30 Sep 2020 | Professional golf | Industry news | Feature stories |

The matter of Margie Masters

by Contributor

The victorious Margie Masters (right) shakes hands with Burtta Cheney after the 1962 Victorian Women’s Amateur Championship final. Picture: Golf Society Australia, first published in the GSA journal "The Long Game".
The victorious Margie Masters (right) shakes hands with Burtta Cheney after the 1962 Victorian Women’s Amateur Championship final. Picture: Golf Society Australia, first published in the GSA journal "The Long Game".

By Karen Harding With the passing of Peter Thomson, the mantle of oldest Australian golfer to win on a major US tour shifted to Margie Masters. Many might be surprised to learn that; indeed, she herself was expecting it to be Bruce Crampton. But, no, the records show that at 86 to Crampton’s 85, she has the honour.

Like many of her sporting compatriots who have travelled overseas to play professional sport and then settled there, Margie’s influence in Australian golf has been dimmed by distance and time. But make no mistake, there is much more to her than simply outliving every other US tour winner.

As the first Aussie to play on the Ladies Professional Golf Association Tour, Margie has been described as a “pioneer” of Australian women’s professional golf – and that she is. But she is also responsible for a decision in United States immigration law that opened the way for other athletes wanting to ply their trade in that country.

Little could she have known or dreamed of making such an impact when she was a youngster riding her bike in the Victorian seaside town of Frankston.

Born in Swan Hill, Margie moved to the Mornington Peninsula with her family just as she was entering her teens. Her parents played golf at a nearby municipal course, the land of which is now part of the local hospital. It wasn’t long before Margie thought she might try it.

In shades of the famous story of Seve Ballesteros learning golf whacking balls round with a three-iron on the beach at Pedrena, Spain, Margie was sent into a bunker at Frankston Municipal with a three-iron and a large bucket of balls while her dad played his round. Don’t go back to the clubhouse until you can come out of there, she was told. So she got to it. It was the roots of a solid work ethic that served her throughout her golfing life.

As her proficiency grew under coach George Naismith, so did her dedication. In her teens she would ride to Long Island with her clubs over her shoulder. To play pennant, she would have to take a train, sometimes two, then possibly a bus, all the while carrying her clubs. Then when she left school: “I started work in a local pharmacy. I’d get up at 5am and ride the bike about three or four miles up to Long Island to practise, ride to work, then ride to a public course at lunchtime and hit balls and then hit balls again at night. I worked very hard on my golf and I got somewhere because of that,” she recalled.

She certainly did. Consider this record as an amateur: after joining Woodlands in 1950 – this year marks 70 years ago – on a handicap of +2, she won the first of nine club championships in 1952 as a 19-year-old, winning again each year from 1953-57 and again in 1960, ’62 and ‘63. She won four Victorian Junior Girls Championships on the trot from 1951-54 and five Victorian Women’s Amateur championships in 1957, ‘59, ’61, ’62 and ‘63. She was in the Victorian team continuously from 1952 to 1962 and represented Australia in national teams between 1954 and 1962 inclusive.

And then there’s her international amateur wins – in 1956 she claimed the New Zealand title and in ‘57 raised the South African trophy. In 1958 she won both the Australian Women’s Amateur Championship and the Australian Foursomes Championship with Queensland’s talented Joan Fletcher. She set a number of course records, including, remarkably, sharing a course record at Woodlands with legendary Burtta Cheney when both shot 78 on July 23, 1957, only for Margie to better it solo the very next day with a 76. She set an unofficial record at Woodlands with a 69 in 1964 and recalls shooting a casual 64 there one other day around that same time.

That’s some good golf. Good enough to also earn her the 1964 Canadian Amateur title, which set in motion her professional career.

Margie was already interested in the happenings at professional level and her win in Canada was further encouragement. “I used to look at the scores the professionals were shooting and I knew I could shoot them,” she said. “I had a sponsor for a while (friends of golf writer Don Lawrence) and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just have a tryout’. And, actually, it turned out pretty well, I just got out there and got my card and went from there and that was it.”

In her first year as a pro, she amassed the princely sum of $US7785 to finish 16th on the money list and was awarded the 1965 Rookie of the Year award. The first three years of her professional career were particularly strong. In majors, she finished tied 11th in the 1965 Women’s PGA behind Sandra Haynie, tied second in the 1966 Western Open to Mickey Wright, and seventh in the 1967 US Women’s Open, famously won by 22-year-old amateur Catherine Lacoste.

The climax of her career were her two wins in 1967, the first in the Quality Chek’d Classic at Lake Waco, Texas, where she defeated Carol Mann, Kathy Whitworth and Mickey Wright by a shot. “I played the last round with two of the best players on tour (Whitworth and Wright) and they were lovely to play with, very kind.” For context, Mann won 38 LPGA titles including two majors, Whitworth 88 titles including six majors and Wright 82 titles including 13 majors.

She remains particularly impressed with one of those stars. “I feel like I played with the best player that there ever will be in Mickey Wright. She had the best swing I’ve ever seen. Even Ben Hogan, who played out of the same club she did in Texas, said she had the best swing, man or woman, that he’d seen and when he says something like that, he means it. She was just brilliant. If she was playing today, she’d still be a world beater,” she said. Wright passed away recently, just three days after her 85th birthday.

Margie’s other win was the Yankee Teams Championship with her great friend, 11-time LPGA Tour winner Clifford Ann Creed. With Creed, she would later play in an exhibition match at Bairnsdale in country Victoria, her most vivid recollection being the less-than-thrilled reaction of Women’s Golf Victoria officials to their outfits.

“We came out looking a bit different; it was probably hard for them to accept. We were used to Bermuda shorts and slacks but here they were, still wearing a shirt and tie in interstate teams events,” she said.

What did change on her watch was passage in and out of the US for professional athletes. “Every six months I would have to go out of the country and come back in; I’d go into Mexico or Canada and then come back. It was very frustrating,” she said. With the assistance of an immigration official with whom she had become friendly on her many trips in and out, Margie made application for reclassification as a preference immigrant under the new provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. This Act, also known as the Hart-Celler Act, amended the Act of 1952, known as the McCarran-Walter Act, and replaced the National Origins formula, which had applied since the 1920s, with a seven-category preference system.

The National Origins Formula had been challenged for some time as being discriminatory. Abolishing it and overhauling immigration policy was an important pillar of President John F. Kennedy’s strategy to address the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Though it was ultimately President Lyndon Johnson who signed the new Act into law in 1965, JFK’s brothers Bobby and Ted, both senators, strongly continued his support of the bill after his assassination in 1963.

Section 203 (a)(3) of the new Act provided for availability of visas giving indefinite residency (known as the green card) for persons of “exceptional ability in sciences or arts who would substantially benefit prospectively the national economy, cultural interest or welfare of the United States”. In the decision handed down in her favour on January 22, 1969, Margie was deemed to be an entertainer displaying exceptional ability in the arts. The decision is known as the Matter of Masters.

“A lot of other sportspeople. Including a very good tennis player, were then able to come in under that category after that, so I was quite proud of it,” Margie reflected. She entered dual citizenship of the US and Australia in 2016.

With her playing career more settled, Margie continued as a solid member of the LPGA until 1979 when she retired. “I think I’d had enough,” she said. “I was getting older and, you know, you give as much as you can. You know when your time comes.”

A tenure as a teacher in Michigan followed. Though she may have left her playing career, deserved accolades still followed. In 2004 she was made an honorary member at Woodlands and entered its Hall of Fame in 2007. In 2013 she was honoured with Victorian Hall of Fame induction.

Margie now lives in Tucson, Arizona, surrounded by friends and her much adored chihuahua, Lucy. Significant injuries, the result of repetitive stress from years of dedicated practice, have dogged her though. In a rough trot, she recovered from two serious ankle surgeries, only to suffer a stress fracture of her lower spine in 2018, and currently uses a walker to take Lucy out and about. It’s not what she expected, nor what she likes, but she has nothing but happy memories of her time as an LPGA player.

“I’ve met so many wonderful people in my life through golf. It’s just been a joy to be able to have seen all those places and meet all those people. We had a really great bunch of girls play on tour. We never made great money compared to today, but it was a good time. I’ve had a really wonderful life.”

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