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.
"There was some discrepancy, so I sat there and I told them the truth. I'm a little kid, so they gave me an award for sportsmanship," Mann said with a laugh. "I didn't know what sportsmanship meant. That trophy is in my Hall of Fame locker" at the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Fla.
Mann's golf career took off after her father moved the family to Chicago. It turned out to be a good move for Mann, who took lessons at prestigious Olympia Fields Country Club and played in her first national tournament, the U.S. Girls' Junior, in Toledo, Ohio.
"I was 14 years old, and my father put me on a train with some cash and a sandwich and an apple," Mann said. "I got off in Toledo, and a family I was staying with met me at the station."
Mann won her first big national tournament at age 17. "I got a $100 scholarship to college," she recalled. Mann went to Woman's College of the University of North Carolina (now UNC Greensboro) but left after two years.
"I didn't want to become a teacher. I wanted to study golf more," she said.
With the encouragement of LPGA founding member Patty Berg and other future Hall of Famers Mickey Wright and Betsy Rawls, whom she met through her connection to Chicago-based Wilson Sporting Goods Co., Mann turned pro in 1960 and joined the LPGA a year later.
"Mickey and Betsy, they were worse than drill sergeants," Mann said. "They beat me up over taking responsibility for myself. That was the biggest lesson I had the whole time. Was I going to be strong enough to do that? I didn't know exactly what they meant. They made sure that I lived up to their coaching."
Mann won her first tournament in 1964, the Women's Western Open, considered a major championship at the time. A year later, she won the U.S. Women's Open. She would go on to become one of the most dominant players on the burgeoning LPGA tour, winning 10 tournaments in 1968.
Kathy "Whitworth and I won two of every three tournaments," Mann said of golf's all-time wins leader, who also finished with 10 in 1968 and 88 overall.
Though others might, Mann doesn't consider herself a pioneer in women's golf, a status she reserves for players such as Berg, Wright and Rawls, who served as executive director of the LPGA Championship for many years after she retired from competition.
"I call us the sustainers, because somebody had to sustain what the founders created and continue to make it better," she said of a generation that would include Whitworth, JoAnne Carner and Judy Rankin. "Make it better for those people coming from behind."
Perhaps Mann's biggest contribution to the game came when she was asked to take over as president of the LPGA in the early 1970s, when female athletes were striving for equality made possible by the recently enacted Title IX. At the time, the LPGA also was involved in a lawsuit against one of its own players.
"The LPGA was not attracting the best woman amateurs at that time," Mann recalled. "Our media relations were terrible. We were like the big, bad wolf in a legal matter against one of our players. We had to clean that up. We were in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Every court battle, we lost. … It was a scary time. It was hard to sleep."
With the help of Wayne Schelle, a professor of business administration and organizational management at what was then Towson State, Mann learned how to help run the LPGA.
"I'd take a six-pack of beer, a couple of packs of cigarettes, and we'd sit there for hours, for days on end," Mann said. "He gave me a real education in bigger-picture thinking. I had to fire our executive director and seek a new one. We had over 600 candidates, and Wayne Schelle ran the whole thing [search process]."
It led, in 1975, to the LPGA's hiring Ray Volpe, an NFL marketing executive, as its first commissioner. With an influx of young, talented players such as Nancy Lopez, Pat Bradley, Hollis Stacy and Beth Daniel — as well as Australia's Jan Stephenson, one of the first big non-American stars — the LPGA took off.
Mann was instrumental in the success.
"She was a big decision-maker at that point, and she had a vision for the LPGA doing a little more big business than they were doing," recalled Rankin, a fellow Hall of Famer who is now is an LPGA analyst for the Golf Channel. "She was instrumental in having that come to be. She had a pretty good mind for business."
Mann used that business acumen to form her own company, developing and designing golf courses as well as promoting other golf-related companies. Always a student of the game, Mann also has spent considerable time teaching, with her students ranging from those just learning to play to current LPGA player Katie Futcher.
With a recent resurgence of American players and Whan's leadership, Mann sees some similarities now in the LPGA to its high point in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Mann believes highly ranked Americans Stacy Lewis, Lexi Thompson and Michelle Wie will help bring back fans who were not paying attention to a tour dominated by foreigners over the past decade.
"I get goose bumps every day thinking about them and how staggeringly skillful they are," Mann said. "I continue to be amazed at the skill and talent and passion for excellence that these young women have, especially the young Americans. I am thrilled about that. It exceeds my dreams, if you want to know the truth."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun