Carol Mann

Golf Hall of Famer, Carol Mann, who grew up in Baltimore set to return for International Crown at Caves Valley. (Courtesy of Golf Digest / July 23, 2006)

Some athletes take to a sport after watching a memorable performance. Others simply are born to play it.

Hall of Fame golfer Carol Mann's career path was set when she couldn't see her head in a mirror made for young ballerinas to study their movements.

"I made my ballet debut at the Lyric Theatre [in Chicago], in a little-kids ballet," recalled Mann, who grew up in Rodgers Forge and lived there until her parents moved to Chicago after her freshman year at Notre Dame Prep. "That was my first experience of performing in the public. It was fun, it was great. I loved it.

"When I was 8 years old, I outgrew the mirror in the little-kids ballet studio. Do you know how that makes a little kid feel, when you've grown past the measuring sticks? I had to find some use for my body other than just standing around."

Mann tried competitive swimming and tennis before settling on golf, which she learned from pros Andy Gibson and Bill Strausbaugh at Towson's Country Club of Maryland. It was a fortuitous choice: Mann, who grew up to be 6 feet 3, went on to win 38 LPGA tournaments, including two majors, in a 20-year career.

Now 73 and living outside Houston, Mann will return to her hometown this week as the special guest of LPGA commissioner Michael Whan, who invited her to the inaugural International Crown at Caves Valley when he learned of Mann's connection to Baltimore.

"It's like a homecoming for me," Mann said.

Aside from watching some of the four-day, match-play event, which begins Thursday in Owings Mills, Mann said she plans to talk to whoever will listen about Maryland's role in the development of modern golf, some of whose most innovative leaders have roots in the state.

Former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman grew up in Maryland. Former PGA of America presidents Allen Wronowski, Max Elbin and Bill Clark, as well as former United States Golf Association president and Baltimore Sun publisher Reg Murphy, also spent time in the state.

"And me," said Mann, who served as LPGA president at a crucial juncture in the organization's history.

Mann started playing the game at age 9, after briefly trying to become a competitive swimmer.

"I loved using my body to do that [swim], and there was no mirror to outgrow," Mann said. "So I started swimming. I raced at Knights of Columbus. I trained down on Charles Street."

But there was a slight problem.

"I had never swam in races with lines on the bottom of the pool," Mann said. "So I swam really crooked. It was not a pleasant experience. My coach taught me to look at the lines, and I was an ace from then on."

Mann said she found out early that the thrill of victory wasn't as thrilling for her as it was for others.

"It was never about beating other people with me. I didn't like beating other people. I liked being able to be in an activity where I could master myself and challenge myself," Mann said. "That's what sports meant to me, including golf. I was never a fierce competitor. I couldn't stand that kind of behavior."

Mann turned to golf because her parents played. Mann's father, Rip, was an accomplished player, belonging to both the Country Club of Maryland and Baltimore Country Club. Her mother, Ann, started the nine-hole women's group at the Country Club of Maryland.

A natural left-hander who, like many, was taught to play the game right-handed, Mann developed an attraction to the sport that went beyond the competition.

"It was a divine experience for me," she said. "I loved being out in nature. The [aesthetic] beauty of golf is still one of my major attractions to it. My tennis coach was a guy named Leo Christie, and he told my father when I was 12, 'She's going to have to decide which to play — golf or tennis — because you can't do both.' My dad gave me a choice. Tennis seemed boring to me, and it wasn't beautiful like golf was."

For Mann, sportsmanship came before her talent did. During her first golf competition, at the locally famous Jimmy Flattery Junior Golf Tournament, Mann was questioned about her score on a particular hole.