The daughter of the head professional at Kamloops Golf Club, Marilyn Palmer O'Connor grew up with a golf club in her hand and has enjoyed an amateur career spanning over 35 years. In the late 1990's as a senior golfer, she ranked among Canada's top-five players in her division.
Considerable Early Success
In 1962 at the age of 14, Palmer won the Interior Ladies' Championship, and was selected to the B.C. Junior Ladies' Provincial Team. While pursuing an Education degree at the University of British Columbia, she joined Marine Drive Golf Club. Palmer and fellow club member, Doug Roxburgh, ruled B.C.'s golf scene from the mid-1960's until 1980. Over this period, she won eight of her nine provincial championships and Roxburgh six of his 13 B.C. crowns. Palmer and Violet Pooley Sweeny are British Columbia's two most dominant women golfers.
In 1965 Marilyn accomplished a rare double, winning the B.C. Junior as well as the B.C. Ladies' crowns in the same year. She chose to represent B.C. on the Women's Provincial Team rather than join the junior team. In 1967 Marilyn reached the peak of Canadian women's golf when she was named to her country's World Amateur Team.
Palmer's career was sprinkled with other firsts. She became the first B.C.-born woman to capture the Canadian Ladies' Closed Championship (1966) and the Canadian Ladies' Amateur title (1986). Two others, Gayle Hitchens Borthwick and Gail Harvey Moore, won those titles while residents of the province, but neither were born in British Columbia. Palmer O'Conner was also the only Canadian woman to have won provincial crowns in three provinces – British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan.
A Change of Scenery
Palmer taught school in Coquitlam, B.C., and remained a member of Marine Drive until she married Donald O'Connor and moved to Calgary in 1979. Despite the move, her golfing achievements continued unabated as she won the Saskatchewan Ladies' Amateur Championship in 1979. To say that Marilyn Palmer O'Connor dominated women's golf in Alberta is an understatement. She won seven provincial crowns and represented Alberta on 16 provincial women's teams.
According to Palmer O'Connor, the culminating accomplishment in her career came in 1981 when she was named Canada's "Outstanding Female Amateur Golfer." Her most satisfying victory came at the 1986 Canadian Ladies' Amateur in Saskatoon. "It was special because it was my first Canadian Ladies' crown in an open field and because I had been so close so many times."
Practice Makes Perfect
Northwest golf champions share one characteristic: each likes to practice. What set Palmer O'Connor apart from most other British Columbia golfers was her diligence in practicing. She also had other attributes, including considerable natural talent and a supportive father who was a golf professional. But it was her insatiable appetite for practice that brought home the titles.
"Almost from the beginning, I liked to practice more than playing," she once remarked. "It was the opposite of what the average competitor enjoyed. It was easy for me in Kamloops because it was never busy [at the course]. When I came to Marine Drive, all the champions at the club practiced for endless hours. I joined them."
During the 1970's O'Connor was one of the few B.C. women who competed on a regular basis in the PNGA Women's Amateur. She also went toe-to-toe with the top American women because she played the major U.S. amateur tournaments during the summer when she wasn't teaching. The stiff competition in these events helped take her game to another level. She attributes these experiences for her success in the B.C. and Alberta championships, where she "was one step above the other players at home."
Ending a 40-Year Drought
Finally, after a 40-year drought for B.C. women, Palmer O'Connor captured the PNGA women's title in 1973. Oregon's Mary Budke, the pre-championship favorite as the reigning U.S. Women's Amateur champion, met the early predictions by shooting a two-under-par 70 at Victoria Golf Club to take medalist honors while setting a course record. Margaret Todd, a perennial Victoria city champion, had shot a 70 before at the links, but never in competition.
Palmer O'Connor created the upset of the championship in the semifinals. Twice a PNGA medalist in 1966 and 1972, she posted an impressive 4 & 3 victory over Budke. Teenage sensation Robin Walton prevented the final from becoming an all-B.C. affair by defeating Dale Shaw from Victoria in the other semifinal match.
As the reigning PNGA Junior Girls' champion, the 17-year-old Walton was remarkably calm during her match against Palmer O'Connor. The turning point in the final came on the 26th hole, when Palmer O'Connor knocked in an eight-foot birdie putt. She later said of the match, "I just couldn't save anything today. I made some good shots, but my short game wasn't consistent and I never felt safe. I just didn't trust myself."
Said Palmer O'Connor, who traveled the globe while representing Canada 10 times in international matches, "Golf has been fantastic for me. When I came to Vancouver from Kamloops to attend the University of British Columbia, I was lucky to get in at Marine Drive. They keep turning out so many good players by providing juniors such great support and competition."