My aunt, Mary Lena Faulk, who would have turned 90 on Friday, was one of the winningest professional golfers from Georgia. She was born in Chipley, Florida, where, at age 12, she was the city champion in tennis, which was the big thing in her life until the family moved to Thomasville.
Mary Lena was 14 when the family moved to Thomasville. Grandaddy owned the Faulk Chevrolet dealership on South Broad Street where The Plaza Restaurant currently sits.
She continued to play golf and tennis while attending Thomasville High School where she was the junior class president in 1942-43 and her senior class president in 1943-44. After high school, Mary Lena went to Ward Belmont College in Nashville, Tennessee, and when she returned home from college, she began to get serious about golf and began to practice with a purpose.
In 1946, she won her first of three consecutive Georgia State Women’s Amateur Championships. She soon decided to join up with some other ladies and play what became known as the Florida Orange Blossom Circuit, which featured a dozen tournaments from January to March and took advantage of the warm golfing climate that Florida offered.
In 1951, she found the winner’s circle at the Florida East Coast Women’s Golf Tournament in St. Augustine, where she beat one of her chief rivals and future Hall of Famer Betsy Rawls en route to the title. During this time, she was competing as an amateur regularly against the great Babe Zaharias. The Babe was a larger-than-life figure in women's golf. She was married to former pro wrestler from the 1930s George Zaharias. Ed Kelly of the Thomasville Times-Enterprise was invited to lunch with Babe and George during one of Babe’s visits here. He wrote a story for the paper with a headline which read, “Mary Lena To Hit Top Babe Predicts Here.” And she did soon after the announcement by winning the tournament at Fort Smith, Arkansas.
In 1952, she teamed with Don Bisplinghoff, a 17-year-old future University of Florida star, to play in the Orlando Mixed Two-Ball Tournament. She and Bisplinghoff defeated Future LPGA Hall of Famer Louise Suggs and PGA regular Tony Penna. In the next match, they met “Slammin’ Sammy” Snead and his partner. Mary Lena and Don matched Snead’s team birdie for birdie and were victorious before losing in the semifinals.
In June 1953, she travelled across the Atlantic to the southern coast of Wales to play in the British Ladies Amateur Championship at Royal Porthcawl Golf Club. She would be the only challenger from America that year and lost in the semifinals.
Her goal in 1953 was to win the Women’s National Amateur that September at the Rhode Island Country Club in Providence, Rhode Island. She tuned up for the ’53 amateur by winning the Annual Point Judith Invitational in Narragansett the week prior. The newspapers touted Mary Lena as a strong favorite to win. However, she lost her golf clubs. Her clubs were shipped back from Britain by ship while she flew home. She quickly got in touch with friend Peggy Kirk and borrowed a set of irons. She added a set of woods she had long before put away. Finding a putter in the garage at the house, her set was complete. In the finals, a crowd of 8,000 watched the 36-hole match in the 95-degree heat. Her win earned her an automatic birth on the prestigious 1954 Curtis Cup team.
When she returned to Thomasville, a parade was held in her honor. Mayor Frank Eidson presented Mary Lena with a proclamation declaring it “Mary Lena Faulk Day.” She was also presented the key to the xity. Incidentally, Mary Lena returned to defend her Women’s Amateur title in 1954 but lost in the semifinals to future Hall of Famer Mickey Wright.
By this time, she had won three straight Georgia State Women’s Championships, played on the Curtis Cup team and won the U.S. Amateur. She had accomplished about all she could at the amateur level and it was time to make a move. She said, “When I told my mother that I wanted to play golf professionally, mother said, ‘No.’ But my Dad said, ‘Go.’” She then borrowed $500 from her mother to get started. She won her first individual title at the Kansas City Open along with $900.
One of her biggest mistakes as a pro was her just trying to help someone out. Tour newcomer Wright, who beat Mary Lena in the 1954 US Women’s Amateur, was struggling with her putting early in her tour career. Mary Lena gave her a Bull’s-Eye putter and told her to stick with it and don’t change like everyone likes to do. And boy did Wright stay with it! After receiving the putter, she won 81 of her 82 pro tournaments and made it into the Hall of Fame! The putter is now in the Mickey Wright section of the USGA museum.
In 1961, during 17 days in June, she won three straight events, including what was then a major tournament, The Western Open, held at the Belle Meade Country Club in Nashville, Tennessee. Her winnings for those three tournaments totaled a then-staggering $3,360!
The Spalding Company came out with the Mary Lena Faulk Synchrodyned Spalding Top Flite clubs. I learned to play using a set of these clubs.
In her career, she won 12 titles and finished second 16 times. Retirement found her teaching golf at the prestigious Broadmoor Golf Club in Colorado Springs for 16 summers. She spent 13 winters at the Ben Sutton Golf School in Florida and also taught at the Westchester Country Club in Rye, New York.
In 1993, she became the sixth woman to be inducted into the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame. Mary Lena lost her battle with cancer on August 5, 1995. A memorial service was held for her at Glen Arven. We went out to the 6th hole where she had asked me to spread her ashes on the backside of the green. She chose this spot before she died saying, “If you turned around you could see the most holes of the course from that one spot.” And she was right.