Sandra Palmer reflects on her career as one of the LPGA's toughest competitors
Small but mighty, Sandra Palmer, 77, is a 19-time winner on the LPGA Tour with two major championship titles. At just shy of 5’ 5” with an unassuming drawl and the charm to go with it, you’d never take her for a fierce competitor and merciless ball striker who most often won on lengthy golf courses. But according to Jane Blalock, she most certainly was.
“Don’t let the Texas accent fool you,” says Blalock, Palmer’s longtime LPGA and Legends Tour peer and CEO of the KPMG Women’s PGA Clinics. “It’s disarming. Her ability to focus and concentrate on the golf course was unparalleled, especially under pressure. She was a terrific shot maker – you don’t win a U.S. Women’s Open without that.”
Palmer (no relation to Arnold) won the 1975 U.S. Women’s Open at Atlantic City Golf Club in Northfield, NJ, by four strokes. Next closest? Nancy Lopez, JoAnne Carner and Canada’s Sandra Post.
“It was a good year for me,” says Palmer, who that same year won the Colgate-Dinah Shore Winner’s Circle (now the ANA Inspiration and a major championship) and was named LPGA Player of the Year.
“I was a very consistent and accurate player – especially on the longer courses. Harvey Penick was my coach, and he gave me a lot of very good advice. All those things he says that sound obvious now, well, they work.” Penick, a decorated PGA professional who coached numerous Hall of Famers for over four decades is perhaps best known for his Little Red Book: Lessons and Teachings from a Lifetime of Golf (see Book Club at the bottom of this issue).
After her incredible run in the 1970's and 1980's on the LPGA Tour, Palmer turned to teaching and continues to do so now in the Rancho Mirage, Calif. area. She has also provided highly valued instruction at the West Coast KPMG Women’s PGA Clinics sites. Palmer is a member at Mission Hills Country Club, home of the ANA Inspiration, and often plays 9 holes on her own, a practice she says is good for your game and your soul.
“I enjoy playing by myself. You can go out and throw a few balls down, try different things,” says Palmer. “When you play with other people, you know, everyone has to comment on every shot whether it’s good or bad, and that’s okay when you’re out there socializing. But sometimes it’s nice to just go out and hit shots by yourself – it’s peaceful, and I just love being outdoors.”
Palmer found golf as a 6th grader living in a small town in Maine. As she hopped off the bus every day, she began to take notice of a 9-hole course situated near her school. “I wanted to know what it was, so one day I got off the bus and just went in and checked it out,” says Palmer. No one in her family played golf.
“Soon after, I started caddying there,” adds Palmer. “I grew up playing muni golf, came up through the public course ranks. The man I caddied for most often when I was a kid later came to watch me play on the LPGA Tour in Miami and I won. He was thrilled.” Before joining the LPGA Tour, Palmer, whose family had relocated to Texas, won the West Texas Amateur four times and was also the 1963 Texas State Amateur Champion.
A cheerleader and Homecoming Queen at North Texas State University, Palmer was the first person in her family to attend college, and while there was no organized women’s golf team, she finished runner-up in the 1961 National Collegiate Golf Championship. “I was pretty shy,” says Palmer, “I only joined a sorority and ran for cheerleading because my best friend Libby co-campaigned with me. We had a great slogan and gave out Doublemint gum, and that worked,” she chuckles, adding, “I have no recollection of how I got to be Homecoming Queen, you know, it was just one of those things.”
Looking back on her professional career, Palmer admits she was never a long ball hitter, but she knew how to manage the course and her bunker play and short game skills were steady and reliable.
“I’m amazed at how far women can hit it now,” marvels Palmer. “That has to give you a certain level of confidence, but you know, you still have to get it in the hole. And you have to control your emotions,” says Palmer, who played her last LPGA Tour event in 1997 and has most recently teed it up in several events on The Legends Tour, official senior tour of the LPGA (age 45+). She was inducted into the Legends Hall of Fame in 2017. “The equipment is ever-changing,” she adds, “and that also makes a difference.”
Happy to continue providing lessons and stay close to the game she loves (she has her own golf cart at Mission Hills), Palmer still longs for those competitive days when there was routinely another tournament on the horizon. “I love the freedom of golf,” says Palmer, “and I loved having something to look forward to. I loved competing. You have control over your own self. How good can you be? It always seemed so elusive, but when you put it all together and won, there it was. I never thought I reached my full potential, but looking back, maybe I did. I always played my game.”
Pointers: “The two things I notice most about amateurs is they have bad grips and their alignment is off, " says Palmer, who has played in countless pro-am events over the years. "I never try to correct anything during the round because it’s about having fun, but I might say something afterward, certainly if I’m asked and possibly as a suggestion depending on how we got along.”
Shared from Fore! Fridays, a weekly e-pub of stories and conversation starters designed to help you look good, play better and know more when it comes to golf.
Sandra Palmer, who won the Colgate-Dinah Shore Winner's Circle in 1975, comes full circle and poses on the first tee at Mission Hills Country Club in March 2019 with her Junior ANA Inspiration playing partners, Zoe Antoinette Campos and Kynadie Adams.
Pictured here at a Legends Tour event, Sandra Palmer ( far L), remembers the good times on the LPGA Tour with her friends and fellow competitors from L to R, Sandra Haynie, Donna Caponi and Betsy King.