Jeff Kolpack, Published April 19 2014
A league of her own: Bev Hanson leaves a golf legacy as Fargo's forgotten star
When it comes to one of the greatest sports figures to ever come out of Fargo, that’s about all the town has left to hang on to. One majestic, classy photograph of her holding a trophy that is still given today to the winner of the tournament.
The picture may be worth 1,000 words, as they say, but let’s start with one word that describes the 1941 graduate of Fargo Central High School.
It’s unfortunate, however, that hardly anybody around here knows about her anymore.
“I don’t think people fully appreciate what she accomplished,” said Jay Sfingi, her son.
Beverly Hanson died a week ago Saturday at the age of 89. She lived a life of many, whether it was traveling the country playing golf or teaching countless students for several decades.
“She was one great gal, I have to tell you,” said Steve Gorman of Fargo.
Gorman went to Sacred Heart Academy (now Fargo Shanley), Hanson to Central, but their parents were both members of the Fargo Country Club. Gorman actually caddied for her on a couple of occasions. He and his wife last saw her about four years ago in California.
“I don’t think she was ever acknowledged for what she accomplished,” Gorman said. “She wasn’t looking for the headlines. Just a great gal. Wonderful person.”
When Sports Illustrated came out with the top 50 sports figures in North Dakota a few years ago, Bev Hanson was nowhere to be found. It’s ironic, actually, since she was portrayed in the magazine’s “Faces in the Crowd” segment in 1958 for being the leading money winner on the LPGA Tour.
Yes, that tour.
Oh, there’s more to that story. Much more.
Bev Hanson, a girl who didn’t play golf in high school because Fargo Central didn’t have a team, was the first-ever winner of the LPGA Championship in 1955. Her senior class biography in the 1941 Central yearbook lists her interests as pep club, orchestra, news reporter, publicity committee and basketball – but no mention of golf.
She may have dabbled playing at the club since her father was a member, but serious golf would wait until after college. She was a natural, relatively tall at almost 5-foot-9 with a slender, athletic build – a description that you’ll get from everybody that knew her.
She didn’t turn pro until 1951 – 10 years after high school. She was a 17-time LPGA Tour winner including two other majors besides the LPGA Championship: the Women’s Western Open in 1956 and the Titleholders Championship in 1958.
Roger Maris is the No. 1 North Dakota sports figure with his 61 home runs and world-renowned Major League Baseball career. Phil Jackson is No. 2 on the SI list. A strong case could be made for Hanson to be No. 3.
She’s Fargo’s lost star.
“She’s not only lost here, but she’s lost as a recognizable North Dakota athlete,” said Mark Johnson, the head professional at Fargo Country Club. “She’s just off the radar.”
Johnson, in his ninth year at the club, is doing his part to right a wrong. He has plans to take the club’s photo of Hanson and make a display that will more accurately reflect her elite career.
An effort by former Central classmates to earn her a Theodore Roosevelt Roughrider Award, an honor bestowed on North Dakota’s most prominent citizens, a few years ago didn’t materialize.
“One of the great athletes to come out of North Dakota, but she left the state before golf really got big for women,” said Fargo’s John Mark, for years a volunteer official with the USGA. “She was noted for how well she played her long irons. I never met her … one of those forgotten people I guess.”
A slow and steady fall in the F-M public eye
The reality of it is that everybody should shoulder the blame – starting with this newspaper that prides itself on being the historian of Fargo-Moorhead news. Ironically, Hanson was a journalism student in high school and college (she attended Mills College (Calif.), the University of North Dakota and Wisconsin) and worked at The Forum for one year.
When Amy Anderson from Oxbow, N.D., obtained her LPGA Tour card with an outstanding performance at the LPGA Qualifying School late last year, she was touted as being the first-ever woman from the F-M area to get her card. Not true.
But nobody corrected the error, either. Perhaps the best explanation is that Father Time cast too much of a buffer with Hanson and nobody bothered to close the gap.
“It’s too bad she wasn’t appreciated and that she didn’t know she was appreciated,” said Jane Grove of Fargo.
The last article in The Forum of Hanson was a 1982 piece comparing Grove’s quest to be a touring pro to what Hanson did in her day. It also is believed to be the last time a member of the Fargo-Moorhead media contacted Hanson, who was living in Indio, Calif.
“I do feel like things are different now,” Grove said. “Think about what she had to overcome when she was able to play. I don’t think people wanted to give women a lot of credit at that point, right? You were considered an oddity. Thank God for people like Bev.”
The slow and steady fall from the public eye in this region could be an interesting case study in public figures. Out of sight. Out of mind.
Hanson was a regular in the sports pages when she was winning, whether it be cartoon depictions or stories by former Forum sports editor Eugene Fitzgerald, who appeared to be her biggest booster. In one story the day after she won the 1950 U.S. Amateur, the lead paragraph was in reference to the writer:
“Fitz? We got it!” it read.
“Her golf was always printed in the Fargo Forum,” said Laura Dixon, who graduated from Fargo Central in 1946 and was Hanson’s neighbor for many years in California. “We always read about it. She was a great person. She really was. She had a wonderful sense of humor.”
The Forum has a couple of file folders devoted exclusively to Hanson, like it does to most public figures in the last century. A 1944 graduate of UND, she returned to Grand Forks in 2001 to receive the Sioux Award for her distinguished career.
It was a rare trip back to her home state. The articles dwindled over time and the last documented presence of her being in Fargo was in 1952 when she came to her parents’ home to recover from an automobile accident.
That doesn’t mean she didn’t care.
“Mom spoke so highly of North Dakota and being brought up in North Dakota,” said John Sfingi, her oldest son. “She never forgot Fargo.”
She never forgot Detroit Lakes, Minn., either, where she won two straight Pine-to-Palm titles at the Detroit Country Club. Records show she beat “Mrs. Larry Doyle” from Minneapolis 6 and 5 in 1944 and defeated Ruth Wilcox of Miami, 2 and 1 in 1945.
It was a period of time – from 1939-46 – when the Pine had a women’s championship field as well as a men’s. It wasn’t until Anderson making the championship flight in 2009 did women have a front page presence with the Pine.
Hanson retired from the LPGA Tour in 1961 while still in the prime of her career.
“She wanted to start her own family,” John Sfingi said. “Mom didn’t talk a lot on why she left the tour, but it was important to her to have a family and she wanted to start that chapter in her life.”
That same year, she married Andy Sfingi. A year later, the couple adopted an infant daughter, who died a short time later.
John and Jay were adopted in 1963.
LPGA Tour pioneers was small, elite group
John and Jay Sfingi live in Idaho. A week removed from their mother’s death, they were back to their daily grind – John as a veterinarian and Jay as an architect. Like a lot of Bev Hanson boosters, they too have questions why their mom wasn’t properly recognized on a national scale.
She was part of the pioneers of LPGA golf, after all, with the likes of Patty Berg, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Louise Suggs, Mickey Wright and Peggy Kirk Bell. Hanson and Kirk Bell were on the 1950 U.S. Curtis Cup team together, which resulted in an easy 7½-1½ win for the U.S. over Great Britain and Ireland.
“Nice girl, good player,” said Kirk Bell, now 92 years old and living in North Carolina. “I remember her as a tall girl. She was a good person, sorry to hear about her.”
Hanson edged Suggs 4 and 3 in her 1955 LPGA Championship win, a tourney that went to stroke play the following year. Suggs, who came to Fargo in 1950 to speak at a dinner honoring Hanson’s U.S. Amateur title, turned 90 last fall and was noted in a Golfweek article for her “tremendously classic swing.”
Wright joined the tour in 1955 – the same year Hanson won the LPGA – and won 82 career tournaments.
Berg, who died in 2006, and Didrikson Zaharias, who died in 1956, are members of the World Golf Hall of Fame – an honor the Sfingi brothers say should be bestowed on their mother. By criteria – at least two major victories or 15 or more approved tour wins – she qualifies.
“I look at all these wonderful lady golfers making it happen,” Jay Sfingi said. “My mom was right in the mix. Her record seems to stand pretty tall, at least where we sit. We feel it’s a travesty, but I also don’t understand how the system works.”
Said John: “I don’t know why the LPGA hasn’t given her the credit that we believe she deserves. I don’t know what happened, mom didn’t talk about it.”
If a “League of Their Own” is a movie associated with actor Tom Hanks and the female baseball players during World War II, then women’s pro golf should have its own movie from the 1950s.
“I think the ‘League of Their Own’ is a great analogy,” Jay said. “That group clearly put women’s golf on the map. The LPGA owes a massive debt of gratitude to those pioneers.”
Kirk Bell said the LPGA Tour in the early years consisted mainly of around 12 pro players and about 40 amateurs to fill the field for each tournament. She said if the pros didn’t have a sponsor, they couldn’t make it financially.
Hanson aligned with MacGregor. The LPGA headquarters still has file photographs of Hanson’s personalized MacGregor golf balls. Kirk Bell said she was sponsored by Spaulding and Didrikson Zaharias went with Wilson.
It’s not like the LPGA Tour today, to say the least. Hanson was tops on the Tour money list in 1958 earning $12,639. Kirk Bell was a rarity in travel arrangements, having by then earning her pilot’s license and flying to each tour event. She said other players would car pool to tournaments.
It’s a life that Fargo’s Georgia (Tainter) Goff could have probably had, but declined. She was on the same path as Hanson winning a Pine-to-Palm title of her own in 1946.
“Georgia was fabulous,” Jane Grove said. “I feel like those women were on a whole different plane than what I was. I played with her a lot.”
Grove remembers going into the Goff basement once and gawking at all the photos and trophies. She remembers one of Goff, Babe Zaharias and Bev Hanson.
All went pro – except Georgia.
“My mom never regretted the choice,” said John Goff, her son and a Fargo attorney. “She always said she never regretted going down that road. It seemed so lonely. That’s the way I remember in talking about Bev and Patty.”
Georgia died in 2003, but the rest of the family traveled to Pine Needles, N.C., two year ago, where Kirk Bell has taught for years since she retired from professional golf. They had dinner together.
“Peggy said mom was the best of all of them,” John Goff said. “Granted, she was talking to our family … but yeah, I have no doubt in my mind whatsoever that if she decided to go down that road she would have been a Patty Berg or a Bev Hanson.”
The swing: so smooth, yet hit the ball so hard
Her life was not devoid of near misses or tragedy, certainly. In an addition to losing an infant daughter, records show she was involved a serious car accident in 1952 when the vehicle she was riding in overturned near Schenectady, N.Y. A line in a newspaper story of the incident said she “narrowly escaped death.”
“She was in an Oldsmobile she purchased after winning a tournament,” John Sfingi said.
Another car accident in 1998 claimed the life of her husband, Andy, on a trip from California to Idaho. Bev was bruised but not seriously injured, Laura Dixon said. But their housekeeper, a woman named Carmen, who John said was like one of the family, was seriously injured.
“The roles changed,” Dixon said. “She became the caretaker for Carmen. I think that says a lot about her right there.”
Later in life, Hanson still kept her golf game intact. When Steve Gorman visited her a few years ago, they went for a walk around the block. They stopped at an open field, where Bev put a tennis ball on a tee, took her golf club and hit the ball straight and long. Her dog would fetch the ball, and bring it back.
And she would hit it again.
“That’s how she kept her swing smooth,” Gorman said.
It was smooth from the time she was a kid on the Fargo Country Club course.
“She had the whole game,” Gorman said. “She hit the ball so hard and straight and just had unbelievable touch around the green. She worked so hard at it. It was her whole life. She paid her dues and she won the championships.”
Fargo, however, was not brought up very often.
“She regrettably and depending on your perspective, she had a dream and destiny and that wasn’t in Fargo,” Jay Sfingi said. “It was somewhere else.”
Beverly (Hanson) Sfingi passed away peacefully in an assisted care facility in Twin Falls, Idaho, John said, from complications of Alzheimer’s and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. A memorial service will be held Friday at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Palm Desert, Calif.
She left a legacy in golf – albeit faded in her hometown. While looking at her photo in the Fargo Country Club, Johnson was asked to picture her swing: “I imagine very athletic. They really did a great job of swinging the golf club back then. Right now we try to generate so much torque and speed but back then it was more of a timing and elegance. I imagine it was a pretty impressive golf swing.”
It was a pretty impressive career.
Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be reached at (701) 241-5546.
Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia