Why would a 29-year-old Peggy Conley forgo a safe and secure future for the uncertainty of the LPGA Tour? Why did she believe she could compete with the rising stars of the professional circuit? Was she allowing her free-spirited nature from the 1960's to resurface in the 1970's?
When Conley turned pro in 1976, it had been done before. Another amateur star from the Northwest, JoAnne Carner, turned professional at age 31. But her decision was made "because there were no more horizons left for me to conquer," according to Carner. Conley's decision to turn pro became a matter of economics, and a choice between which career she preferred to pursue.
Conley could not claim the illustrious amateur wasn't too shabby either. She was a two-time member of the Curtis Cup Team, the U.S. Girls' Junior champion, the Women's Western Amateur champion, and she had an armful of runner-up finishes in top national events. Conley said of her move to professional status: "The decision did not come from a burning desire to be a professional. I enjoyed amateur golf very much. I consider the step as a way to continue in golf."
The Early Years in Spokane
Conley grew up in a Spokane household with some very talented parents. Her mother was a concert violinist by the age of nine, and her father became a successful children's dentist. She started playing golf at age 11, tagging along with her father during his rounds at Spokane Country Club. "I thought golf was ridiculous, and old man's game. But when Dad asked me if I wanted to hit some shots, I found it very interesting."
Just as her mother was a child prodigy in music, Conley found rapid success in golf thanks to innate athletic talent and a natural swing. She was also fortunate in that she had a coterie of like-aged friends who also played golf. Her gang of friends received encouragement and advice from Spokane golf professional, Jim Shriver at Manito Golf & Country Club.
Conley said of Shriver and her salad days in golf: "Jim was a liberal pro, you might say. He gave us free balls and the run of the driving range. He gave us lessons any time we asked and, in return, we picked up the range balls for him. Dad would drop me off at the range on his way to work in the morning during the summer, and Mum would pick me up in the afternoon. But most important was our group of kids. It was a great group.
When her golfing buddies reached their teens, they began entering competitions, starting with the PNGA Junior Girls' Championship. "The first time I entered, I was 13 and impressed with how good the other golfers were. I didn't think I could compete with them." This attitude soon changed. "I got to looking at the kids I was competing against, and realized I could beat them. I won the 1961 PNGA Junior Girls' title for my first championship win." Conley repeated in 1963 and 1964, becoming the only girl to win the championship on three occasions.
Making Her Useful Presence Felt Nationally
In 1963 Conley made a major move onto the national scene. In recalling that period of blissful confidence, she said, "I didn't know I could miss a shot back then." Though only 16, she'd already accomplished a lot, with more to come. In July of 1963 Conley reached the quarterfinals of the Women's Western Amateur, losing to eventual champion, Barbara McIntyre. Coming into the tournament, Conley had read about her opponent's reputation, and was boosted by reaching the quarterfinals in her first try.
Next came two successive runner-up finishes in 1963 -- first the U.S. Girls' Junior Championship and then the prestigious U.S. Women's Amateur. In the Girls' Junior, she defeated Jane Blalock en route to the final, where she lost to co-medalist, Jan Ferraris, 2-up, at Wolfert's Roost Country Club in Albany, New York.
In 1963 U.S. Women's Amateur was only a short distance away at Taconic Golf Club in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Conley not only qualified, but she went all the way to the final against none other than Seattle's Anne Sander, making making it two Northwest women competing for the top prize. This was one of the 11 times out of a 13-year period that Northwest women appeared in the final of the U.S. Women's Amateur. Along the way, Conley defeated highly-regarded Tish Preuss, Judy Bell (who later became President of the USGA), and Carol Sorenson. The final match with Sander was a seesaw affair through the first 18 holes, with Conley holding a 1-up lead at the lunch break. The match eventually swung in Anne's favor on the fourth nine, and she won, 2 &1. At the time, the 16-year-old Conley was the youngest player to ever reach the final of a U.S. Women's Amateur.
Following that exhilarating two-week period playing against the country's best golfers. Conley's confidence soared to new levels, leading her to believe she was invincible. "I didn't care how good my opponents were. I knew I could beat them." She also began taking an interest in professional women's golf. Her hero was Mickey Wright, the LPGA Tour's dominant player at the time.
In her teens Conley was very competitive. "I could hit the ball a long way, which was an advantage, and anywhere I wanted to. I never was a good putter, but I didn't have to be. My swing was basically sound and it stayed with me." Conley's superlative finishes in 1963 set the stage for bigger accomplishments the following year. In 1964 she again finished as runner-up to Jan Ferraris in the Western Junior Girls'. In the U.S. Junior Girls' Championship, Conley overwhelmed the field, beating Laura MacIvor 6 &5, in the final.
Because she was a finalist in the U.S. Women's Amateur, Conley was named to the Curtis Cup Team. The trip to Royal Porthcawl Golf Club in South Wales, England, was the experience of a lifetime for the Spokane teenager. Conley, the youngest-ever Curtis Capper at 17, thrilled the crowds, winning two singles matches to enable the American team to sneak past Great Britain, 10 1/2 to 7 1/2.
Sorting Out Her Options
Though suddenly a well-traveled veteran, Conley was still only a high school student, and she was unfamiliar with the rigors of championship golf. When would the bubble burst? "When I was told I had been chosen for the Curtis Cup Team, I thought it was nice. But I didn't know what it was."
As college and other interest gained equal importance, Conley's golf game gradually received secondary status. Golf's cognoscenti began asking: 'Had she reached the championship level too soon, and was she burned out?' With her other interests, Conley reduced her competitive golfing schedule to local events. In the 1965 PNGA Women's Amateur Championship at Fircrest Golf Club in Tacoma, Peggy showed she was still one of the region's best players. After winning the medal in stroke-play qualifying, Conley attempted to add the title to her lost of accomplishments. But Pat (Lesser) Harbottle, who'd last won the title in 1953, ruined the youngsters quest by winning the championship. In 1966 Conley resumed her cross-country travels in a quest for national crowns. At the Women's Western Amateur, she went seven under part in defeating Barbara Fay Boddie, 2 &1, in the final. Mrs. Boddie was six under par, a score good enough to have defeated almost any another opponent. In the Western Conley's competitive edge had been whetted as she wanted to defeat the members of the 1966 Curtis Cup Team, of which she had not been chosen.
In 1967 Conley lost to Texan teenage sensation, Mary Lou Dill, in the semifinals of the U.S. Women's Amateur at Annandale Golf Club in Pasadena, California. Dill went on to win the title. Because of her showing in the U.S. Amateur, Conley was selected for the 1968 Curtis Cup Team, which traveled to Royal County Down in Northern Ireland. There, she won two singles matches, halved another and lost a foursome match. Her singles victory on the second day clinched the title for the American squad.
But Peggy's competitive fire in amateur golf was starting to fade. While some of her amateur contemporaries had turned professional right out of high school, she enrolled at the University of Washington, in 1965. Golf was gradually losing its appeal, and her priorities were changing. The mid-1960's were also a time of deep turmoil in America and, like many of her generation, Peggy began to rebel.
The first woman to receive an athletic golf scholarship at the University of Washington, Peggy played two years on the UW women's golf team. But her time as a Husky soon ended. She recalled this restless period. "I got kicked out of school for throwing beer bottles out of the window of a seventh floor dormitory during college finals. I did some bad things. I had to write a letter to petition my way back to school, but I couldn't play on the golf team anymore."
Her parents also became disillusioned with her. Though in school for five years, she was still two years away from attaining a degree. Peggy's interests further altered during her final two years at the UW. She developed a talent in ceramics and began selling her artwork to help finance her education. With school finished for the spring of 1972, she found a job teaching at a private school for the fall term.
Taking a Renewed Interest in Golf
Although she had not played competitive golf since the 1968 Curtis Cup Team Matches, she decided to enter the 1972 PNGA Women's Amateur Championship at Club Green Meadows in Vancouver, Washington. After winning the championship, Conley said, "I played better in winning this PNGA Women's Amateur Championship than I did when I did when I was runner-up in the 1963 U.S. Women's Amateur. I'm older and smarter now than I was then. I've played little while going to college, but I hope to play more in the coming years since teaching leaves me free in the summer."
The way things progressed during the PNGA Women's Amateur final's first 18 holes would have been hard to convince her opponent, Pam Fox of Salem, Oregon, that Conley hadn't been practicing 15 hours a day. Miss Fox was 2-down after nine holes, and 7-down at the start of the afternoon round. Conley shot a one-under-par 73 in the morning. It appeared the match would not get past the third nine when Conley suddenly began jabbing putts instead of stroking them. Encouraged by Conley's putting woes, Fox rallied. She won the 28th hole with a birdie, the 29th with a par, and the 30th with another birdie. Despite Fox's resurgent play, Conley eventually won the match 6 & 4. En route to the finals, Fox defeated her close friend, Mary Budke, in the semifinals, 3 & 2, and Conley bested medalist, Marilyn Palmer of Vancouver, B.C.'s Marine Drive Golf Club, in her semifinal match.
In 1973 Conley again embarked on the national summer golf circuit. She was soon shocked at the improved level of competition. "I tried first to play in the Women's Western Amateur, but didn't even qualify. I thought, 'My God what has happened to amateur golf? It's so much better.' I didn't know any of the new faces. The quality of the fields had improved five or six strokes a round. There were only four or five people to contend with. Now, there were a dozen good players."
She returned to teaching and practicing. Tacoma Country & Golf Club professional, Chuck Congdon, had been Conley's golf instructor during her most fruitful years. "Chuck was a genius. He made it all work. (He made it) easy to hit a golf ball. After he died in 1965, I was lost for awhile." Upon Congdon's untimely death, Conley began working with Seattle teaching pro, Joe Data.
Conley's practicing bore fruit in the 1974 U.S. Women's Amateur at Seattle's Broadmoor golf Club. She played well, turning back a couple of new kids as well as an old rival, Anne Sander, in 20 holes during a third-round match. She eventually fell to Carol Semple in the semifinals, 3 & 2. In 1975 Conley showed more progress in the Women's Western Amateur, but she lost to Debbie Massey on the last hole of the final. Her accomplishments were again recognized by the Curtis Cup selectors, who named her first alternate to the 1976 team.
Returning to Seattle, Conley was torn between two worlds -- teaching and golf. As a teacher, she didn't earn enough money to finance her way onto the golf circuit. But Peggy had, once again, honed a sound game of golf. And a more mature temperament was better suited to the sport. Her swing had become more measured, never out of control; she never went past parallel on the full shots. Conley's ball-striking was solid, and she only needed to practice when her tempo was off.
Choosing a Career As a Professional Golfer
Teaching was never her first love. "Teaching. . . the main thing I have against it is the chauvinistic attitude of the management. In the beginning, I had to deal with my own inexperience, immaturity, and naivete. Teaching was not anywhere near what I had envisioned. The money stinks. Teachers are the most overworked, underpaid, exhausted human beings -- if they care, if they are at all emotional human beings."
She finally threw in the teaching towel after watching a television program one evening. "I saw an interview with a guy sailing around the world on a raft. He made one comment which made me think: 'I'm a doer not a viewer.' I asked myself, 'What am I doing here watching golf on television on Saturdays and Sundays? I could survive just as well out there.' "
In 1976 Peggy Conley packed her bags, minus her cat, and joined the LPGA Tour. In her professional debut at the 1976 U.S. Women's Open at Rolling Green Golf Club in Springfield, Pennsylvania, she pocketed a paycheck for $1,229.29. With her usual optimistic point of view, Peggy described the event as, "a piece of cake. I'm not getting older, I'm just getting better."
So ended one of the finest amateur careers in Northwest golf history.