From the Golf Journal Archives - A Great Amateur: Maureen Orcutt

Oct 19, 2012

By Joan Flynn Dreyspool

(Note: This article originally appeared in the May 1993 issue of Golf Journal.)

“DO YOU REALIZE,” I asked 86-year-old Maureen Orcutt, “that you are the oldest, most winning ‘career amateur’ woman golfer in the country, and that your breed is almost extinct?”

Bright blue eyes shining through glasses, the strong-jawed, strong-voiced, strong-minded octogenarian, who started playing golf when she was 12 in Englewood, N.J., and has won more than 80 assorted titles, good-naturedly nodded her snow-white, short curly-haired head.

Maureen Orcutt wears her years gracefully and without apology. Full-bosomed and sturdily built, she stands stanch and straight. Her feet give her a little trouble; the thousands of miles she has trod fairways and rough, at home and abroad, have caused her toes to curl uncomfortably together. Without complaint, she wears wide, low-heeled shoes.

“A friend gave me a pillow,” she said. “It reads, ‘Old golfers never die, they just lose their drive.’ I used to be long. Now, I usually don’t reach the par 4s in two. I play two or three times a week and shoot around 95. My handicap is 19 and rising. I can’t swing back the way I used to. I should work more on my short game.”

Scattered across Maureen Orcutt’s dining-room table in Durham, N.C., where we sat talking, were USGA Record Books, pictures, clippings, magazines, scrapbooks, and memorabilia – all proof of her prowess. Her attractive second-floor, two-bedroom condominium has a screen porch overlooking the seventh hole of Croasdaile Golf Club, which she joined in 1972, following her retirement after 35 years as a golf writer-reporter for The New York Times. She’s won the Croasdaile Ladies Club Championship seven times.

“I shot an 80 when I was 80,” she said, “but not anymore.”

The apartment was a museum. Four china cabinets were crammed with trophies, cups, trays, pitchers, silver, and crystal – all engraved and citing time, place, and win. The walls throughout were hung with plaques, awards, honors, and pictures of her with famous golfers (Bobby Jones, Patty Berg, Babe Didrikson Zaharias), and her golfing buddies of the 1920s and 1930s (Glenna Collett Vare, Virginia Van Wie, and Helen Hicks). With her, they were known as the Big Four of women’s golf.

The three others had something she didn’t have – their names engraved on the Women’s Amateur Championship trophy Collett won a record six times, Van Wie a record-tying three consecutive times, and Hicks won once, in 1931.

“It is the greatest disappointment of my life that I never won the Amateur. It was my dream. That was one of the reasons I never turned pro,” the veteran golfer said. “I tried. Oh, how I tried. I was runner-up twice. In 1927, at Cherry Valley in Garden City, New York, I shot a 78. Ada Mackenzie from Canada was medalist with a 77. She beat Virginia Van Wie in the third round and I beat Ada in the semifinals. I shot a 91 the morning of the 36-hole finals. Miriam Burns Horn beat me, 5 and 4.

“In 1936, I lost 4 and 3 to the 19-year-old British champion, Pamela Barton. Pamela played the last 24 holes in one under par. My putting beat me. In the fourth round I beat Opal Hill, who beat Patty Berg in the third round.

“That was the closest I came to winning, but I kept trying. It took me nearly 50 years to win my first USGA title.”

She paused to cherish the memory. “I won the first Senior Women’s Amateur Championship at the Manufacturers’ Golf and Country Club, in Oreland, Pa., in October, 1962. I shot three rounds of 80. Guess who was runner-up? Glenna!” she said, not waiting for an answer. “She was seven shots back!”

That was the closest Maureen Orcutt ever came to bragging. It was vindication so late, but vindication.

* * *

“I started playing golf when I was 12, in Englewood, N.J. The worst score I ever had was 123. In 1921, when I was 14, I tried to qualify for the Amateur at Hollywood Golf Club, nearby in Deal, N.J. I didn’t qualify but it rained, so they let me play anyway.”

Two years later, the skinny flaxen-haired schoolgirl with the Dutch bob who had captured the fancy of the local press did qualify with a 93, at Westchester-Biltmore Country Club in Rye, N.Y. Bobby Jones’ childhood playmate, Alexa Stirling, a three-time champion, was medalist with 84. Of the 166 starters, only 14 qualified with lower scores than the talented teenager; Maureen lost in the first round to Mrs. C.H. Vanderbeck from Philadelphia, the 1915 Amateur champion.

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. From 1923 through 1962 Maureen Orcutt competed in the Amateur 26 times. After 1962, she stopped trying, and something wonderful happened to her that same October; she finally became a USGA champion with her win in the Senior Women’s Amateur.

I first met Maureen in the 1950s in New York when we both were members of the board of the Women’s Metropolitan Golf Association. She was always all business, whether on the golf course or at work. I have a vivid memory of her coming to WMGA events near the day’s end to get the results for The Times. She lived with her widowed mother Elizabeth in the family home in Englewood. “Do you remember, Maureen,” I said, “when you would come to the tournaments with your mother in tow? You’d open the trunk of your car, set up a bridge table and chair under the trees for your mother, put your typewriter there, and go to work.”

“Mother liked to add up the scores,” she said. “That kept her busy.”

USGA Record Books rested in front of us on the dining-room table as we retraced the years. I thumbed the pages. Without looking, she knew every year she played in the Amateur, where she played, when, the city, the club, what round she got to, whom she beat or who beat her, and who the champion was.

“Several people beat me who shouldn’t have,” she said. “But I beat myself, too. I rarely got past the third round, I had a mental block, I wanted to win so badly. One time, I was 4 up on Glenna with six to go and still didn’t win. That hurt.”

During the golden years of amateur golf, before professionalism surfaced in the early 1940s, the Big Four – Collett, Van Wie, Hicks, and Orcutt – were lionized in both social and golfing circles. Pictures show them stylish in cloche hats, sweaters, skirts, and belts, looking like Vogue models of the time. By train and automobile, they traveled to tournament sites. Glenna Collett married Edwin Vare, Jr., in 1931. Helen Hicks turned pro after she played on the 1932 Curtis Cup team, and she went on an exhibition tour with Gene Sarazen. Virginia Van Wie, after her three consecutive wins in 1934, gave up amateur competition, literally to nurse her aching back, and became a teacher.

“What do you consider the highlights of your career?” I asked Maureen. Her eyes went to a little red, white, and blue flag in the middle of the table, a souvenir of the 50th anniversary of the Curtis Cup, held at the Denver Country Club in Denver, Colo., in 1982.

“The Curtis Cup, of course,” she said. “I played in four of them. One of my great thrills was when I was medalist in 1932 at Taunton, in the British Women’s Open. I shot a 77 and the American flag flew over the British flag that day ... When I won my first New Jersey State title at the Montclair Country Club in 1924, the same year I won the WMGA Juniors for the second time ... Every time I was medalist or co-medalist in the Amateur ... When I won my third straight North and South at Pinehurst in 1933 and 30 years later, in 1962, when I won my third straight North and South Seniors Championship, just one week after winning my first USGA Senior ...”

She went to one of her cabinets and returned with a trophy. “This has nothing to do with golf,” she said, “but I take pride in it.” The Exchange Club of Durham had honored her in 1988 with its “Book of Golden Deeds Award” for unselfish and distinguished service as a volunteer to the community for 15 years.

“Nowadays,” she said, resuming her role as the oldest living career amateur in the country, “the current kids have different values than we had. They are trying too hard to become pros, and they worry too much about distance. I think young golfers should learn how to chip and putt before they try to hit the ball 250 yards. What makes Vicki Goetze so good is she’s really something in the short game.

“If I had it to do all over, I’d work more on my short game.”

Maureen Orcutt (right) watches her shot during a practice round at the 1936 Curtis Cup Match. (USGA Museum)

Maureen Orcutt poses with the trophy after winning the first USGA Senior Women’s Amateur Championship, in 1962 at Manufacturer’s Golf & Country Club in Oreland, Pa. (USGA Museum)

Maureen Orcutt (right) poses with Aneila Goldthwaite after Orcutt won the 1966 USGA Senior Women’s Amateur Championship at Lakewood Country Club in New Orleans, La. (USGA Museum)