Susie Maxwell Berning once withdrew from a professional tournament in San Diego because she couldn’t find a babysitter. When she was racking up LPGA titles in the 1960s and ’70s, the tour didn’t provide childcare.
Raising daughters Robin and Cindy while winning 11 times on the pro circuit – a number that included four majors – added volumes to a career that will now be honored with a place in the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Maxwell Berning, 78, was announced Wednesday as the final member of the four-person World Golf Hall of Fame class of 2021. She joins pioneering architect Marion Hollins, former PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem and Tiger Woods. She and Woods own the same number of U.S. Open titles: three.
“I know I won all my Opens before Tiger was born,” Maxwell Berning said when asked about that connection.
As a teen in Oklahoma, Maxwell Berning dominated the amateur circuit, winning the Oklahoma City Women’s Amateur crown from 1959-61.
Abe Lemons, the men’s golf coach at Oklahoma City University, took notice. She took her place on the men’s team there and Lemons nicknamed her “Sam.” She recalls the whole thing positively. Her teammates and opponents were kind, though sometimes surprised to see her. Once, at an event in Wichita, the opposing coach kept waiting for Sam to get out of the team van, not making the connection that it was her.
“He said, ‘Well, Mr. Lemons, where is Sam Maxwell?’ And he said, ‘Here’s Sam,’ and pointed to me,” Maxwell Berning remembered. “One of the boys I know said, she’s No. 4 on the team and I’ve got to play her? And his reaction was, wow, he was just shocked that he had to play.”
Oklahoma City, which now competes on the NAIA level, did eventually launch a women’s program in 2000. The program annually hosts a tournament in her name.
Asked to describe herself as a player, Maxwell Berning highlighted her focus on par. She was never one to make a lot of birdies.
“It’s crazy, but I think I tried harder when the putt was for par than it was for birdie,” she said. “I know that doesn’t make much sense, but par just meant something to me.”
It explains, perhaps, why her Women’s Open count went up so fast. On tough venues, determination to make par is important.
Maxwell Berning came through the LPGA long before any kind of baby boom hit. She was the Rookie of the Year in 1964 and won the Western Open, her first major, the next year. The three U.S. Women’s Open titles that followed over the next nine years are easy enough to distinguish.
In 1968, when she won her first, she had only been married seven weeks. She gave birth to daughter Robin in 1970 and brought her along as a toddler to Winged Foot when she won in 1972. Robin was two and a half when her mother won again at the Country Club of Rochester the next year.
“My mind was more relaxed than some golfers who would go home and fret about the round and worry about the next day,” she said. “Motherhood probably helped me.”
As smooth as Maxwell Berning makes it sound, she was one of the only women out there doing it. Judy Rankin, a fellow Hall of Famer who now works as a golf broadcaster, was a dear friend and stood beside Maxwell Berning as maid of honor in her wedding. Rankin’s son Tuey was a year older than Robin. She could sometimes help with babysitters, but eventually, Maxwell Berning was bringing one on the road with her.
Eventually, she was competing only in the summers.
“There were very few of us that tried to play the Tour and had young children out there at the time,” she said. “And of course that’s why I didn’t play much. After 1977, I only played in the summer because then Robin was school age, and we weren’t going to yank her out of school for me to go play.”
When she and Robin competed in the 1989 Konica San Jose Classic, they became the first mother-daughter duo to play the same LPGA event. Robin played collegiately for San Jose State before transferring to Ohio State. Younger daughter Cindy never had a lesson but developed a beautiful swing regardless. Both caddied on tour eventually – sometimes for her and sometimes for others, even Patty Sheehan – and Maxwell Berning thinks they both enjoyed it.
For her, family has always enhanced the experience.
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