By the 1950's, it was clear that American players were dominating women's golf in the Northwest. From the early 1920's through the mid-1930's, women's golf in the region had been dominated by two players from British Columbia: Violet Pooley Sweeny and Vera Hutchings Ford. Pooley and Ford had won tournaments by consistently posting scores in the low- to mid-80s.
The first to shatter British Columbia's domination was Oregon's Marian MacDougall in 1934. Next came stars like Mary Mozel Wagner in 1940, and Betty Jean Rucker Hulteng in 1945 and 1946. After World War II, Edean Anderson (Ihlanfeldt), Grace Zwahlen (DeMoss) and Babe Freese Bowman rose to the top. There was a 40-year gap – from 1933 until 1973 – before another Canadian, Marilyn Palmer, won a PNGA Women's Championship.
With the ascension of the American stars, the standard of play increased dramatically. If a player could not shoot in the middle or low 70's, she would not have any real chance of winning the title. This was the competitive atmosphere of the Northwest golf scene when young Pat Lesser emerged in 1950.
The Seattle Phenom
The happiest day of Colonel Lesser's life came when he was trounced on the golf course by his young daughter, Pat. That event occurred in 1949 at Sand Point Country Club in Seattle. Pat was only 16, but the Colonel had known for some time the day would come when she'd beat him. Colonel Lesser introduced Pat to golf when she was 13. According to her father, "Pat acted as if the game had been invented for her." At age 14, she won the Seattle Women's Golf Association Championship, and repeated as champion the next year.
In her final year of eligibility as a junior golfer (her birthday fell on August 13), Lesser won both the U.S. Girls' Junior and Western Girls' Junior crowns. Over a rained-soaked Wanakah Country Club in Hamburg, New York, Pat beat future LPGA star Mickey Wright in the final, 4 &2. One of Lesser's Seattle golfing buddies, restaurant owner Les Teagle, sent a congratulatory telegram asking her, "How would you like your steak done?" Teagle had promised Lesser a steak dinner each time she won a tournament.
The Quest Begins for a National Title
While still a junior golfer, Lesser finished as low amateur in the 1951 U.S. Women's Open. As might be expected, she was shooting some numbers that were far superior to previous Northwest women titleholders. At the age of 18, her average score over 62 rounds was a remarkable 74.5, with two rounds of 69. Noting his daughter's bright future, Colonel Lesser provided encouragement and funding to enable her to go after the brass ring: the U.S. Women's Amateur title. The colonel estimated the "project" would take about three years.
Because the Women's Western Amateur Championship and PNGA Women's Amateur Championship were held on the same dates each year, Northwest players had to choose which event they'd enter. In 1951 Lesser elected to play in the Western but, in 1952 and 1953, remained in the Northwest. Her decision to stay home was rewarded with two consecutive victories in the PNGA Women's Amateur Championship. In the 1952 PNGA Women's at Fircrest Golf Club, her most difficult match was against Edean Anderson in the semifinals. Though neither competitor played to their normal high standards, Lesser, by now a coed at Seattle University, won 2 & 1. In the final, she demolished Mrs. Henry Hulscher of Tacoma Country & Golf Club, 9 & 8.
Prior to defending her PNGA crown in 1953, Lesser flew across the country to Greensboro, North Carolina, for the National Collegiate golf tournament. In the final round at Starmount Forest Country Club, the Seattle University star, who became the first woman to play on a men's college golf team while at Seattle University, defeated Kathy McKinnon of Southern University, 4 & 2, for the title.
Retribution in the 1953 PNGA Championship
The 1953 PNGA Men's Amateur Championship at Portland's Columbia-Edgewater Country Club had a record field of 282 players. Similarly, a record number of 151 women vied for the PNGA Women's crown at nearby Riverside Golf & Country Club. In the semifinals, DeMoss defeated medalist Connie Oldershaw and Lesser beat the last remaining Californian in the tournament, Mrs. Delbert Walker of Long Beach. In winning the final, Lesser avenged several earlier defeats to DeMoss – in the 1950 PNGA, 1949 Canadian Women's Amateur and 1951 Oregon Women's Amateur.
Though Lesser overtook the Curtis Cup veteran in the finale with relative ease, 7 & 6, several earlier matches were nip-and-tuck affairs. Also, a group of precocious youngsters exhibited amazing confidence and skill. These emerging stars included Anne Quast (Sander), who lost in the second round to 1940 PNGA champion, Mary Mozel Wagner, 2 & 1. Another 15-year-old with a bright future, Carol Jo Kabler, lost to DeMoss 2-up in the second round. Yet another budding 16-year-old star, Ruth Jessen, did well until she lost to Lesser in the quarterfinals.
The Colonel's Prediction Comes True
In the October 16, 1953, issue of Golf World, Colonel Lesser spoke of his daughter's accomplishments that year and predicted when she would return to the Northwest with a national title.
"Pat plays close to 150 rounds of golf every year – summer and winter, and rarely has over two or three poor rounds in all those. It is really unfortunate that she should have one of those during the national amateur.
"I didn't talk to her very much about her round with Wiffi Smith, but she did say that she was hitting the ball well in the morning round against Grace [DeMoss], but just couldn't seem to time her swing in the [afternoon] round. Possibly, she was pressing a little.
"Only once since Pat started playing golf at age 13 has she been beaten twice by the same girl and that was early in her career. She has never failed to qualify for a championship flight, never lost a medal play tournament to an amateur girl, and only three times has failed to go at least to the quarterfinals.
"She traveled alone to all her tournaments this year for the first time, and since she started playing on tour away from home four years ago, she has never had a poor year; as a matter of fact they have all been progressively good. Mrs. Lesser and I think that for day-in-and-out play throughout the year, Pat is one of the best golfers in the U.S., and based on her record, consistent play, and fine sportsmanship, we will be very much disappointed if she is not selected to the next Curtis Cup team.
"As an oddity of her play in 1953, she actually was beaten only once by a U.S. woman amateur in all the matches she played, and of course you know this year, she won the collegiate, was semifinalist in the Western Open [beaten by Louise Suggs], was top amateur in the national open, won the Pacific Northwest Amateur, was medalist and semifinalist in the Canadian Amateur, and was quarterfinalist in the nationals. I predict she can win this one [the U.S. Women's Amateur] within the next two years."
As a result of her record, Pat Lesser was named to the 1954 Curtis Cup team along with Oregon's Grace DeMoss.
Pat's Biggest Year
The year 1955 was the biggest for Pat Lesser. To prepare for the national tournaments, she spent three months – from January through mid-March – playing Florida's Winter Orange Blossom Circuit. Edean Anderson and DeMoss first showed how important it was for a Northwesterner to play Florida's amateur tour as well as a similar circuit in California.
Speaking of that time playing golf away from home, Edean exclaims, "Wonderful memories. We traveled together and everyone was very close-knit. The big hotels in Palm Beach and St. Augustine were unbelievable. They gave us rates of $7 a day, and that included three meals. Often we would find rooms in homes for $10 per week."
The stars on the Florida tour included Barbara Romack, Polly Riley, Marlene Stewart, Grace Lenczyk and the Bauer sisters of California. In all, about 30 players, most career amateurs, participated on a regular basis. Most received financial assistance and encouragement – particularly those from the Northwest – by fathers who wanted to see their daughters succeed nationally. Having one's daughter engaged in golf was generally less expensive than an equestrian career. Colonel Lesser estimated it cost about $150 per week to have his daughter play these circuits. Soon, his "investment" would pay off.
In the 1955 PNGA Women's Championship played at Sand Point Country Club and Inglewood Country Club, Pat Lesser appeared to have the game to win the title. But the rising stars – Quast, Kabler and defending champion Jessen – had other plans. Kabler, the Oregon Women's Amateur and Junior champion, defeated medalist Lesser in the quarterfinals 1-up. Jessen defeated another rising star, JoAnne Gunderson (Carner). In the semifinals, Quast lost to Jessen, and Kabler defeated Sue DeVoe of Medford. In the final, Jessen consistently out-drove her smaller opponent en route to a course record 70 in the morning round, and went on to beat Kabler, 3 & 2.
Breaking Through Onto the National Scene
The summer weather was typically hot and steamy during the 55th Women's Western Amateur at Olympia Fields Country Club in the Chicago area. For the bronze-skinned and bespectacled Pat Lesser, the victory represented a "graduation" from the golfing institution where she had earned her first significant title, the Western Girls' Junior. In the morning half of her final match, Pat played one of the finest rounds ever seen at Women's Western Amateur. She was out in 33, five-under-par. The 33 included seven one-putt greens with putts of 12, 30, 40, three and six feet. Coming home, she erred twice by three-putting. But she finished with a six-foot birdie putt that gave her a record-breaking round of 70. Carol Diringer, the co-medalist, could not compete with the Northwest star, losing 7 & 6.
The 1955 U.S. Women's Amateur was held at Myers Park Country Club in Charlotte, North Carolina. The star-studded field included 115 entries from England, Canada, Mexico and Hawaii. Jane Nelson, an Indianapolis school teacher, reached the final with an excellent display of par-busting golf. But Lesser would not be denied, walking away with the national title by the convincing score of 7 & 6.
At the presentation ceremony, Lesser remarked about the trophy. "There it is. That's my present to my parents. I always wanted this one. Now I will go back and finish school. That'll be the next thing they'd like me to do." That was Pat's way of saying she was through with big-time competitive golf for a while.
Lesser garnered several awards between 1954 and 1956, including being named to the U.S. Curtis Cup Team in 1954 and 1956; becoming the first woman selected as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer "Man of the Year" in 1955; and twice serving as the Northwest nominee for the Sullivan Award in 1954 and 1955. In 1956 she competed in the Canadian Women's Amateur, losing to Marlene Streit in the final on the 37th hole.
On August 31, 1957, Pat married another player on Seattle University's golf team, John Harbottle. They went on to have five children and seven grandchildren, and become long-time members of Tacoma Country & Golf Club. Dr. Harbottle appears later in this book as a result of his own outstanding competitive record.