Ellen Port (USGA photo)
first competitive round came in a women’s league at Bahnfyre Golf Course in her hometown of St. Louis over 30 years ago.
She hit her first two tee balls out of bounds.
“Go find it and hit it again,” Port recalled.
She did find it and has been hitting pretty well ever since. A wife, mother of two, former coach and teacher, Port has compiled an impressive amateur resume highlighted by her seven USGA championships, three Curtis Cup appearances, two as a player and one as a coach, and a staggering 16 Metropolitan Women’s Amateur titles.
She has also been recognized by the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association as one of St. Louis’ Top-100 athletes of all time and is a member of three halls of fame.
Though she says, “it’s like comparing apples to oranges,” Port has won as many USGA titles as World Golf Hall of Fame member Carol Semple Thompson and three-time U.S. Women’s Amateur champion Anne Quast Sander, trailing only JoAnne Carner among women. Bobby Jones and Tiger Woods share the record for most overall wins in USGA championships with nine each.
Last year, she reached the finals of the U.S. Women’s Senior Amateur and was the co-low amateur in the U.S. Senior Women’s Open at Brooklawn Country Club, where she finished tied for 20th overall. She made more history in August, when she became the first woman to win the Metropolitan Senior Amateur Championship, MAGA's premier senior men’s championship, prevailing in a four-hole playoff.
“That’s a beautiful trophy, and like I said in my speech, that trophy doesn’t know if it’s a man or a woman holding it, it just knows it’s someone who loves golf,” Port told the MAGA as she held the George F. Meyer trophy.
Ellen Port has won seven USGA titles
With her track record, one would think Port was a golf prodigy while growing up in St. Louis. Nothing can be further from the truth.
She played tennis at the University of Missouri and though she was introduced to the game by her father, didn’t even take up the sport until she was 25 when she joined the faculty at John Burroughs School in her hometown of St. Louis where she also coached tennis, track, basketball, field hockey and boys’ and girls’ golf.
“I thought it was a stupid game because I wasn’t very good at it,” said Port. “I was really good at other sports and it was hard to get that ball in the air.”
She eventually met her future husband Andy, a golfer, who took her to the Tower Tee driving range on one of their first dates. He recognized Ellen’s tremendous potential and encouraged her to take the game a little more seriously.
“He told me I could be pretty good if I put my mind to it.”
With that vote of confidence, Port was off and running. Seven USGA championships later, Andy remains her favorite playing companion at Sunset Country Club in St. Louis, where the couple has been members for 30 years.
In this installment of “A Quick Nine,” Ellen shares her story about her start in golf, her USGA career and the women’s amateur game today.
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A Quick Nine with Ellen Port
Your first sport was tennis. What made you gravitate to golf?
I was preparing to move to St. Louis right after college for my first teaching/coaching job and I just happened to see my dad’s old Wilson Staff blades down in the basement and asked him if I could take them to St. Louis. Dad had introduced me to the game as a kid, planting the seeds, but they didn't really begin to grow until I graduated from college and was done playing all the other sports. I guess I gravitated to golf by default.
Did the game come easy to you?
It came easy in the sense that I was extremely athletic. I possessed above-average hand-eye coordination and my strength and power certainly allowed me to play fairly proficiently as a beginner. But I had a lot to learn about the game. I had no understanding of path or impact. I remember playing in my first U.S. Amateur on Pinehurst No. 2 and I didn't really know how to come out of a bunker. I think I finished last in qualifying or close to there anyway. I have never thought golf to be "easy".
I would always get a chuckle when my high school boys would tell me that a course or a hole was "easy". When Old Man Par would then get the better of them on the "easy" course and they botched the "easy” hole, I would then remind them of their words and add, " As long as I'm swinging the club I will never say anything is easy when it comes to golf." I think they got the point.
With 7 USGA Championships to your credit, how does it feel to see your name up there with the likes of Bobby Jones, Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and JoAnne Carner?
I have never put my name up there with these golfers. In my mind, it is like comparing apples and oranges. I am a very good amateur golfer who has certainly had my fair share of success when it comes to USGA Championships but I am not really in the same league with those four champions who have won multiple U.S. Juniors, U.S. Amateurs, U.S. Opens, British Opens, PGA Championships, etc. I certainly acknowledge that making it to nine USGA Championship finals and winning seven of them is noteworthy and very special, but I also am aware that I have been in three U.S. Women’s Opens and missed the cut each time.
Your husband, Andy, has served as your caddy for many of your triumphs. How influential has he been to your success on the course?
Andy is the backbone of our family and really my golf. He always told our kids that we’re a team and on this golf journey together. Early on he recognized my passion and ability and was committed to helping me reach my dreams and goals. For example, he rigged up a heater and a hitting net in our screened-in porch so I could work on my swing during the cold winter months. He would often send me down to Hank Haney’s Golf Ranch on Mother's Day weekend. What a great Mother’s Day gift! Although Andy has caddied for me in most USGA events he would often forfeit this job to stay home with the kids as he knew it brought me great peace of mind.
My all-time best caddy story involving Andy came at the U.S. Women’s Mid- Amateur at Wichita Country Club. I had a tough lie in a fairway bunker with the flagstick tucked in a precarious position. I was up in the match and my opponent was in some trouble on the hole. Andy suggested I lay up and position myself for the next shot. I wanted to go for it because I just knew I could pull off the shot. After two attempts the ball remained in the bunker. Once again he tried to talk some sense into me, but I was determined – or stupid -- and he said, “Ok, go for it Tin Cup!” I did get the ball up near the green on my third attempt. Needless to say, we had a lively exchange as we walked towards the green. To this day, we still laugh about this story.
What’s the best piece of golf advice you’ve ever received?
Early on in my career, I was trying to decide between two events that conflicted with each other. One was a bigger national event and the other was a local competition. Hank Haney advised me to play in the one I had the best shot of winning. He knew at this juncture it was important for me to gain confidence and winning at any level breeds confidence.
The second piece of advice is more recent and comes from Steve Johnson who this year has helped me get back on track with all aspects of my golf game. It's pretty fundamental advice but I needed to hear it and take heed of it -- have a plan for each shot and make correct rehearsals before each shot. I am not sure if this was advice or command but regardless, it has narrowed my focus and helped me tremendously.
What impresses you the most about the young female amateurs today?
I am very impressed with the technically sound full swings of the young players today and the power/speed behind these swings. I am also impressed with the quality of their short games. So many of the young players have the complete package at a very early age. I started competing when I was 25 just as the youth golf boom was beginning. I knew it was only a matter of time before the under 18 crowd would start dominating events like the North & South, the Trans National, the Western and the U.S. Women’s Amateur.
When I played in the 2018 U.S. Women’s Amateur, I think the average age was 19 and there were only a handful of players over 30 in the field. It's been very exciting to see the birth of multiple junior golf tours and events which have given young girls so many opportunities to test their skills and learn how to compete but more importantly to experience all the other wonderful aspects of the game. That said, the pendulum has swung for me. I am now more impressed with the games of the over 25-year-old crowd who choose to continue to compete while juggling work and family. I am also grateful that there is an increased number of tournaments for mid-amateurs and seniors springing up all over the country. For the good of the game, we need to keep both of these trends going.
As a former coach, what did you try to instill in your players?
I simply tried to instill a love of the game in all my players. How I did this looked different for each player depending on their goals and desires.
Favorite courses you’ve played?
It's a three-way tie. My favorite courses are my three home courses in St. Louis -- Sunset Country Club, Fox Run Golf Club and Boone Valley Country Club. These are the courses that I know the best and I never grow tired of playing them. These are the courses that I play with friends and family. These are the courses where I always feel welcome. There is a reason a course is called "home."
What are some of your interests outside of golf?
Spending time with family and friends no matter what we are doing is my main interest. Growing in my Christian faith and being involved in our church community is also a priority in my life. I dabble in a few other things, but nothing compares to activities involving my family, friends, faith or golf.
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The Ellen Port File
Sept. 21, 1961
St. Louis, Mo.
Drew and Katie
Sunset Country Club
Port’s Seven USGA Championship Victories
1995 U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur
1996 U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur
2000 U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur
2011 U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur
2012 U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur
2013 U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur
2016 U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur
1994, ’96 and 2014 (captain)
Halls of Fame
Missouri Sports Hall of Fame
St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame
Missouri Golf Association Hall of Fame