LPGA Hall of Famer & Philanthropist
Picking up her first golf club at age 8, Betsy King wasn’t phased by playing golf with all boys. With the mindset, “I need to be the best that God created me to be,” Betsy’s perseverance and determination fueled her to become one of the LPGA’s best golfers. With 34 tournament wins, Betsy qualified for the LPGA and World Golf Hall of Fames. In 2007, Betsy founded Golf Fore Africa, a non-profit organization, to bring clean water to children and their families living in extreme poverty in Africa.
Tell me about your family and where were you raised?
I was raised outside of Reading, Pennsylvania. My parents were part of that greatest generation and grew up in the Depression. My father worked from the age of 8 on. He was born in Canada, but his family moved to the U.S. when he was 5. My grandparents were Polish immigrants. I believe his father was a tailor. I never knew my grandfather. He passed away before I was born. My grandmother was a teacher, and my mother’s father was a baker. But both of my parents went to college. Education was very important to them. My parents have known each other for 70 years and have been married for over 60 years. They started dating in Junior High. My dad left college and served in the Canadian Air Force in World War II. He then came back, finished college and went on to medical school and was a physician. My parents insisted that my brother and I go to college. My dad wanted me to be a doctor, but I did not have the skill or the interest in medicine. My brother was in and out of medical school but ended up going to law school and getting his degree. He lives in Stuart, Florida, and even though he has a law degree, he owns and runs a couple of funeral homes. I also have two nephews. Overall, I have a relatively small family.
When did you first pick up a golf club?
I was about 8 years old. I grew up a typical tomboy probably because of having an older brother. When he would go outside, my parents would tell him, “Take your sister with you.” I ended up playing sports with all the boys: tackle football, basketball, and baseball. Then we started taking golf lessons together at the Reading Country Club. I was most fortunate because there were other kids to play with. It was all boys at first, which probably was better because I learned to hit the golf ball hard. When I was a teenager, there were some other girls that I played with, but initially, it was just the boys and me.
From the onset, did you have an aptitude for golf?
I was pretty athletic. It’s interesting because both my parents were gifted athletically. My father went to college on a football scholarship. My mother is in the University of Rhode Island Sports Hall of Fame for playing field hockey, basketball, and tennis. My parents were very much into sports, and they introduced my brother and me to that as well. In the morning, the first part of the paper I would read would be the sports section. I loved playing sports, and they were natural to me. I played three sports in high school and was All-County in all three: field hockey, basketball and softball.
Perseverance. Aptitude. Sportsmanship. Can you rank their importance?
Well, to be successful takes a certain level of talent, so I would rank talent first. Second is perseverance. Sportsmanship is important but is a third. Talent and perseverance are the most important. Natural competitiveness and a certain level of talent can get you to number one. I am a strong Christian. My faith’s important to me. I need to be the best that God created me to be, and I let that guide me and the decisions I make on my journey.
Your career started out with a protected dry spell. Did you ever think of quitting?
I thought I might not ever win a tournament on the LPGA. I have the most unusual success story on the tour. There’s no one else in the history of the LPGA that went almost seven years before her first win. Then, I won 34 times. Usually, if you start winning ( and if you win 30 some tournaments), you start within your first year or two. My goal was to be the best non-winner there ever was. Then, I changed instructors and learned how to win. I started working with Ed Oldfield, who’s now in his mid-80s. He helped me a lot. I made some fundamental changes in my swing. Once I won that first tournament, I knew what I needed to do to win, and that just came easier. I won the first time, and then I won two more times that first year.
What kept you going during the seven years?
Well, I was making a living. You’d like to end up a superstar, but I was making a living. When you get to the professional level, that’s what you want to do.
Were there moments where you thought about not persevering or doing something else?
Not really. I never was to the point where I said I have to quit to make a living, to survive. I was doing well enough and still was getting by. Who knows, if another couple years had gone by, I probably would have been thinking more seriously about doing something else.
Your win record is incredible: 30+ tournament wins?
I had a ten-year stretch and won more tournaments than anybody else on the tour.
How do you practice humility?
Becoming involved in a cause bigger than oneself. When I was traveling on tour, I have to admit, it was very lonely. Even though you are friends with other players, you are actually competing against those same people. My faith became more important to me in my third year on tour. Someone that traveled with the tour led a Bible study, and I became part of that group. The experience changed how I looked at competition.
Did you become more grounded?
Definitely. We were called the Christian Fellowship Group, and we did a lot of projects and fundraisers for different charities. I worked on 15 Habitat builds, went to Romania twice to visit orphanages and traveled to Honduras to work on building homes. This helped me keep golf in perspective.
How many hours a day would you practice golf?
It is really like a job, going to the office daily. There are many days you may not feel like playing, but you do. I would say, on average, you play six days a week. Then you practice an hour and a half before you play which easily takes about five hours. It’s an eight to ten-hour day, depending on the circumstances, and an average of six days a week.
How did you get to Furman?
Colleges didn’t have golf scholarships at the time, so I wasn’t recruited to play golf anywhere. My parents had a place at Hilton Head, and when we went down there, my dad suggested I look at Furman. I only applied to two colleges, Furman and East Carolina. I was accepted and went to Furman but didn’t even interview until after I was accepted. Luck brought our team together, and that team won a National Championship. It’s a funny thing, but four members of our golf team ended up playing on the tour.
Who were the four from Furman that played the tour?
The one that everybody knows is Beth Daniel. Beth was a year behind me at Furman, and we really pushed one another. We butted heads a little bit, but it was such a great experience. The other player who went on the tour was older, Cindy Ferrell. She kept us apart. We ran in different circles, but the competitiveness really was the best thing that could have ever happened. Cindy played on the tour and has been a pretty well-known golf instructor. She lives in Palm Beach and is an instructor at Lost Tree Country Club. Prior, she was an instructor at Baltusrol in New Jersey. The fourth person was Sherri Turner, a native of Greenville, who was two years behind me. She also won three times on the tour. It just worked out that way. We all pushed each other but particularly Beth. It was a great experience.
Beth is co-chairing the U.S. Open?
Yes. Beth grew up at the Country Club of Charleston where the U.S. Open is being held this year. I went home with Beth for a weekend and played there. It’s a great old golf course and will be a great site for the Women’s Open.
Tell me about the Golf Fore Africa event in Palm Beach.
It’s a golf pro-am and demonstration clinic. We have seven groups playing in the morning and then a clinic open to a wider group in the afternoon. There are six pros coming that will demonstrate, hit shots and do short game. We hold a reception afterwards with a short program about Golf Fore Africa and explain what we do. We are using the event to fundraise for a mechanized water system which would bring clean water to a health clinic, school or both. They dig a well and pump the water up to a holding tank. The water is then run through pipes to the health clinic or school. Ultimately, the system will bring western style toilets, showers and running tap water.
What brings you the most joy?
I would say when I’m in Africa. We go into villages where people have next to nothing, and they have such joy. They welcome complete strangers like us, who are usually going to donate wells or mechanized systems. We have had an impact on the community. They come and hug us and dance with us. They celebrate with us. Every time I go, I’m inspired to do more to make a difference. One statistic that just floors me is that, in her lifetime, the average African woman will walk a distance from here to the moon walking for water. They start when they are four or five years old, and they carry a small container. They walk anywhere from half a mile to two miles, depending on where they live, to get dirty water that they know will probably make the sick, but it’s the only water source they have. It’s an issue for everyone in the village but particularly for women and girls because they are the ones that are tasked with walking for water. The girls who have had to spend two hours walking for water have missed school or are too tired to go to school. The adult women have missed time with their families. I heard heartbreaking stories of women that have lost children. I met a woman whose little girl drowned in one of their hand wells, just a hole in the ground, which they had to keep digging down. She fell into it when the mother wasn’t there and drowned. I’ve heard of a woman who was pregnant with twins and fell walking for water. She lost both the babies. I met a grandmother whose daughter was raped when she was about 12 walking for water; she was infected with HIV, became pregnant and had a child. I met him. His name is Gift, and he’s 18 years old now. But the mother died from HIV when he was four or five. He was raised by his grandmother. She said, “Now my village has clean water. If we had had clean water, this never would’ve happened to my daughter.” It is a serious topic. At the same time, there are many successes, and we are making a difference. The level of poverty in the world is less today, and we are bringing clean water to more and more people each day.
In golf, what is your greatest accomplishment?
Probably winning the LPGA championship by 11 shots. It was the best I played.
You also are a Hall of Famer?
That just comes from longevity, I think. Not having won a tournament the first six years, I wasn’t thinking about the Hall of Fame. Once you win, and you keep winning, it happens. Is there a lesson here that you would share? I really believe that you can’t think so much about winning. You just have to keep trying to get better as a player and being the best that you can be. You have to be prepared when you play and not really think about the outcome.
Is your involvement with the Furman women’s golf program your way of paying it forward?
Definitely. The last ten years of my life I have had many opportunities to mentor younger players, and I reconnected with the Furman girls. There are several retired LPGA pros that now are coaching at the college level. I am good friends with the coach at Ohio State. Through Golf Fore Africa, I still get out on the LPGA Tour four or five times a year to watch tournaments. I have taken some of the younger players to Africa with me, and that has been an opportunity. I love doing it. Now that I am not competing, it is much easier to share my experience with the younger players, even junior golfers at the club where I play in Scottsdale. One attend Northwestern this year as a freshman. Her name’s Kelly Su. I’ve played with her. A number of opportunities have popped up like that.
If Lucy Li asked you for advice right now, what would you tell her?
I would say go to college because it affords you an opportunity to grow up. I see a lot of the younger players that are pushed on the tour as young as 16, and they really never learn life skills because their parents are usually taking care of them the whole time. They’re still traveling with them into their mid-twenties. The parents are doing all the things off the golf course that mature people should do. So, the younger players never really have a chance to grow up.
The result can be catastrophic, really.
Yes. I have seen world-class golfers that haven’t learned about life. It really is a shame. It is probably the biggest difference that I see with the LPGA Tour now as opposed to when I was active. When I was there, my parents couldn’t afford to come and follow me. They were still working. I wasn’t making enough money that I could support them. They would come out and watch me play occasionally, but they never were inside the ropes or telling me about my golf swing. They were always supportive which allowed me to learn to live independently.
You participated in the first Senior Tour.
Yes. I played in the first U.S. Senior Women’s Open. They’ve had a Senior Men’s Open for about 30 years. Just think about it, 30 years later, they decide to do a Women’s Senior Open. It was great and it was a lot of fun to be there. If you won the U.S. Open, it didn’t matter when you won; you were exempt into this event. There were people like JoAnne Carner, 79 years old, who came out and played in it. People simply wanted to be a part of the first one. I think all the players appreciated it. For me to be competitive, it would have needed to happen about ten years ago. So, it was a little disappointing. I did my best. I made the cut, and I played with Pat Bradley and Amy Alcott, fellow Hall of Famers. We were all grinding to make the cut. So, it was fun. I congratulate the USGA for finally recognizing senior women’s professional golf.
The discrepancy between men and women’s golf must have been frustrating.
Throughout my whole life, the only place that I’ve experienced discrimination has been in sports. I remember being in sixth grade, and we were having this competition. It was the boys versus the girls in a number of different sport activities. At the last running event, I ran the last leg, and we had a tie basically. The teacher took me aside, and said, “It was a tie, but I am giving it to the boys because he’s a boy.” I can still remember that experience. In high school, there wasn’t a girls’ golf team, and I wasn’t allowed to play on the boys’ golf team, so I did not play on a girls’ team until college. There weren’t scholarships for women either. My last two years I had a partial scholarship until I went on the tour. The purses are about 30 percent of what the men are playing for. I have one story about endorsements. My agent pitched to Reebok for me, and a top PGA Tour Pro. They were asking for $500,000 for him. They were asking for $25,000 for me. They sponsored him and not me. They paid his caddie $15,000 to wear the clothes. That was the way it was. Fortunately, things have progressed a lot. There are now six full scholarships for women’s golf at Furman. Even though the endorsements are not equal to our male counterparts, they have improved quite a bit. The purses have gone up, but percentage wise, they’re about the same as when I played.
Thirty percent is a tremendous difference between men and women’s earnings. Is that a focus of yours or is it a chapter that you’ve closed?
At the professional level, it’s probably a chapter I’ve closed. At the collegiate level, I am involved in raising money for the Furman women’s golf team. Beth and I started a pro-am to raise money for the golf program. We ran it for over 20 years. Today, the Furman woman’s program probably is one of the only Division I schools where women have more money than the men, largely due to the support from alumni.
Golf Hall of Famer, Christian Fellowship Group, Habitat for Humanity, Golf Fore Africa, Furman University . . .What do you want to be remembered for?
Well, hopefully for more than just golf but as one that persevered and worked hard. I suppose I would like to be remembered for the giving back to causes that outlive us. If we put a well in a community that will bring clean water to someone for the rest of their life, that supply of water will last way past my time here.