Champion woman golfer came up by detours
Jerilyn Britz, the 1979 US Women's Open golf champion, makes "Alice in Wonderland" look like a documentary. This is a highly intelligent young woman who ignored all the main roads to the top and concentrated on every detour she could find.
For example, Britz didn't turn pro until she was 30, learned her swing from reading gold books and watching others on TV, and took her first putting lesson only a couple of weeks before the Open. At that point she had spent six years on the tour without a victory, and in fact the Open is still the only pro tournament she has won.
What held Jerilyn off the tour for so long was that the "total athlete" in her kept getting in the way. As a kid, she played football and baseball with her brother and basketball, volleyball, softball, etc., with friends. At various times she also was a lifeguard and a ski instructor.
"I had so many interests in addition to golf that I simply made room for everything," Britz explained. "But one of the best things about winning the Open was that it got me into the TV Superstars competition for women.
"I was fifth among 14 other girls, which might not mean much to anyone else," she said. "But to me it meant a lot, because I was the first woman golfer in that competition ever to finish higher than last. I was glad because I think it did a lot to help our image as athletes and not just golfers."
As a teen-ager in Luverne, Minn., a city of 5,000 near Sioux Falls, S.D., Britz worked as a lifeguard for the town's swimming pool manager, Charles Weinman.
That job, the way things turned out, would lead her out of the water and onto the fairways, although it would be a long time before she would really take the game seriously.
"Mr. Weinman was a guy who was always telling funny stories, usually about something that happened during one of his gold games," Britz said. "He used to bring his clubs to the pool, and although I'd never played the game, I got pretty good at knocking the heads off dandelions during my lunch break.
"Well, Luverne had just one golf course [A nine-holer], and after a while I started to play there regularly," she continued. "The fairways were awfully narrow, and since I couldn't afford to lose too many balls on my salary, I simply forced myself to keep my drives inbounds, where I could find them. But I also continued to play most other sports."
Eventually, she enrolled at Mankato State College in Minnesota; later taught physical education for five years at the high school level; then got her master's degree at the University of New Mexico.
"One reason I chose New Mexico was because of my rising interest in golf," Jerilyn said. "I knew the weather in albuquerque would buy me a lot more playing time than the weather in Minnesota.
"At that point, I still hadn't planned on becoming a tournament professional, " she continued, "but when I heard the LPGA was holding a qualifying school in Miami in January, I decided to tak e a shot at it."
although she qualified for the tour by placing third, her inexperience surfaced early and she quickly lost her privileges. But she was back in '74, wiser overall but still with an albatross for a putting game and little change of winning, and was only 58th on the money list.
"i guess I might have stayed there if i hadn't started so poorly in 1979 [she finished among the top 15 only once in 13 tournaments] and decided I needed some help with my putting game," Jerilyn said.
"So i began to take lessons from a pro [Pete Sortino] who specializes in putting," she continued. "What I learned was that there aren't any secrets to putting; just basics that have to be mastered. By simply learning to keep the blade low, I began to control both the roll of the ball and my accuracy.I mean, I used to play rounds when I'd putt 40 times, and that should tell you just how bad I was."
Britz, who won $68,131 in 1979 and is one of the leaders of the pro tour's Bible study group, was here in connection with the $125,000 Sunstar Classic March 6-9 at Rancho Park in West Los Angeles, in which she is scheduled to compete.