EDITOR’S NOTE—Retired U.S. Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor died Friday at age 93. A pioneer as the first woman to serve on the high court, working from 1981 to 2006, O’Connor also was a golfer, taking up the game in earnest as an adult. The combination inspired a conversation Golf Digest writer Dave Kindred had with O’Connor in the early 2000s. At the time, Martha Burk, chair for the National Council of Women’s Organizations, was very publicly condeming Augusta National Golf Club for not having any female members, holding a protest in Augusta during the 2003 Masters. Might O’Connor be a logical candidate to become the first? Kindred let O’Connor answer the question in this story that originally ran in our January 2003 issue.
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Some friends of Sandra Day O’Connor say she took a year’s worth of lessons in her late 30s, maybe two years’ worth, before she ever put a peg in the ground and hit a shot that counted.
They love that story. They call it evidence of her belief that study and practice are the bedrock of excellence. They hope every justice of the U.S. Supreme Court is as diligent and patient in seeking out higher truth.
It’s a good story. The real story is better.
Here’s how it starts: Where Sandra Day grew up, in a cowboy world that no longer exists, she knew Gila monsters and coyotes, kerosene lamps and outhouses. As early as age 8, a Shirley Temple on horseback, she rode with stinking, grizzled, heart-of-gold cowboys who on their days off drank whiskey in a dirt-floor bar called The Snakepit.
Golf at the Lazy B Ranch was about as likely as pet rattlesnakes reciting Shakespeare’s love sonnets.
Sandra Day was at Stanford University, taking a required physical-education course, when she first picked up a golf club.
“We stood on that golf range, and I’m sure there was not one little bit of instruction” before the quarter’s end, when everyone played nine holes. “I think my score was well over 100 for nine. I hadn’t learned very much during this period. So that was pretty discouraging.”
For 20 years she put away the crooked sticks. She became a lawyer, wife, mother and judge with interests in politics, horseback riding, tennis, bridge, skiing, fly-fishing and white-water rafting. “And then we went to a 40th birthday party for a good friend of ours in Wisconsin on a lake, and we all played golf. My husband and I were out there flailing around with everyone else, and we had a great time and thought it was so much fun. I was about 40 myself, so I started much too late.”
Here, the lessons. More than a year’s worth. More than two years’ worth. That’s because, she says, “I was working …”
She had become a judge in Phoenix.
“… and I had small children, and time was critical for me. So I would go on Saturday…”
O’Connor is the only golfer in history who decided a presidential election six days before she made a hole-in-one.
She went to an old English gentleman named Harold Harrison, the teaching pro at Paradise Valley Country Club. She calls him a dear, special man who treasured the game’s traditions and rules.
“ .. . and I’d hit a bucket or two of golf balls after, and I did that for about five years.”
“I wasn’t playing, but I was enjoying very much the lessons. I would have paid Harold just to be in his company whether or not I was learning golf.”
As measure of how well she learned, and how much she came to care about Harold Harrison’s game in the last 30 years, herewith a scouting report on the golfer Sandra Day O’Connor supplied by family, friends and teaching pros:
“Delightful, enjoys competition.” “Hits a long ball, and straight.”
“A 15-handicap, athletic still for her age , doesn’t pitty-pat it.”
“Loves golf, and, like all of us, wants to tell you about her successes.”
“Bumps putts with a version of the ‘claw’ grip.” “No Clintonian fudging; she counts ’em all.” “Interested in technique.” “She’ll take a dollar bet.” “It’s her great escape.”
To hear Justice O’Connor on golf’s appeal is to hear echoes of her family’s story:
“It’s a hard game. And a game of such minutiae. The slightest error in your grip or swing can result in a bad shot. And it’s so satisfying when you hit a good shot.
“Golf, like skiing, is something you have to do all by yourself. You can’t blame it on anybody. It’s your problem to make a good swing. The same is true on the ski slopes. It’s all up to you to carve a good turn. I find that’s a fun challenge.
“And you’re playing in very attractive places with a chance to be in the company of three friends.”
The Days’ story is a pioneer epic of hard work and self-reliance. In 1922 Harry (D.A.) Day took over his family’s 160,000 acres of open land straddling the Arizona-New Mexico border 100 miles above Mexico. Varmints, cacti and creepy-crawly evildoers shared the harsh land of the high-desert country with the few humans brave and foolish enough even to stop by.
Only the strongest stayed any time at all. The Days arrived in 1880 and stayed 113 years. When D.A. Day died at age 86 in 1984, his wife, Ada Mae, and children, Sandra, Ann and Alan, secreted his ashes atop Round Mountain, a lonesome peak that stands sentinel over the ranch.
Lazy B cowboys named Rastus, Bug and Claude were beaten into irregular shapes by ornery animals and unforgiving terrain. Jim Brister, the champ cowboy, once took care of a bad tooth by heating a strand of baling wire and dipping it into the tooth’s dark hole; when the sizzle ended and smoke cleared, he’d done a cowboy’s root canal.
It’s small surprise, then, to hear D.A. Day didn’t think much of golf. Alan Day remembers his father saying, “Why would they do a sissy thing like that?”
“My father thought it was a game for effete Easterners,” O’Connor says, “and that no self-respecting ranch girl would play golf.”
Here, a laugh.
“I suspect my father is rolling over on top of Round Mountain at the thought that all three of his children like golf.”
That affection may have been evident even in her work. She joined the Supreme Court’s 7-2 majority ordering the PGA Tour to make disability accommodations for Casey Martin. She says, “I imagine I could envision the situation better because of my golf experience.”
Alan Day believes his sister would be “absolutely honored and would love” to be the first woman member at Augusta National Golf Club.
“She tells me she gets to go down there once a year as a guest of a member and play for a couple of days. … She knows how special Augusta is, and she appreciates it.”
Or take her to the Monterey Peninsula and put her on the 16th tee at Cypress Point Golf Club with ocean and rocks and cliffs between her and the distant green. There she is a happy woman.
“My favorite of all is Cypress, so beautiful,” she says. “And it’s so exciting there to hit over that water. It really is something. And you see the wildlife, the deer, seals. Oh, it’s just marvelous.”
A happy player, and unique—the only golfer in history who decided a presidential election six days before she made a hole-in-one.
On Dec. 11, 2000, the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision ended the presidential vote recount flap in Florida. Though the opinion was unsigned, court scholars reckoned O’Connor and Anthony M. Kennedy were the swing votes.
On Dec. 17, O’Connor and her husband, John, joined friends, Al and Ginger Moore, for a round at Paradise Valley. “It had been a dreadful week for Sandra,” Ginger Moore says, “and she was just glad to be home with friends, out of that mess.”
At the 150-yard ninth hole, O’Connor’s 3-wood shot disappeared into shadows covering the green.
“Sandra’s ball we couldn’t find,” Ginger Moore says. “So we said, ‘Look in the hole.’ She did, and there it was. Oh, she was excited. She said, ‘Really? You mean—oh, gosh, I don’t believe it.’ We made a lot of noise, and Sandra was cute afterward. She asked, ‘So how does this work—do I buy drinks for everybody?’ ”
A conscientious member’s question, that one is.
The kind of question asked by a good member at, oh, just picking a place, Augusta National.
Might a ranch girl/Supreme Court justice accept an invitation to be the first woman member at Augusta National?
“I’m not looking for a new membership anywhere,” Sandra Day O’Connor says.
Then, “Oh, dear.”
And laughing, “I’ll pass on that.”
This article was originally published on golfdigest.com