Child Prodigy: Judy Rankin At Age 16

Everyone loves Judy Rankin, right? Right! So I was pleased when I recently stumbled across an old Sports Illustrated article about her. In 1961, when Rankin - excuse me, Judy Torluemke - was only 16 years old, she was such a prodigy that Sports Illustrated put her on the cover the week of the U.S. Girls Amateur Championship.

After listing some of the top prospects in the field, SI author Gwilym S. Brown wrote:

... the most promising of the lot, win or lose this week, is the charming, freckle-faced, curly-haired brunette on the cover, 16-year-old Judy Torluemke of St. Louis.

In Judy, golf has a real child prodigy. She has been winning tournaments since she was 7 years old. Her first was a hole-in-one contest sponsored by the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, and it drew 602 entries. Though she was not quite four feet tall, weighed only 42 pounds and needed her driver on the 102-yard hole (most of the contestants were using short irons), she pounded all three of her shots within 15 feet 2 inches of the cup and won the women's division with an average margin of 14 feet 5 inches.

Wasn't she surprised to do so well, Judy was asked recently. "Not really," she said. "Daddy told me I could win, and I believed everything he said."

The article title is A Small But Handy Prodigy, and the first part of the subhead explains why that headline was used: "A little girl with a firm but odd grip ..."

The article continues explaining Judy's earliest days in golf:

When winter came and Judy moved to an indoor range, she proved inexhaustible. Under her father's careful scrutiny she could bang out as many as 20 buckets of balls a session, or about 900 shots.

From this enthusiastic start Judy's golf became very good very fast. At 8 she went to Orlando, Fla. with her father and won the National Pee Wee Championship, for children 10 to 12. At 9 she won the Pee Wee again and played in George S. May's frantic All-American tournament in Chicago. By the time she was 10 Judy weighed 60 pounds, still not very large even by 10-year-old standards, but she could drive a golf ball 170 yards, shoot consistently in the 80s, and had won her third straight Pee Wee Championship. Her Pee Wee successors are now playing for the Judy Torluemke Trophy.

"There seems little doubt that someday she will be one of this country's finest golfers," the author opined. And that certainly turned out to be true. After getting off to a slow start in her professional career, Judy Rankin became a superstar, a huge winner on the LPGA Tour, a Hall of Famer. Despite suffering through painful back problems for much of the meat of her pro career.

But what about that "firm but odd grip" mentioned in the article's subhead? This is how the author described it:

One explanation for Judy's seemingly miraculous play is that she has been well taught, by (golf pro Bob) Green and by her father. Her swing and body turn are smooth and powerful. Another is her ability to hit the ball far. She gets this distance from an absurdly unorthodox grip. Her left hand is turned so far to the right on the shaft that her left palm rests directly on top of it. Instead of pointing toward the target in the approved manner, the back of her left hand faces squarely to the front. Ordinarily this grip would create a boomeranging hook, but Judy has developed such strength in her left arm, wrist and hand that she is able to hit the ball hard with her right hand while keeping the left wrist from rolling over at impact. The result is a high-flying, carefully controlled hook that travels an average of 220 yards.

Two-hundred-and-20 yards might not sound long by today's standards, but we're talking 1961, and a 5-foot-3, 110-pound 16-year-old girl - 220 was long. And that does sound like an "absurdly" strong grip, but it worked for young Judy.

There was one pretty amusing passage in the article:

Judy ... drives the Torluemkes' 1959 royal-blue gearshift Chevrolet with a deft and confident ease. With her senior year in high school coming up, she has suddenly discovered that being a good golfer has made her very popular with boys. On her tournament trips she can look forward to winning beaus as well as trophies.

An interesting note about this article: It might have played a part in young Judy having a pro golf career. The World Golf Hall of Fame explains that story:

... she quit golf at 16 after losing in the second round of the British Women's Amateur. ... Two weeks after putting away her clubs in exchange for a fishing rod, Rankin received a call from Sports Illustrated wondering if she planned on competing in the U.S. Women's Open because they wanted to publish her picture on the magazine's cover. A Hall of Fame career suddenly was re-ignited.

You can read the full article in the SI Vault.

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