POLLY ANN RILEY
August 27, 1926 – March 13, 2002
Polly Riley holds the distinction of winning the first tournament ever held by the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), even though she remained a lifelong amateur. On January 22, 1950, in Tampa, Florida, twenty-three-year-old Riley bested the U.S. Women’s Open Champion Louise Suggs by five strokes, becoming the first of only four amateurs to win LPGA events. After receiving her silver pitcher and taking photos, she immediately departed without celebration for another tournament in Miami.
Taking her first golf lesson at Colonial Country Club in 1938, Riley initially claimed that she did not like the sport. Once she started trying to control the ball’s flight off the club, the teen sensation grew to love the challenge. Later in life Polly Ann Riley admitted that she must have been destined to play golf because her initials spelled PAR.
During her first tournament in 1939, Riley hit the ball so well she gained the attention of world famous athlete Mildred (Babe) Didrikson Zaharias. During Riley’s later career, she played against Babe five times in match play, defeating her 3-2; Riley boasts the only winning record against the Babe in match play, and in 1948 dealt Babe her most lopsided defeat.
Focusing on playing the game rather than the prize, golf became her outlet and enjoyment rather than her livelihood. She had to work for a living and did so most of her life. Yet she won lots of tournaments, including her first Fort Worth City Championship in 1942. She captured 11 consecutive city championships from 1945-1956. Riley also won the Southern Amateur Championship six times, the Western Women’s Golf Association Championship two times, the Texas Amateur Championship two times, Florida East Coast Championship two times, and the South Atlantic Championship once.
Riley played on six Curtis Cup teams between 1948 and 1958, was chosen as the non-playing captain of the team in 1962, and served as an alternate in 1966. After 1958 Riley found that work took too much of her time to pursue a rigorous tournament schedule. She had to help support her widowed mother and later in life even had to pawn some of her trophies for their weight in silver to cover medical expenses.
In 2000, when the LPGA celebrated their 50th anniversary with a gala honoring past champions, Riley and other amateurs were forgotten. Riley did not take it as a snub because she had played golf for the competition, the camaraderie, and the love of the game.