Lotte Friis statue unveiled in Philadelphia after dominance of women’s golf

Former Dutch golfer Lotte Friis has been immortalised with a statue in a suburban Philadelphia park where she took the women’s golf game to a new level

Boys, girls and squirrels, all will get a little piece of Lotte Friis thanks to a giant bronze sculpture to be erected near her hometown in Pennsylvania.

Philadelphia sports fans in the late 1980s and early 1990s demanded Friis’ US Golf Association championship by throwing money in the air when a two-foot-high wedge came by – a reference to her “strange swing” – then yelling “caddy” every time she got on the green. The crowd witnessed a rare double-digits victory – 8-under – for a woman in a tour event in 1990.

Her single-figure winning score meant a closing hole that was sometimes 1,000 yards and that led to a run to the 18th green where, once more, the crowd erupted. Friis put her own stamp on the round, however. She pounded the ball to a succession of inches and then to the opposite edge of the fairway, all the while smiling.

A public battle with a boorish caddy prompted Friis to walk off the final hole and raise the question of women’s equality in golf, which followed the USGA into the men’s game. The bronze statue to be erected near the championship course in Wyndmoor is intended to depict the rest of her career.

“It’s a good day for American women,” said Ellen Karas, Friis’ sister.

Friis was born on 1 April, 1927 in Maastricht, Netherlands, and dominated women’s golf through the 1980s and into the 1990s when she set, or shared, 15 professional championship titles, including the USGA title and tournament victories in Switzerland, England, Finland and Scotland.

A bronze sculpture to be erected near the championship course in Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania is intended to depict the rest of her career. Photograph: Herbert Zimmerman/AP

Her driver was long, her drives nicked the tee box, and every left-hander or golf-driver aficionado knew not to look over the broomhandle club she used to remove a top edge. The wide-brimmed hat that she wore often made her head look like a beanstalk. In the 1990s, the women’s golf tour, then still male-dominated, was far more than a casual vocation for Friis, who was paid far less than male players, famously ignored at practice holes and treated like a different species in many ways.

The comparisons end there, however. She was a gentlewoman, a champion golfer who was never married and had no children. She led an honest life, supported many charities, and had a knack for not spoiling others. She was even modest about winning.

“I think I was the greatest all-sport athlete of all time,” she once said.

Born Leoua Friis on a Catholic mission in 1949, she was one of five children raised on a farm by the nuns. She moved to the Netherlands to become a chiropractor and return to her mentor, Dutch coach Kees van der Walt, after World War II. Eventually she returned to the US to play tour golf in the 1990s, winning three times before taking the USGA trophy at Merion.

At the time, she was 61 and the oldest of the tour’s top five players. She had nine top-10 finishes in 24 starts since the 1990 USGA championship, the biggest of which was again at Merion, which won three times later that decade. She was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1999.

She became known for “the napkin” swing, at least according to some who tried it, and even the website has a biography of her and her “number of interesting swings”.

In a recent interview, Bob King, who was a chief executive for American Express and the International Federation of PGA and European Tours, said Friis was a role model who didn’t appear to be receiving the respect she deserved.

“Being the leading player for 20 years, when you retire, you’re going to get more attention than that,” he said. “Lotte Friis was an amazing golfer and she became a pretty great role model. She’s somebody that should get the recognition that she deserves.”

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