have been going for a fourth straight, she shot the two lowest rounds of the week, a third-round 69 and a 72 that followed, to win by a relatively comfortable six strokes. Oh, what could have been!

While a few, like Kuehne, Pearl Sinn and Kay Cockerill in the Women’s Amateur, have chosen to forfeit their chance at history in exchange for a go in the professional ranks, E. Harvie Ward Jr., had his streak stopped for a more dubious reason. After winning the U.S. Amateur in 1955 and ‘56, Ward lost his amateur status for accepting expense money. Although he applied for reinstatement, Ward was forced to sit out the 1957 Amateur.

Regardless of whether she is successful in winning another Women’s Mid-Amateur, Port’s life has evolved considerably since her second win. Her pursuit of a third has been slightly derailed by the dilemmas of feeding schedules and babysitters, thanks to the arrival of her first child, Andrew, in March.

Port’s preparation, she says, centers on managing “the travel, the golf and the little guy.”

“I’ll have to mentally accept the lack of time for practice,” Port says. “I have no idea how this will affect the quality of my game and my desire. I’m going to have to accept the fact I can probably still play pretty well – even with less practice.”

Although she had played only one round through the first 3½ months of the year, Port downplays pressure to win big at Atlantic City Country Club, the site of this year’s Women’s Mid-Amateur. “Winning three in a row would be just unbelievable,” she admitted. “I don’t think anyone really expects anyone else to do that, but pressure is something you definitely put on yourself. For me, the pressure is kind of off anyway I’m sure Annika has a lot more pressure to win three straight than I do.”

Adds Inkster: “It’s extra pressure to repeat an amateur title. Some of it you put on yourself, but I have nothing but fond memories of all three. It was a great time. My first one was totally unexpected. My second one I probably was the favorite, but I wasn’t playing too well going in and just got some momentum. And the third one, I was by far the favorite. Add them all up and look at them together, well, they were just wonderful.... Looking back on it now, it’s probably my biggest accomplishment as a golfer.”

With today’s abundance of good players, there’s quite a lot of speculation that tournament fields are increasingly competitive. But the 1990s have ushered in the era of the triple and it’s clear that one extremely talented player can still dominate the rest. That is, for at least two years.

The list of players who have had a shot at three consecutive USGA championships is long, and it includes Glenna Collett Vare (above), William Campbell, Richard Sikes, Sarah Ingram, Dorothy Parker, Hollis Stacy, Willie Anderson (below) and Billy Tuten. (USGA Museum)

“My chances are just as strong for this tournament as any other I play in through the year. I will do my best. That’s all I can do.” – Annika Sorenstam (USGA Museum)