Marlene Streit’s Age-Defying Triumph

Golfer Marlene Streit wins the US Senior Women's Amateur Championship

Marlene Stewart Streit hoists the U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur trophy in 2003. (Image: USGA)

Marlene Stewart Streit’s victory over far younger challengers in the 2003 U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur was the capstone of a brilliant career that saw her become the first—and still only—Canadian player inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Even the great Marlene Stewart Streit, the conjurer of so many fairway miracles, had to pinch herself after her unlikely triumph in the 2003 U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur Championship.

“Who would have figured it?” says Streit, who was just six months shy of her 70th birthday at the time. “I had absolutely no expectations other than to visit with my old friends and maybe win a match or two. It would have been crazy to hope for more.”

Streit amazed herself and everyone watching by persevering through 47 holes of match-play on a final day played in blistering heat at Barton Creek Resort and Spa in Austin, Texas. Dousing herself with ice water between shots, Streit broke the USGA Senior Women’s longest-match record of 21 holes in the 24-hole semifinal, then bettered the previous record again by outlasting old foe Nancy Fitzgerald in a 23-hole final. In a competition open to women 50 and older, Streit defeated opponents in the semi-final and final who were a combined 27 years her junior.

Now a hale octogenarian who routinely shoots her age, Streit enjoyed an unparalleled career that included victories in every major championship in women’s amateur golf. In 2000, she was named the Canadian Ladies’ Golf Association’s female amateur player of the 20th century. And in 2004 Streit became the first—and still only—Canadian player inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Golfer Marlene Stewart Streit wins the US Open Championship 1956

In 1956 Streit captured the biggest prize of all, the U.S. Amateur.

But Streit’s victory in the 2003 U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur easily ranks among her most significant and personally satisfying accomplishments. Streit, who had also won the title in 1985 and 1994, became the oldest player ever to win a United States Golf Association championship. She also became the first golfer—male or female—to capture national championships in six successive decades.

Streit’s love affair with the game began at the age of 12, when she started caddying at Lookout Point Golf Club in her southwestern Ontario hometown of Fonthill. The club pro, Gordon McInnis, took her under his wing, giving her a solid grounding in the fundamentals: grip, stance and posture, the total knitted together in the rhythm of Streit’s naturally fluid swing.

McInnis’s knowledge and friendship were the rocks on which Streit built her game. “Gord believed in me, and that made me believe in myself,” she says warmly. “Gord McInnis was the only coach I ever needed.”

As a youngster Streit worked so hard on her game that she developed a three-inch callus shaped like a half-moon on the palm of her left hand. Thrilled to her soul by the act of hitting a golf ball, she practically lived at the practice range. “I loved the privacy, the peace and quiet of it,” Streit says. “I’d get lost in myself, losing all sense of time. Even today, I’d rather practise than play.”

Streit burst into the national consciousness in 1951 when, as a 17-year-old, she took both the Canadian Open and Close (Canadians only) crowns. Named that year’s winner of the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada’s outstanding athlete, the barely five-foot-tall teenager became the country’s newest sporting sweetheart, the equal of Olympic gold-medal-winning figure skater Barbara Ann Scott in her popularity.

In the history of Canadian golf, only modern-day superstar Brooke Henderson has risen from obscurity to adulation so quickly.

From her earliest victories forward, Streit carried about her an air of invincibility. Her icy calm in the heat of competition unnerved opponents, and the incredible accuracy of her shots stripped them of their advantage in size and power.

Toronto Star Weekly magazine with cover image of golfer Marlene Stewart Streit

Canada’s sweetheart seen on the cover of the old Star Weekly magazine in the 1950s.

Almost overnight Streit claimed her place among the top amateur golfers in the world. Already dominant in Canada, she made her breakthrough to international stardom in 1953 at the British Ladies’ Amateur Championship, played at Royal Porthcawl Golf Club in Wales. The 19-year-old shocked Britons with the brilliance of her play in the final match against Irish star Philomena Garvey.

“We walked in dazed procession, wondering how so young a girl could know so much wonderful golf,” wrote Desmond Hackett of the Daily Express. “Apart from the immortal Babe Didrickson Zaharias, I have never seen anything so coldly calculated and correct as this child. We have seen a girl who will surely become the greatest-ever woman golfer.”

In 1956, Streit enjoyed a golden summer that saw her take the Canadian Open and Close titles and capture the biggest prize of all, the U.S. Amateur. In a thrilling 36-hole final, Streit defeated JoAnne Gunderson, a strapping 150-pound 17-year-old who later became known as Big Momma when she starred in the professional ranks.

That year, for the second time, Streit won the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada’s outstanding athlete. In the five years since winning her first national title, Streit had singlehandedly put Canada on the map of international golf and now stood widely acclaimed as the greatest player ever developed in this country.

Starting around this time, pressure was put on Streit to leave the amateur ranks and test her skill on the newly formed Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour. But she quickly realized that the last thing she wanted was a life spent constantly on the road as a touring professional.

Golfer Marlene Stewart Streit swinging her golf club, 1951.

Streit was named Canada’s outstanding athlete in 1951 and 1956.

In 1957, Marlene Stewart married J. Douglas Streit, a partner in a successful Toronto investment firm. Her husband’s financial success made it possible for her to remain an amateur and enjoy the best of both worlds, golf and family, even after the birth of their two daughters. Streit travelled the world from Canada to Britain, Norway and Australia while competing against everyone from Zaharias to Mickey Wright.

But still, the question has always persisted: How would Marlene Stewart Streit have done as a professional?

Streit, always so confident of her abilities, hasn’t the slightest doubt about it. “I know exactly how I would have done,” she says firmly. “I would have been great out there.”

Former opponents who went on to play in the professional ranks felt just as certain of a triumphant outcome. “If she had turned pro, she would’ve needed a truck to take her money to the bank,” JoAnne Gunderson Carner has said of Streit. “I’ve never seen a more competitive golfer.”

In 1963, Streit won the Australian Amateur to become the first woman to capture the Canadian, British, U.S. and Australian titles in a career. Three years later, she defeated the world’s best in winning the individual honours in the World Amateur Team Championships.

Along the way there were 11 Canadian Open championships, nine Canadian Close titles and other victories too numerous to mention. Streit’s accomplishments saw her enshrined in the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame and made an Officer of the Order of Canada.

Even as a senior, Streit continued to dominate. She won four Canadian Senior Ladies’ Amateur titles in addition to her three U.S. Women’s Senior Amateur crowns.

Golfer Marlene Stewart Streit wins the Canadian Close 1953

Streit in 1953 after winning one of her nine Canadian Close titles.

Streit’s victory in the 23-hole final shootout at the 2003 U.S. Senior Amateur came at the expense of the same golfer she had defeated in the 1994 final, American Nancy Fitzgerald, who was 10 years her junior.

Fitzgerald dominated in the early going, with Streit bogeying the first and third holes to fall two holes behind. Some in the gallery thought the Canadian might be worn out after her 24-hole semi-final. But Streit says fatigue and the unrelenting 32 degree Celsius heat were never serious considerations.

“I just wiped my neck and face with ice water and kept going,” she remembers. “I couldn’t afford the luxury of being tired, not with so much at stake. I was ready to play however many holes it took.”

In fact, Streit says that throughout that long day she had the calming and yet energizing feeling that it was perhaps her destiny to win the tournament. Often her thoughts turned to her late husband, who had passed away in the summer of 2000. Golf helped her work through her grief, and now it seemed that Doug was by her side with every swing, urging her to victory.

Streit fought back, finally squaring the match on the 13th hole and then forcing a playoff when her par trumped her opponent’s bogey on the 18th. On the fifth extra hole, a 506-yard par five, Streit coolly two-putted for par to beat Fitzgerald’s bogey and clinch the championship.

“I felt so blessed,” Streit says of extending her streak of national championships into an unprecedented sixth consecutive decade. “It was such an unexpected and beautiful gift.”