When golf began in Palm Beach, men ruled the links. Then a woman who could pound out long-distance drives took the reins — and she meant business.
The days of winter-resort golf mulligans were over.
Once Bessie Fenn, starting in the mid-1920s, became the island’s most well-known golf pro, everyone — rich, famous or not — had to follow iron-clad rules.
Even the visiting Duke of Windsor couldn’t evade her watchful eye. “Doook! Doook!” she chased after him. “Your forgot to pay your green fee!”
For 34 years, Fenn was the boss at the Palm Beach Golf Club, the progenitor of what is now Florida’s oldest 18-hole golf course operating on its original site: The Breakers’ Ocean Course.
The course has been redesigned in recent decades and last season reopened after a buzzed-about renovation by famed golf-course architect Rees Jones — but all of that was after Fenn’s time.
When Fenn was appointed as head golf pro and supervisor of activities at the Palm Beach Golf Club in 1926, she was the first woman golf professional in the country to be put in charge of a club.
And to be put in charge of the Palm Beach Golf Club in particular was notable. The club had cachet; its golf course, the island’s first, dated to 1897.
That’s when Standard Oil baron, railroad tycoon and developer Henry Flagler had the course built between his two Palm Beach hotels: the now-gone Royal Poinciana on the lake and, just east on the ocean, what would be renamed The Breakers in 1901.
Historic documents and old newspapers differ on whether the first course — designed by ace golfer and Great Britain native Alexander Findlay — was a six-hole or nine-hole course, but either way, it quickly became a nine-holer.
And it was expanded again in 1901 to 18 holes, becoming “one of the best in the South,” the Boston Home Journal enthused, as part of a golf circuit covering all of Flagler’s east-coast Florida hotels. “The person who does not play golf in Palm Beach is a little behind the times at this resort,” the Palm Beach Daily news reported at the time.
A natural talent
Bessie Fenn was a child then, but she was on the scene — the daughter of the Palm Beach Golf Club’s first supervising pro starting in 1898. Arthur H. Fenn, one of the most respected golfers in the country in his day, today is recognized by many as the first American-born golf professional and course designer.
Having won countless golf trophies, he served as pro at both Maine’s Poland Spring resort (where he designed a course and is well-remembered to this day) and at the Palm Beach Golf Club. He summered at the former and wintered at the latter. His family often was with him in Palm Beach, including his wife, Mary.
Young Bessie was a golfing prodigy, but she became a nurse after graduating from nursing school in Boston in 1918. “Nursing was a wonderful profession,” she later recalled, “but I saw a chance for higher earnings as a golf pro.”
Between 1920 and 1924, she qualified for national tournaments five times, but never got past the second round. Still, she won state championships in Maine and Florida, including in Palm Beach, then home to many tournaments.
Then she went pro — one of the first women to do so. “A woman need not be large to play a fine game,” she said. “What's needed is a good, flexible and strong pair of wrists.”
In 1925, her father died, after serving as golf pro at the Palm Beach Golf Club for 27 years. Numerous men applied for his job. So did Bessie.
“Mr. Fenn had hosts of friend and will be sadly missed,” The Palm Beach Post reported, “but it is gratifying to those who knew and loved him that his daughter has been engaged to take charge of the club and to fill her father’s place here.”
Bessie Fenn’s first season as golf pro in 1926 at the Palm Beach Golf Club came as its affiliate, The Breakers, never looked better: In an Italianate Renaissance style, the hotel had been rebuilt— from the ground up — after its previous incarnation had gone up in flames in March of 1925.
Visitors flocked to see and stay at the new fireproof, 425-room hotel. And if they played golf, they turned to Bessie and her staff: an assistant pro, a teaching pro, a club secretary, a golf shop director, a caddie master and several caddies.
Fenn and her mother, who later owned a home on Flagler Drive in West Palm Beach, were social in Palm Beach. They attended or hosted luncheons, dinners and engagement parties, and Bessie also played in bridge games.
A strict enforcer
At the Palm Beach Golf Club, Bessie was well-liked and respected as “guardian of the golf course,” including by members of the by-then renowned Old Guard Society of Palm Beach Golfers, which continues today after 100-plus years.
But Fenn was perhaps best known for being a stickler for rules and tournament protocol. “She was a tough gal," the late Palm Beach historian James Ponce said.
She pitched a wooden sign at the first tee: Mulligans Not Permitted. If anyone teed up a second ball after flubbing the first, she’d cry out, “No mulligans at The Breakers!” She also insisted the ball be played wherever it lay as a result of your previous shot; lax “winter rules” didn’t apply, she said.
Later, after auto golf carts were introduced and more widely introduced at clubs, Fenn prohibited them unless a golfer’s doctor insisted one was required. “Golf is a game for sociability and exercise and you can’t get those benefits when you ride in a cart,” she said. “When they bring those carts to my course, I won't be here.”
During Fenn’s 30-plus years at the Palm Beach Golf Club, the club entered a new era in 1938 after famed golf-course architect Donald Ross redesigned the course then. Other renovations would follow.
When Fenn retired in 1959 (four years before she died in 1963 at age 74), the women’s association at the Palm Beach Golf Club mounted a large photograph of her in the now-gone clubhouse. Among other things, an annual golf tournament in her name was launched.
A caddie, George Miles, who’d toted bags for 30 years under Fenn’s leadership, lamented, “Miss Fenn was mighty nice to us boys. We’ll sure miss her.”