Call to the Hall: Susie Berning Gets Her Due
Come the World Golf Hall of Fame ceremony in the summer of 2021, a Southern California all-time great will grace the induction stage. And Tiger Woods will be standing next to her.
In April, it was announced that Pasadena native and longtime Coachella Valley resident Susie Berning was elected to join the Hall’s elite membership, a list that runs just 164 names long. Along with Woods and Berning, the 2021 Hall class includes Marion Hollins and Tim Finchem.
“I like to say that Tiger is in the same Hall class as me,” said Berning, laughing. She has been instructor in residence at The Reserve Club in Indian Wells since moving back to SoCal 20 years ago.
Despite her sterling resume, the Hall call wasn’t necessarily expected. “I was totally surprised,” Berning said. “I really never thought I’d receive this honor, to be in the same Hall of Fame as Mickey Wright, Judy Rankin, Kathy Whitworth, Marilynn Smith, Patty Berg. It’s quite an honor.”
Raised in Banning, Calif., where her father had a turkey ranch, Berning spent her formative years in Oklahoma City, where she won three Oklahoma City Women’s Amateur championships. After becoming the first woman to receive a golf scholarship to Oklahoma City University, Berning played on the men’s team after the school was unable to field a ladies’ squad.
She captured the Oklahoma Women’s Amateur title in 1963, and launched one of the most unique women’s pro golf careers in the latter half of the 20th century.
Then playing under her maiden name, Susie Maxwell, in 1964 Berning would earn LPGA Rookie of the Year honors.
In 1965, her penchant for starring on the most stringent stages fast defined her career, as Berning captured her first major championship with a 3-shot win at the Women’s Western Open, held at The Beverly CC in Chicago.
Though the Western would cease as an event two years later, Berning’s career arc was just finding its ascent. In 1967, she finished in a tie for second at the U.S. Women’s Open, and in 1968, seven weeks after taking her new surname, Berning captured her first U.S. Open crown with a wire-to-wire win at the Moselem Springs GC in Pennsylvania Dutch country.
A runner-up finish at the Women’s PGA in 1969 followed before Berning further stamped her major legend in 1972 with a comeback win at Winged Foot (East Course) to grab her second U.S. Women’s Open championship. In 1973, she became just the third woman ever to defend an Open title when she authored a dominating 5-shot win at the Country Club of Rochester in New York.
Today, Berning is among an elite class of just six women with three or more Open crowns; only Wright and Betsy Rawls (four each) have more. From 1965 to 1979, Berning finished in the top-11 on nine different occasions.
“I wasn’t one to make a lot of birdies; I put more emphasis on making par putts, and I’m a very good putter on fast greens,” Berning reflected. “At the U.S. Open courses, par is so very important. So, these tougher courses and setups were actually to my advantage.”
From her playing days to her teaching years, Berning is revered as a master of the short game.
“I hit the ball pretty straight, although not too far; my drive was 220 max,” she said. “But the combination of tight fairways, tough courses and fast greens was all to my advantage. I remember that, at Winged Foot in 1972, there were at least four par-4s I couldn’t reach in regulation. I relied on my short game a lot, and I enjoyed using my imagination around the greens.”
All told, Berning would capture 11 LPGA victories in a career spanning more than three decades, a win total tying her for 44th on the tour’s all-time list.
Could she have won more? Undoubtedly. But an enhanced playing schedule would have usurped time with her most cherished pair of trophies: her two daughters.
Through much of her career, and nearly a half-century before the LPGA (tardily) updated its maternity policies, Berning would be a pioneer of balancing motherhood and tour golf. To wit: She played 20 or more tournaments on just four occasions and, from 1970 to 1997, competed in more than 15 events only seven times.
In the initial years of being a touring golf mom, Berning, her husband and their oldest daughter, Robin, traveled from tourney-to-tourney in a motor home.
“This was before my second daughter was born,” she recalled of the early ‘70s. “And it was a lot of fun because we could take six or seven of the other players with us to the next tournament.”
Later in the decade, with both daughters in tow, a babysitter came along during the summer months across four more seasons.
“I think, actually, that balancing golf and motherhood was a great advantage,” Berning continued. “Because after a round, I’d go back to a hotel, motel or whatever, and my mind would be off golf. So, no regrets. I wanted to have a family, and my two girls are just as important to me as playing professional golf. And, looking back, the traveling we did together as a family really helped them mature as young adults.
“Eventually, when my girls were old enough, one would caddie for me and one would caddie for Patty Sheehan or Lenore Rittenhouse,” Berning remembered with a chuckle. “And my girls always wanted to caddie for somebody other than me, because the others paid more.”
In 1989, at the Konica San Jose Classic, Berning would compete against Robin, making them the first ever mother-daughter combination to play in the same LPGA event.
I REALLY NEVER THOUGHT I’D RECEIVE THIS HONOR, TO BE IN THE SAME HALL OF FAME AS MICKEY WRIGHT, JUDY RANKIN, KATHY WHITWORTH, MARILYNN SMITH, PATTY BERG. IT’S QUITE AN HONOR.
THE SUSIE SWING
For the LPGA’s 50th anniversary, in 2000, Berning was recognized among the top-50 all-time teachers and players.
Throughout her Nicklaus/Flick-certified teaching years, plying her trade beneath the omnipresent brim of a cowboy hat, Berning’s maternal instincts seem part of her instruction.
“I so enjoy teaching; it’s given me so much enjoyment,” she said of her work at The Reserve. “It gives me a thrill when a student hits good shots. And I also sympathize with the average golfer; with a few exceptions, they take a lesson, feel like they’ve got it down, and then don’t practice all that much. I spent hours and hours changing my swing. I spent one entire summer just practicing and making little changes.”
Continued emphasis on wedge work proves a key part of her curriculum.
“Everything today is distance, distance, distance,” Berning said. “And this is fine for the professionals who work out every day and hit thousands of balls a week. To get stronger, when the Open would come around, what I’d do is prepare by hitting a lot of balls out of heavy grass to build up that wrist strength. For the average golfer, if they want to improve, to score better, they need to work on their short game.”
Soon, Berning will set aside lofted irons and take up a pen, as she begins to prepare for her induction. “I’ll admit, it’s kinda scary,” she granted of her Hall speech.
“I’m not the best public speaker in the world, but I’ll certainly prepare myself, and I know it will all be a wonderful experience.”
Nerves from a woman who owns four majors?
“It’s just a different type of stage,” said Berning. “I won’t have a golf club in my hand; I was always more at ease with a club in my hand.”