Minnesota golf legend Patty Berg dies

Patty Berg won a record 15 major championships on the LPGA Tour.

Zach Eisendrath

Minnesota alumna Patty Berg, one of the founders of the Ladies Professional Golf Association, will be remembered just as much for her remarkable accomplishments on the golf course as her contributions off it.

Berg, who golfed for the Gophers in the late 1930s, died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease shortly after midnight Sunday in Fort Myers, Fla. She was 88.

The Minneapolis native is notable for being an instrumental figure in breaking down barriers to women’s participation in athletics at the collegiate and professional levels.

Minnesota Athletics Director Joel Maturi said Berg didn’t look at herself as a pioneer, but she understood the road her actions were paving.

“Patty Berg represented a great deal to the University,” he said. “(She represented) certainly most significantly, that female student-athletes can be successful; not only as students at the University of Minnesota, but life beyond in the venue or in the field of sport.”

However, Berg’s accomplishments on the course should not be disregarded.

In total, Berg won 29 career amateur tournaments and recorded 57 LPGA Tour wins. Most notably, Berg holds the tour record with 15 major championships won.

A three-time tour money leader (1954, 1955 and 1957), Berg also picked up her share of hardware for her feats, winning The Associated Press’ Female Athlete of the Year on three occasions: 1936, 1943 and 1955.

Berg took a unique path to becoming the respected player she was.

After picking up her first set of golf clubs at age 13, Berg won her first amateur tournament, the Minneapolis City Championship, three years later at 16.

Still as an amateur, she won the Titleholders Championship in 1937, giving Berg her first major title.

After a stint with the Gophers – which included winning the U.S. Women’s Amateur in 1938 – Berg turned professional in 1940.

But Berg saw her pro career come to a temporary halt in 1941 after she suffered a knee injury in a car accident, sidelining her for 18 months.

The following year Berg decided to take on a new challenge – the Marine Corps. During World War II, Berg served as a lieutenant, and in 2003, she was inducted into the U.S. Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame.

After Berg completed her 2 1/2 years of service, she turned her attention back to golf.

In 1948, Berg, along with 12 others, helped create the LPGA. She served as its first president from 1948 to 1952. LPGA Commissioner Carolyn F. Bivens said in a news release that while she mourns Berg’s passing, her legacy will live on.

“As a founder of the LPGA, Patty took the LPGA to new heights, and it was the work, passion and dedication that she and her fellow co-founders exhibited that has allowed the LPGA to grow and prosper for so many years,” she said.

To demonstrate Berg’s importance to the University, the athletics department created the Patty Berg Fund in 1976. Last fall, the University set out to celebrate Berg on a larger scale, creating the Patty Berg Legacy Scholar-Athlete Award.

Maturi said the award is meant to represent not just Berg as an athlete, but it also takes into account some of the personal attributes that made Berg stand out.

“We think it honors what Patty Berg stood for,” Maturi said. “She was not only a great athlete – one of the greatest – but also a tremendous representative of this institution from a student standpoint, as well as the things she did socially and from a service standpoint worldwide.”

The first-ever recipient of the award was Kelly Stephens, a mainstay on Minnesota’s three-straight national championship hockey teams, who received the award as a senior in 2005.

Stephens said Berg is a role model of hers, and that she should be to all women. Many of the opportunities female athletes have are available because of Berg, she said.

“I know that many of the things that I’ve been able to do are because of women like Patty Berg, who have basically set the groundwork for the rest of us,” Stephens said.

Even after her playing days, Berg continued to receive recognition.

In 1967 Berg became one of the six inaugural inductees into the LPGA Hall of Fame. Eleven years later, the LPGA honored her by creating the Patty Berg Award. The award is given to the female golfer who has made the greatest contribution to the sport during the year. Berg won her very own award in 1990.

Maturi, who is also a member of the All-American Collegiate Hall of Fame and Minnesota Women’s Athletics Department Hall of Fame, said Berg’s contributions will not soon be forgotten.

“She obviously was a pioneer. She was one of the first and one of the greatest,” Maturi said. “But we have other Patty Bergs, and our culture has not embraced the visibility of female athletics to the extent yet as it has male athletes and male teams. Although, I think we are slowly going in the right direction.”