One of five kids, Ruth Jessen took her first swings at the now-defunct Meadowbrook Golf Course, which was a half-block from her home in northeast Seattle.
She honed her game and a wieldy reputation at Jackson Park Golf Course and Inglewood Golf Club. At Seattle's Roosevelt High School, the principal used to let her out of class early if she would agree to play golf with his buddies.
Ruth held her own in the golden era of Northwest women's golf, competing against the likes of JoAnne Carner, Ann Sander, Edean Ihlanfeldt and Pat (Lesser) Harbottle, winning several regional amateur titles as well as shining on the national stage.
A spitfire who tore through the Northwest amateur scene in the mid-1950s, Ruth was medalist in the 1954 U.S. Girls' Junior, and in 1954 won the WSWGA Amateur, the Seattle City Women's Amateur (for the third year in a row), the Lower Columbia Women's Championship, the Apple Blossom Amateur in Yakima, and the PNGA Women's Amateur. She repeated at the 1955 PNGA Women's Amateur.
Ruth then stuck around Seattle University just long enough to show everyone how good she was with a golf club. Sometimes it made people a little uncomfortable, but mostly it had them watching in awe.
"I always felt bad for the guys at Seattle U when I outhit them, because the other guys would razz them," Jessen said.
The university did not have women's teams in place in the 1950s, so the better women athletes were encouraged to try out for the men's teams. A year earlier, Harbottle, inducted into the Pacific Northwest Golf Hall of Fame in 1985, had played on the men's golf team.
Jessen played only as a freshman for the men's golf team, and just for a half season, usually slotted No. 5 in the lineup.
A late arrival with the team because of obligations to national amateur events, she appeared in her first SU match on May 4, 1956 and shot 3-over-par 76, six strokes off the lead, and won her head-to-head competition against Gonzaga at Inglewood Country Club. The following week, she beat players from Washington and Portland State. The SU team was so good and competitive amongst themselves that eight different players, including Jessen, received varsity letters.
It was rare for anyone in the 1950s to leave college early and pursue a professional sport. Jessen, full of confidence, was the exception. The LPGA was in its formative stages, and beckoning players to come join it.
Jessen turned pro shortly after sharing in a nine-hole golf clinic with LPGA star Patty Berg at Jackson Park Golf in 1956. During the clinic, Berg wanted to swing one of Jessen's clubs. "Patty wanted to try my driver because I was outhitting her," Jessen said. "When I got to play with Patty that day, I just knew I could play (on tour)." Ruth was 19 at the time, and at that point the youngest ever to turn professional.
Ruth would become a gallery favorite on the LPGA Tour because she was friendly, funny, tall, blonde and dressed in bright colors at a time when most golfers wore dark clothing.
In her most famous championship, Jessen trailed Mickey Wright by a stroke on the 18th hole of the final round of the 1964 U.S. Women's Open at the San Diego Country Club in Chula Vista. Ruth hit a fairway wood to three feet from the hole for an easy birdie. Wright's approach shot went in a bunker, but she then hit what she later called the best bunker shot of her life to get up and down for par and force an 18-hole playoff, which she won by shooting 70 to Ruth's 72.
Ruth knew how important the U.S. Women's Open was. "She felt that winning it would be the thing that would put her in the history books," said Jim Jessen, Ruth's nephew. "Mickey Wright had the reputation of having a great golf swing, and Ruth wanted to beat the best."
It was the second time in three years Jessen finished second in the biggest event in women's golf. In 1962, when Murle Lindstrom won, Ruth tied for second. She also finished fifth in 1963 and seventh in 1965.
While on tour, family remained very important to Ruth. "She came home often during her time on tour," says Jim. "I know I was young at the time, but she really was bigger than life. Those were the days before instant news, so we'd read about her in the sports headlines and hear it on the radio announcements. We all looked forward to the 'famous pro golfer, our Aunt Ruth, coming home.' She drove a big Cadillac, and when she'd come home she would fill it with gifts for everyone. She absolutely loved kids."
Jim recalls when the family would gather at Ruth's older sister's house for the holidays, and would drink punch from the silver bowl that reads "PNGA Women's Amateur" on it, from her 1955 victory. "My grandmother (Ruth's mother) had a hutch that was just packed with Ruth's trophies and scrapbooks. She kept everything."
Jim also remembers his Aunt Ruth as being very bubbly, laughing and smiling all the time. "And she always dressed to the nines," he says. "Everything had to match."
Ruth was very popular on tour, and had many friends among all the players. She was elected president of the LPGA in 1966, and her officers on the board included such golf luminaries as Kathy Whitworth, Betsy Rawls and Carol Mann.
But Jessen was plagued in her playing prime by a string of health issues; back, thyroid, rib, arm tendinitis and nerve damage, and uterine cancer at age 32, all sidelined her at various times. At one point she lost feeling in her left arm because of nerve damage, possibly caused by years of hitting off mats. She suffered a neck injury when a concession tent pole collapsed on her during a freak windstorm in Massachusetts, losing feeling in her arm again. Of her 20 years on tour, she probably was healthy for only 10 of them, undergoing a total of 14 surgeries because of her various ailments. Her first cancer surgery was in 1965, one year after she had won five times on the LPGA Tour.
The last of her 11 tour victories came in 1971 at the Sears Women's World Classic in Port St. Lucie, Fla., an outcome so inspiring she would receive the Ben Hogan Award as the comeback golfer of the year.
After retiring from competitive golf in the mid-1970s, Ruth spent the last 30 years of her life as a golf instructor in Arizona.
Linda Vollstedt, the former women's golf coach at Arizona State, says, "In the early days, before we had a golf course here at ASU, we played and practiced at Camelback (where Jessen taught), and Ruth helped every one of my players, from Heather Farr to Grace Park. And, wow, Ruth could really play."
Jim Jessen remembers finally getting a chance to play with his Aunt Ruth. "It was at Sahalee Country Club, where my dad (Ruth's older brother) was a member," he recalls. "It was just the family out for a round of golf. She was 46 at the time, long past her tour days. She shot 72 from the men's tees without even paying attention, because she was giving lessons to us the whole time. It was beautiful to watch."
Ruth passed away in 2007 at the age of 70 after a battle with lung cancer. At her memorial service, a string of LPGA players and Hall of Famers took their turn at the microphone to speak about Jessen.
Rhonda Glen, a former spokesperson for the USGA, praised Jessen for being a "gallery favorite" because of her good looks and colorful outfits.
Carner, a 1999 inductee into the Pacific Northwest Golf Hall of Fame and former competitor of Jessen during their days as young amateur players, called Ruth a "good competitor with a good sense of humor." She said Jessen had the game for a Hall of Fame career if she had been able to stay healthy. "She had the type of swing that could last forever."
"Her public-relations skills made her an important contributor in efforts to keep the LPGA going during its difficult early years," said a USGA announcement at the time of her death.
Often referred to as the best golfer you never heard of, those who knew Ruth Jessen knew she had game.