Susie Maxwell Berning's golf legend started in Oklahoma, literally putting her in Tiger Woods' class
To understand how Susie Maxwell Berning made a career in golf at a time few women did, you need only have been at Lincoln Park Golf Course in May 2019.
Lincoln Park was Maxwell Berning’s home course, the place she learned to play the game as a kid growing up in Oklahoma City. But she wasn’t there to play last spring. She was there to support her alma mater, Oklahoma City University, in the NAIA women’s golf championships.
Marty McCauley picks up the story from there.
“We did no spectator carts for anybody,” the OCU coach said. “We didn’t have media carts. We had no carts. And somehow or other, Susie had a cart. I don’t know how she got it, but she was driving around in a cart.”
“That explains Susie right there,” he said. “Whenever nobody could get a cart for this thing to go watch, she got a cart.
“True to form, she found a way to make it happen.”
Earlier this spring, Maxwell Berning was selected for induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame. While the details of the induction ceremony are unknown amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, she will go into the hall with a class that includes Tiger Woods.
She is one of only six players to win three or more U.S. Women’s Open titles. The others — Mickey Wright, Betsy Rawls, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Annika Sorenstam and Hollis Stacy — were already in the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Maxwell Berning often excelled when the stakes were highest; four of her 11 victories on the LPGA Tour were major championships.
But she wouldn’t have done any of it without a strong will. An unbreakable one, really. She succeeded on tour even though she took a couple of long breaks early in her career to have children. She became a female athlete long before Title IX ushered in the advent of women’s sports. She became a force even though she didn’t take up golf until she was 15.
She made things happen even when they seemed impossible.
But maybe the biggest hurdle she overcame was playing at a college that didn’t start a women’s golf program until three decades after she graduated.
Maxwell Berning, who graduated from Northeast High School in 1959, landed a scholarship from Golf Inc., the Oklahoma City non-profit that promotes the growth of amateur golf with an emphasis on junior golf. She intended to major in business and decided to go to OCU.
There was no women’s golf team there.
OCU had a men’s golf program, though, and the coach had come to know about Maxwell Berning. Abe Lemons, the renowned men’s basketball coach, also handled men’s golf, and he welcomed her.
She became one of his best golfers.
But when he submitted his roster for tournaments, he often listed her name as “S. Maxwell.” A tournament organizer during her freshman season asked Lemons what the S. stood for.
“Sam,” he said.
That was Maxwell Berning’s nickname throughout college.
She remembers teammates and competitors being kind, though one once asked, “I’ve got to play her?” But even if they were kind, she was still an outsider. She was different, and with that came attention and pressure.
But Maxwell Berning found a way.
“She was the trailblazer,” said Kristina Carson, who learned about Maxwell Berning as a kid. Carson’s dad, Steve, is the longtime director of golf at Lincoln Park, so Maxwell Berning’s name was one Carson heard from an early age.
People at the course would sometimes call her “Little Susie.”
“I would be all proud about it,” Carson said.
Carson takes a similar amount of pride in following Maxwell Berning’s footsteps to OCU. The school started the women’s program in 2000, and Carson was among its earliest players and was on the team when the program won its first national championship in 2005.
She believes Maxwell Berning helped make it happen.
“I never had to fight for it because of her,” Carson said. “She changed the perception and gave us that right.”
That throughline at OCU continues even today.
“When I was growing up, I didn’t even have a second thought that I would be able to join a college team,” said Lauryn Pritchard, a junior at OCU. “That didn’t even come to mind.”
“She could have easily given up, been like, ‘Oh, there’s no women’s team.’ She could have been like, ‘I guess I’ll do something else.’ But she pushed it and she made it the way it is for us.”
Pritchard and her teammates have gotten to hear those stories directly from Maxwell Berning. When she returns to Oklahoma City for the tournament named in her honor, she will meet with the team.
She did the same last spring around nationals.
While she was there to cheer for them — “We went out the first round and had like a seven-shot lead,” McCauley, the coach, said, “and I think she was the most excited person out of anybody” — she has many fans at OCU. They are proud to call her one of theirs. Proud, too, that she was the school’s first female golfer long before there was a women’s team.
Susie Maxwell Berning found a way to make it happen.
“She was certainly … a pioneer in her time,” McCauley said. “I don’t think that she’s as recognized as she should be.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.