LALI STANDER: Sally Little continues to serve the game she loves
You’d be a brave person to argue the assertion that Sally Little is far and away SA’s greatest lady golfer. In fact, compiling a list of contenders for the title only serves to highlight what a wonderful career Little had.
Alison Sheard won four titles on the Ladies European Tour (LET), including a Women’s British Open before it was granted Major status. Before her, the stars of the game were Jackie Mercer and Rita Easton.
Of the modern players, there’s Lee-Anne Pace, with one LPGA Tour title and nine LET wins to her name, and Ashleigh Buhai, who has three LET wins and must surely be on track to win her first LPGA title in the near future.
Yet none of these are in the same league as Little who, over a 28-year career, amassed 15 LPGA Tour wins including two Major titles.
To put it in context, we are talking about the equivalent career of World Golf Hall of Famer Retief Goosen.
Little’s start in the game is a familiar one.
Her father, a handy amateur golfer, introduced her to golf at a young age. She played out of Metropolitan Golf Club in Cape Town, just a chip and a putt away from the Granger Bay apartment where she now lives. With few women golfers of her ability around, Little competed against the men, more often than not beating them comfortably.
She won the Western Province Women’s Amateur Championship in her teens and, somewhat unusually, was picked for the Western Province under-16 boys team on merit. Then, having conquered the Cape, Little headed north to play in the Transvaal Open at Houghton Golf Club.
While her first-round match may not have been much to write home about, her opponent proved to have a profound influence on her career.
Back then, Brenda Blumberg and her husband George were great supporters and benefactors of golf in SA — similar to the role that Johann Rupert plays today. Upon hearing that his wife had been unceremoniously thumped 9&8 by a 16-year-old girl, George Blumberg rushed out to Houghton to watch the young prodigy play. As she reached the final, he asked for her parents’ phone number. “When she’s ready, we will help,” he told Little’s parents.
Blumberg honoured his promise and in 1970 paid for Little to travel to Europe and the US to play in a number of events, including the US Women’s Open and the US Women’s Amateur Championships.'
Another significant moment came later that year when Little was selected to represent SA in the World Amateur Teams Championships in Spain. She finished as the winner of the individual event and the SA team, including Jeanette Burd and Judy Angel, were placed third.
Though it was a huge moment for SA golf, Little recalls that some of the amateur administrators took umbrage against the media attention she was getting.
After claiming the 1971 SA Stroke Play and SA Amateur double at Royal Durban, Little opted to turn professional, aged 17.
“I received an invitation to play in the Carling Ladies Open in Baltimore, Maryland,” she recalls. “It was a test to see if I could compete on the LPGA Tour and I finished third. In six weeks I had secured my LPGA card and I was awarded the rookie of the year award.”
Though she took some time to adjust to life on tour and being far away from home, Little’s breakthrough year came in 1976 when she claimed 10 top-10s, including a win in the Women’s International. Her winning shot — a holed bunker shot from 75 feet — remains one of the LPGA’s iconic moments.
Soon the floodgates began to open.
Little collected wins in 1978, 1979 (three), 1980 (two), 1981 (three) and four more in her best season, 1982, when she finished third on the money list. More importantly, she claimed two Major titles in that time — the 1980 Women’s PGA Championship and the 1988 Du Maurier Classic.
After 28 years on the LPGA Tour, Little made the decision to return to SA, feeling the need to give something back to the country of her birth.
She has dabbled in a number of initiatives, including golf course design, and has published her autobiography. She now operates the Sally Little Centre for Excellence out of The Mayor’s Driving Range (formerly Peninsula Driving Range) in Maitland, Cape Town. She coaches girls from the local community, as well as a group of 10 girls from Prestwich Street Primary School in Bo-Kaap.
The girls are transported to the range, receive a meal and work on their games using the SNAG coaching system. Local government has thrown its weight behind the project, as have a few corporate sponsors.
“The goal is to help these girls through the game of golf,” Little explains. “There are so many facets of golf that you can apply to everyday life, such as self-discipline, integrity and focus.
“The girls have all shown improvements in their grades and their discipline and the goal is to get them into better high schools, hopefully with bursaries, and into local golf clubs.”
The ultimate goal is for her programme to be rolled out to schools across the Cape.
“I feel I was born to do this,” she says. “As tour players, we were groomed to give back and it has something I have done my whole career in the US. Now I have a chance to make a difference in these girls’ lives.”
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