On Par with Arnie, She is America's 'Queen of Golf'
The world of golf may have been slow to embrace women, but Sewickley amateur Carol Semple Thompson always has found her way into the club.
photos by Dylan Priest
On a summer day in 1965, young Carol Semple found herself up against a fierce yet familiar opponent. The day was clear and blue, the kind that gives a golf course fairway the lush look of velvet. Just 16 years old, Semple was leading in the final round of the Women’s West Penn Championship at Sewickley Heights Golf Club — and she was several strokes ahead of her mother, Phyllis Semple, an accomplished amateur in her own right. When the final putt dropped, she had beaten her mother handily.
Rest assured that Phyllis Semple played her best game that day. “My mother wasn’t throwing her game, but she was rooting for me to sink all of my putts,” says the woman recognized for the past generation as Semple Thompson. It was a graceful acknowledgment of the competitive nature of their relationship. “I was not to be denied. That day was the beginning. It gave me the impetus to keep improving.”
Thus launched the career of one of the greatest American women golfers in the annals of the game. Never mind that the Sewickley native remained an amateur throughout her life, or that she never achieved the name recognition or prize money of such pros as Annika Sörenstam and Nancy Lopez. Her ruthless competitive drive and 43-year string of amateur, national and international wins place her among the greats.
For starters, Semple Thompson and Arnold Palmer are the only two golfers from western Pennsylvania in the World Golf Hall of Fame. She also is one of five players in history to win three different U.S. Golf Association titles — an achievement she shares with Jack Nicklaus, JoAnne Gunderson Carner, Tiger Woods and Palmer. And she has played in more USGA championships than any person — woman or man — in history.
“Carol was not only a wonderful player, but she was a leader and committee person. She did everything,” says Alice Dye, an accomplished golfer on the amateur circuit in her day as well as a close friend of Phyllis Semple and wife of famed golf-course designer Pete Dye. With fondness, Alice Dye recalls meeting Semple Thompson at age 5 and giving the girl her golf glove. “She was capable of playing on the LPGA [Ladies Professional Golf Association] Tour (founded in 1950, when amateur-vs.-pro was a difficult choice), but she was dedicated to her game and serving women’s golf.”
The accolades and achievements go on. She won seven USGA Championships and 62 amateur titles. She played on 12 Curtis Cup teams — akin to the Ryder Cup, the competition pits the best U.S. women amateurs against the best from Europe — more than any other woman in the history of the game. Her last team effort in 2002 stands out as a career highlight. Putting from the fringe on the 18th hole at Fox Chapel Golf Club, she rolled the ball 27 feet across the green and into the cup to clinch the win. She says she still can hear the roar of the crowd that day. At 53, she was the eldest member of the team.
In February, the world of golf again bowed to Semple Thompson when the esteemed Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews — one of the oldest clubs and widely regarded as the birthplace of golf — invited 14 distinguished women golfers to join the rolls of one of the last all-male clubs in the world. She was one of the seven women invited to join as “common,” or paying members — an elite list that included English champion Angela Bonallack, U.S. mid-amateur champion Martha Lang and Marion Thannhauser, former president of the European Golf Association.
“It was big hurdle for the R&A in making this decision, as it was for Augusta [National Golf Club, home of the annual Masters Tournament],” which first admitted women in 2012, says Bob Ford, director of golf at Oakmont Country Club. “Carol was always on everyone’s list because she’s such a good golfer and carries herself so well. She’s deserving of everything she gets. She’s the queen of golf in America.”
Marlene Stewart Streit, a Canadian amateur golf champion and lifelong friend, agrees. A fellow World Golf Hall of Fame member, Stewart Streit tallied 72 amateur wins in her day. But don’t be fooled, she says with a laugh. “Carol is definitely the queen. I’m just a friend of the queen running on her coattails.”
Ever modest, Semple Thompson says she considers it an honor to be on such a short, illustrious list of women in the sport. Although family obligations will prevent her from traveling and playing St. Andrews soon, she says she will go eventually. She’s already played at the R&A more than a dozen times throughout her life, mostly with her parents while her father was a member. Opening the doors to women is an important win, she says. “Parity for women has been so slow in coming, which is unfortunate.”
Thompson with golf greats Pete Dye, Marlene Stewart Streit and JoAnne Gunderson Carner. Photo Courtesy of Marlene Stewart Streit
Semple Thompson, 66, now lives with her husband, Dick Thompson, and their cat, Matty, in a three-bedroom log home on 7 wooded acres in Sewickley Hills. Built in the 1920s, the cabin is a stone’s toss from the house where she grew up in Sewickley — it’s now the home of Pittsburgh Penguins co-owner and former star Mario Lemieux — and her mother’s family’s farm (known as Rockledge). She answers the door wearing a pink sweater vest and salmon slacks and offers a friendly handshake and broad smile before joining a visitor in a dining room filled with pictures of family and golf. “People are so tired of hearing about me,” she sighs.
P.G. Wodehouse once said, “To find a man’s true character, play golf with him.” Her golfing friends and family would agree. Semple Thompson is gracious and soft-spoken, yet intensely driven. “She wasn’t a fancy ball striker but very effective,” says Carner, the only woman to outdistance her record with most USGA championship wins. “One of the best competitors that I’ve seen.”
Since Semple Thompson’s last win in 2008, she has focused on family and community activities. She is a mentor to young women golfers as well as a local speaker, board member of the Sen. John Heinz History Center and president of the Sewickley Fox Hunt, one of the oldest drag fox hunts in the country. A large family, many of whom live nearby, keeps her busy as well. On the Semple side are two sisters, a brother and seven nieces and nephews; on the Thompson side are three stepchildren and five step-grandchildren. Harton III, her brother’s son, is the only avid golfer among them.
When asked about keeping fit, she laughs. She says she rarely went to a gym, preferring instead to pitch hay and muck the stables at Rockledge, where her family keeps two horses. “More recently I’ve been clearing bridal paths with a chainsaw and walking through the woods,” she says. “I’m narrowly focused between golf and the horses.”
Semple Thompson grew up in a prominent Pittsburgh family with industrial roots, the Semples in steel and the Keisters (her mother’s family) in coal. Her parents both were scratch golfers and active at the highest levels of the game. Her father Harton “Bud” Semple, an attorney, was instrumental in developing the Sewickley Heights Golf Club. A longtime USGA volunteer, he served as president from 1974-1975. When Semple Thompson won the U.S. Women’s Amateur at Montclair, N.J., in 1973, the president at the time stepped aside to allow her father to present the trophy. It was the only major title her father saw her win; he died at age 69 in 1990.
Phyllis Semple accompanied her daughter to her next six championships and usually followed behind her, riding in a four-wheeled scooter. An excellent athlete and golfer, musician and civic ambassador, she was a driving force in the lives of her five children.
“My mother and I were very different people,” says Semple Thompson. “She was very competitive, rah-rah, ‘Let’s practice and do this.’ I was much more laid-back.” At times, her mother offered bribes of money and new golf shoes as an incentive to propel her play, she acknowledges. On one occasion, the two women were driving home from Pinehurst after Semple Thompson had won the U.S. Senior for the third year in a row.
“She told me, ‘I didn’t like the way you hit some of those shots.’ It kind of made me laugh. There were always areas she could help me improve,” Semple Thompson says of her mother, who died in 2009 after a long battle with lupus. “I’ve seen some parents who have messed up their children. My mother was successful in pushing me the right way.”
As the Semples grew up in “the village” of Sewickley, their childhood included plenty of spirited bantering that comes in a highly competitive family, says her sister, Cherry Semple White. On summer nights, their father often stood by the edge of the backyard pool with a stopwatch while the children raced against each other and the clock. They walked to school at Sewickley Academy and played team sports.
On Sundays, the Semples marched the children to Allegheny Country Club, where they split into two groups to play the front and back nine. “As far as golf went, we all had to play,” her sister says. “My father came up with the rule (supported by their mom) that we all had to break 90 before we were allowed to quit. And we all did break 90 and pretty much quit — except, of course, for Carol.”
Her brother Harton Semple Jr., executive director of the Sewickley Valley Historical Society, insists there never was a tinge of jealousy among the siblings.
“We’re all very proud of her — astonished, in fact, by her success,” he says. “Each child felt confident in his own abilities, which was instilled by our parents and grandparents.”
Her father encouraged her to remain an amateur after she graduated in 1970 from Hollins College, which didn’t have a women’s golf team in those days. “I had mixed feelings about turning professional,” she says. “There wasn’t a whole lot of money on the tour. The lifestyle, I thought, would be lonely.”
She went back to her golf teacher, Bobby Cruickshank, a Scotsman and former pro at Chartiers Country Club who by then had moved to Florida. “I was thrashing around,” she says. Then she hit upon what was to become a powerful weapon in fortifying her mental game — hypnosis.
“It was a complete fluke,” she says. “I was working as a real estate agent, showing a steel salesman some properties. As we drove, he talked about how he had helped children with coordination problems by hypnotizing them. He said it would be really fun to work with an athlete and see if it might improve their sport.”
He gave her a tape. She went to work. Each night for six weeks, Semple Thompson settled herself on her living-room floor and sank into a hypnotic trance. A silent portion on the tape allowed her to visualize the course she would play next. She walked it in her mind, visualizing each tee shot, each chip, each putt. The year was 1973; she went on to win the U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship followed by the British Women’s Open Amateur.
“Of course, it (visualizing) didn’t always work out,” she says. “If a shot didn’t go off well, I just visualized the next shot correctly. I moved on. That’s key. If you get all wrapped up in being annoyed, that doesn’t help.”
Today, Semple Thompson has no regrets about her past choices. If she were her younger self on the circuit today, would she have turned pro? “Absolutely,” she says. “The atmosphere has changed. Amateur golf is no longer so cool. It’s expensive. I was blessed with a family that was able to support me. But that’s not the case for many now.”
Young women golfers such as Lydia Ko, the top player on the women’s tour this year, are showing the world what women can do, she says.
“There’s no comparison to what these young women are doing on the LPGA at an age when I was playing in a local championship and beating my mother.
“I played through a changing time,” she adds. “Very few lifetime amateurs are left who are playing at the top of the game. Most of the amateurs we see are teenagers and college players who disappear into the pro ranks. I didn’t feel the huge pressure so many of them feel that they have to improve themselves to be the best in the world.
“I wanted to be really good, but I wasn’t driven to be the best,” she says. “I was playing for the love of the game.”
Debra Smit is a contributing writer for Fast Company and other publications. She writes frequently about business and technology issues. Follow her on Twitter @debrsmit.