FAR HILLS, NJ (October 17, 2016) -- Barbara Romack, the 1954 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion who became the first female golfer to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated, died at the age of 83 in Florida.
Romack rose to national prominence in 1954 when she defeated future World Golf Hall of Fame member and fellow California junior golf rival Mickey Wright in the 36-hole championship match of the U.S. Women’s Amateur at Allegheny Country Club in Sewickley, Pa., 4 and 2.
“She was my pigeon,” Romack playfully said of Wright, whom she owned a 3-0 lifetime record against. Romack had previously defeated Wright in the finals of the California Girls’ Junior and California Women’s Amateur. Wright, the 1952 U.S. Girls’ Junior champion, would go on to win four U.S. Women’s Open titles.
One of the individuals who congratulated Romack on her victory was Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, who sent her a telegram. Romack attended high school in Sacramento, Calif., with one of Warren’s daughters.
Sports Illustrated, then in its second year of existence, put Romack on the cover of its April 16, 1956 issue to promote the upcoming Curtis Cup Match in England, calling the 5-foot-4 dynamo a “little tiger” for her ability to smack 220-plus-yard drives despite her diminutive stature.
During the height of her amateur career, Romack represented the USA on three Curtis Cup Teams (1954, 1956 and 1958), compiling a 3-2-0 record.
The daughter of a plumbing contractor, Romack was born on Nov. 16, 1932, in Sacramento. As a youngster, she participated in a number of outdoor activities, including baseball, horseback riding, swimming and fishing. Golf, however, didn’t come naturally. She often caddied for her father, Aubrey, and later borrowed his clubs to play at a local course, where she proceeded to lose every ball in the bag.
“I got hooked because I couldn’t do it,” Romack told the USGA for a 2002 story in Golf Journal.
A couple of summers later, the family was vacationing near Lake Tahoe and Romack snuck away to a nine-hole course. An elderly gentleman joined the group around the third hole and Romack recorded her first hole-in-one on the ninth hole. “He said, ‘Nice shot, honey,’” Romack recalled. “And he signed my little card. Later on, I looked at the signature and it said, ‘Ty Cobb.’ We had no idea who he was.”
It wouldn’t be the last time Romack brushed with celebrities or dignitaries. During the height of her amateur days and nearly 20-year career as an LPGA professional, Romack played with such luminaries as Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Jackie Gleason. She even dined at the White House with President Dwight D. Eisenhower. She also once teamed with Desi Arnaz for an event at Thunderbird Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
One day on the ninth hole at Eldorado Country Club in Indian Wells, Calif., Romack accidentally shanked an 8-iron that nearly hit Eisenhower, but plunked Hope on the back of his leg. “[Hope] said, ‘Darling, the hole is that way.’”
Romack never played an official round with Eisenhower because he later told her his salty language might not be suitable. But she was invited to the White House in 1954 following her Women’s Amateur triumph for a luncheon that included Bob Jones, boxer Gene Tunney and other top athletes.
“The best thing from my amateur [and professional days] are the friendships that have kept on for many years,” Romack said in the 2002 Golf Journal article on her biggest accomplishments.
Romack’s history with the USGA began in 1949; she competed in the inaugural U.S. Girls’ Junior at Philadelphia (Pa.) Country Club’s Bala Course, losing in the semifinals to eventual champion and fellow Californian Marlene Bauer.
Prior to her Women’s Amateur triumph, Romack won the 1952 North & South Amateur at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club and the 1953 Canadian Women’s Amateur. She also won the California Women’s Amateur every other year from 1952-58.
Then at Allegheny Country Club, she faced a familiar foe in the Women’s Amateur final. Despite inclement weather forcing the afternoon round of the final to be played the next day, Romack prevailed.
Romack made it back to a final four years later, but lost to Anne Quast, 3 and 2, at Wee Burn Country Club in Darien, Conn. But Romack said her most disheartening defeat came three years earlier in the British Ladies Open Amateur final to Jesse Valentine at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland, which denied her from owning both the American and British titles at the same time.
While Romack told Sports Illustrated she had no aspirations of turning professional, Fred Corcoran, one of the most connected figures in the game at the time, convinced Romack to do so and he lined up several sponsors. Romack joined the LPGA Tour in 1958 and played until 1977, winning the 1960 Leesburg Pro-Am and the 1963 Rock City Ladies Open. She augmented her earnings by teaching, something she did well after she retired from the tour, and often free of charge to juniors.
She was briefly married to Edward Wayne “Bud” Porter, an assistant golf professional at a course in Sacramento, but in her later years, Romack lived with longtime friend Rhonda Glenn, who passed away in February 2015 from cancer. Romack traveled with Glenn, a former USGA communications manager, to many championships, including the U.S. Women’s Open, and her kindred spirit and knowledge of the women’s game was invaluable to media members covering the events.