Jackie Pung: The tragic tale of the major champion who wasn't

Jackie Pung Main Image

It was just a scorecard.

A scorecard the likes of which she had signed hundreds, if not thousands, of times before.

A small, unremarkable sheet, graffitied with numbers.

As she looked at it, she knew. Knew that a mistake had been made. Knew that she couldn’t take it back.

The damage was done. In that instant, ecstasy turned to agony.

Wasn’t it supposed to happen the other way around?

It did in fairytales, where they all lived happily ever after. Clearly, this wasn’t destined to be one of those times. Not so much ‘Grimm' as ‘grim’.

How couldn’t she have noticed? Today of all days!

As she stared at the number and its inflexible truth, she awoke into every professional golfer’s worst nightmare. A stinging heat flushed her cheeks and water pooled in her eyes.

For almost three-quarters of an hour, she had been the US Women’s Open champion, completing of a circle she had unwittingly started to trace as a six-year-old back home in Hawaii.

And now, because of one erroneous scribble, it was… over? Snatched from her hands before she could enjoy her reflection grinning back at her from the trophy’s polished surface?

The realisation dropped like an anvil, squashing her delight like a cartoon cat.

She started to cry.

* * *

IT WOULD BE WRONG TO SAY Jacqueline Nolte Liwai Pung – ‘Jackie’, for short – had dreamt of winning the US Women’s Open as a young child. Not just wrong. Impossible.

Born in Honolulu on December 13, 1921, she was 25 before the first edition of the championship took place.

The US Women’s Amateur? A different story. It was first played in 1895 at the Meadow Brook Club in Jericho, New York. The distinguished names of Alexa Stirling, Dorothy Campbell, Beatrix Hoyt and Margaret Curtis had already been engraved onto the Robert Cox Cup – named for the Edinburgh man who donated the trophy to the USGA – before Jackie was so much as a twinkle in her daddy’s eye.

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He was Jack Liwai, a musician by passion but a personal nurse to the grandson of shipping magnate Samuel Gardner Wilder by trade. A keen golfer and one-time captain of the Hawaiian Golf Club, Jack introduced all of his children to the game at a young age. Jackie’s potential was immediately and abundantly clear. The raw power of her easy, flowing swing was complemented by her cheerful demeanour.

She personified what it was to be prodigious.

As a teen, she played on the Roosevelt High School boys’ team and won three consecutive Hawaiian Women’s Amateur Championships from 1937 to 1939. She won the same title again in 1948 before quitting the game soon after to raise her daughters, taking a job as a saleswoman in a department store.

Her retirement was short-lived. By 1952, at the age of 31, she was back on the course and, within three months of that, was off to contest the US Women’s Amateur at Waverly Country Club in Portland. She scythed through the tournament and, after defeating Pat Lesser in the semis, Pung suddenly found herself facing little-known Shirley McFedters in the championship match. 

One-up as the pair reached the 35th hole, Pung picked the perfect moment to demonstrate her big-hitting prowess, needing just two shots to get hole-high on the 510-yard par-5. Her eventual birdie sealed a 2&1 victory and resulted in her becoming the first Hawaiian to win a USGA-sanctioned championship. At the subsequent prize-giving, she presented leis of orchids to McFedters and tournament officials.

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Fortified by her success, Pung immediately turned pro and joined the fledgling LPGA. She was a popular figure from the start. Fans, officials, media, even her fellow players all loved her. How could you fail to be charmed by somebody predisposed to dancing the hula mid-round?

In April 1953, she won the first of her five LPGA titles at the Palm Springs Open. Sandwiched between that and her second victory in July was the first of her US Women’s Open heartbreaks.

That year, the championship was staged at the Country Club of Rochester in New York and, with nothing to separate Pung and two-time major-winner Betsy Rawls after four rounds, they returned the following day for 18 more holes. There, Rawls’ greater experience told. She carded a 71 – equalling the women’s course record in the process – to take the title by six shots from Pung, who struggled to a 77.

A disappointing defeat but nothing compared to the abject torment inflicted upon her by the same championship just four years later.

Jackie Pung With Tommy Armour

* * * 

LIKE PUNG, WINGED FOOT GOLF CLUB WAS BORN IN 1921, although in its case “incorporated” would be a more appropriate word.

A consortium of golfers, mainly comprising of members of The New York Athletic Club, decided they wanted to build their own course within striking distance of Manhattan. They acquired a plot of land in Mamaroneck in Westchester – to the north-west of the city –  and commissioned acclaimed course designer A. W. Tillinghast to create two courses for them.

The first shots were struck in 1923 and, within six years, the club staged its first major championship. Bobby Jones won his third US Open thanks to a 23-stroke, 36-hole play-off victory over Al Espinosa.

Despite its popularity, prime location and the powerful individuals associated with the club – as an example, Craig Wood and Claude Harmon each won The Masters whilst employed as its head pro – Winged Foot staged only one more USGA event, the 1940 US Amateur, before the US Women’s Open rolled up in 1957.

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Unlike the US Open before it (and many further editions since), the women’s event, staged from June 27-29, took place over the shorter of the club’s two layouts, the 6,246-yard East Course. A field of 98 players took part, 33 professionals and 65 amateurs, with a prize fund of $7,200. [Note: the men’s US Open, held a fortnight earlier at the Inverness Club in Ohio, paid out that much its winner.]

In extraordinarily tough conditions, a hallmark of the USGA even then, scoring was largely confined to the black. The 36-hole cut fell at 22-over-par. Defending champion, Kathy Cornelius, finished 30th on 36-over.  Only once in four rounds did she break 80.

Pung fared rather better.

As the third and final day dawned, she carded a level-par 73 in the morning to put herself in contention for the title.

She went one better in the afternoon’s final round, sinking a 40-foot putt on the final hole for a one-under 72 and, seemingly, a one-shot victory over old foe Rawls.

Pung’s daughter rushed onto the green to hug her mother and, as she was ushered away to the media room to face the press, the new champion (Hawaii’s first major winner, no less) quickly scribbled her name on her scorecard.

It was to be the costliest scrawl of her life.

Jackie Pung Main

Some forty minutes later, the USGA announced that it had uncovered a problem. 

Pung’s playing partner in the final round, Betty Jameson, had been keeping her score as playing partner’s do and, at the end of the round, correctly gave her a total of 72. She knew where Pung stood in relation to par and so used that to work her score.

The trouble was that Jameson had marked Pung down as having had a five on the fourth hole when, in fact, she’d taken a six.

It didn’t matter that it was an honest mistake, nor that she had erred again in arriving at the correct total when, if she’d totalled the scores on the card properly, she would have presumably noticed the fault. It didn’t even matter that the score that Pung signed for was the score she had shot. There was an mistake on the card, a card that she had signed and, in accordance with the rules, the organisers had only one recourse.

Disqualification.

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Ironically, prior to 1957, the sanction for such an “offence” had been two shots. It was upgraded to full debarment after incidents involving Jack Burke and Gil Cavanaugh, and (mother of ironies) Betsy Rawls during the respective men’s and women’s US Opens of 1956.

There - that’ll teach ‘em, roared the establishment. Little did they know.

Covering the tournament for Sports Illustrated, Hebert Warren Wind described the unfolding drama in inimitable fashion.

“First, it seemed incredible, like a bad dream. Second, it seemed grossly unjust, however defensible legally. The shocking news… filled everyone with a personal sense of impotent anger and with compassion for the victim of so important a ruling based on so insignificant a technicality.”

Upon hearing the news, a distraught Pung fled the club with her daughter in tow. Then something remarkable happened: she turned around and came back. She managed to compose herself sufficiently to speak at the prize-giving ceremony where she had to watch Rawls receive the trophy. No, receive her trophy.

"Winning the Open is the greatest thing in golf,” she said. “I have come close before. This time I thought I'd won. But I didn't. Golf is played by rules and I broke a rule. I've learned a lesson. And I have two broad shoulders...”

For Rawls, it was an ill-gotten fourth major and she seemed genuinely unhappy at the circumstances of her victory. “It’s nice to win,” she said, “but I feel very badly about what happened to Jackie.”

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She wasn’t the only one. As news of what was happening spread through the club, a collection was hastily arranged. Within a very short time, over $2,000 had been raised for the people's champ. She would have made $1,700 had her win stood.

Wind added: “Some of the most generous contributions came from the USGA officials, who, in pursuit of their duty as they saw it, felt compelled to uphold the rules, whatever their personal feelings. It had all the elements of classical theatrical tragedy.

“Had the technicality of disqualification been waived, the rules of golf would not have been weakened, and, I really believe, the spirit of golf more honestly served.”

Be that as it may, the result stood. Rawls was the champion. Pung was not.

* * *

Jackie Pung 3

THE 1957 US WOMEN’S OPEN was as close as Jackie Pung ever came to winning a major.

Despite continuing to refine her game under the tutelage of Tommy Armour – the Edinburgh-born three-time major champion and, as it so happened, a member of Winged Foot – Pung struggled with the loneliness of life on tour. The food was unfamiliar to her and she toiled with homesickness. She missed her daughters and husband, the Hawaiian swimming champion Barney Pung, quite desperately.

Her diagnosis with diabetes proved to be the final straw and, in 1964, she quit the tour to become a teaching professional at the Mauna Kea Beach Resort in Hawaii.

In the mid-1970s, by then a 55-year-old grandmother six times over, she decided to make a short-lived comeback to the tour. Having slimmed down to 150 pounds – roughly half of what she had weighed a year earlier – she spoke determinedly about wanting to use her return to inspire others.

“I really want to help people with either their weight or age, if I can,” she said. “I want to give back to golf what it has given to me, namely the knowledge of the game, great friendships and knowing if there is life, there is hope.

“I feel like a butterfly that's come out of a cocoon, soft and gentle and small again.”

Hailed as “Hawaii’s First Lady of Golf”, Jackie Pung died peacefully in March 2017, at the age of 95.

Some years earlier, in the mid-nineties, Winged Foot honoured her during the club’s seventy-fifth anniversary celebrations. The champion that never was. The major winner that wasn’t.

It’s not true, you know.

Occasionally, people do remember the person who finished second.

As they should.

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