Betsy Rawls, who won eight major golf championships, including four United States Women’s Opens, in the first two decades of the L.P.G.A. Tour, and as an executive and tournament director helped propel the arrival of the women’s pro circuit as a big-money attraction, died on Saturday at her home in Lewes, Del. She was 95.
Her death was confirmed by the Ladies Professional Golf Association.
Rawls was the first four-time Women’s Open champion, winning in 1951, 1953, 1957 and 1960, a record matched only by Mickey Wright, who captured her fourth Open in 1964. She won a total of 55 L.P.G.A. Tour events between 1951 and 1972.
Her other major victories came at the Women’s Western Open in 1952 and 1959 and the Women’s P.G.A. Championship in 1959 and 1969. She was a three-time runner-up during the 1950s in the other major tournament of her time, the Titleholders Championship, and was among the six original inductees into the L.P.G.A. Tour Hall of Fame in 1967. She was also inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Rawls received the 1996 Bob Jones Award, the United States Golf Association’s highest honor, and the L.P.G.A.’s 50th Anniversary Commissioner’s Award in 2000 for her contributions to women’s golf. She was selected in 1980 as the first woman to serve on the rules committee for the men’s United States Open.
Elizabeth Earle Rawls was born on May 4, 1928, in Spartanburg, in northern South Carolina, one of two children of Robert and Mary (Earle) Rawls. In the early 1940s, the family moved to Texas, where Elizabeth’s father worked as an engineer at an aircraft plant in Arlington, a suburb of Dallas, during World War II.
Robert Rawls, who had played golf as a young man in Indiana, hired Harvey Penick, one of the game’s most renowned teachers, to give Betsy her first lesson when she was 17. Penick charged $3 for that one-hour session at the Austin Country Club and remained her coach, free of charge, for her entire career. “He always brought me back to the basic mechanics on which a good swing is built,” Rawls recalled in “Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book: Lessons and Teachings From a Lifetime in Golf.”
Her strong suit was the short game. “I had a reputation of being able to get the ball up and down out of a garbage can,” she told The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., in 2010. “The sand wedge, off the fairway or out of the rough, was my best club. I could get it down in two from almost any place. I was a good putter under pressure.”
Rawls graduated from the University of Texas in 1950, earning a bachelor’s degree with concentrations in physics and mathematics. She also finished an astonishing second, behind Babe Zaharias, as an amateur in the Women’s Open in 1950, the L.P.G.A. Tour’s inaugural season.
She turned pro in 1951 after Wilson sporting goods recruited her to join its staff of leading players, who were giving clinics on its behalf around the country. That year she bested Louise Suggs by five strokes to capture the Open.
At the time Wilson paid her expenses, along with a salary that she recalled was about $3,000 a year (around $35,000 in today’s dollars), since prize money at the time was meager.
She led the tour in victories in 1952, 1957 and in 1959, when she set single-season records with 10 wins (two in majors), $26,744 in earnings and the lowest scoring average per round, 74.03, bringing her the women’s Vare Trophy.
She got a break in winning the 1957 Open, at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, N.Y.
Jackie Pung of Hawaii finished with a four-round total of 298 to Rawls’s 299. But officials quickly noticed that Pung’s playing partner, Betty Jameson, who was keeping score for Pung, had listed a 5 on the fourth hole of the last round though she had actually scored a 6. Pung had made the same error in keeping score for Jameson, who wasn’t in contention for the victory.
Although Pung’s card showed a correct total score, she was disqualified, as was Jameson, the automatic penalty under golf’s rules for a player who hands in a card with an incorrect score on any hole.
So the championship, along with $1,800 in prize money, went to Rawls.
“It’s always great to win, I guess, but I sure hate to do it this way,” United Press International quoted Rawls as saying. “I feel sorry for Jackie.”
But Pung wound up as the No. 1 money winner: Members of the Winged Foot Club, distressed over her losing the title on a technicality, raised about $3,000 to ease her loss.
Rawls was the L.P.G.A.’s president in 1961 and 1962 and its tournament director for six years following her retirement from competition in 1975. After that, she was the executive director of the McDonald’s Championship, which was discontinued in 1994 when it became the longtime sponsor of the L.P.G.A. Championship. Continuing in her post with that major event, she helped raise millions of dollars for charity.
Rawls was treated for breast cancer in 2000 but continued overseeing the L.P.G.A. event, played at the DuPont Country Club in Wilmington, Del. She retired from her executive director’s post in 2002 but stayed on as the tournament’s vice board chairman.
Rawls’s brother, Robert Rawls Jr., died in 1992. She had no immediate survivors.
Rawls earned $302,664 in her 25-year career on the pro tour, landing below the top 450 on the L.P.G.A.’s current earnings list.
“Today I look at the money they play for with amazement, but not with envy or bitterness,” Rawls told The Philadelphia Inquirer shortly before receiving the Bob Jones Award. “In the beginning, we played for so little that money wasn’t the motivating factor. But when I won, it seemed like it was a lot of money at the time. I enjoyed winning when I did.”