Ruth Jessen stuck around Seattle University just long enough to show everyone how good she was with a golf club. Sometimes it made people a little uncomfortable. Often it had them envious. Mostly, it kept them standing there in awe.
"I always felt bad for the guys at Seattle U when I outhit them, because the other guys would razz them," Jessen said.
Jessen played only as a freshman for SU's men's golf team, and just for a half season, usually slotted No. 5 in the lineup, before pursuing a long and successful LPGA career.
On May 4, 1956, she appeared in her first SU match and shot 3-over-par 76, six strokes off the lead, and won her head-to-head competition against Gonzaga at Inglewood Country Club. The following week, she beat players from Washington and Portland State.
A late arrival because of obligations to national amateur events, Jessen's inclusion on SU's men's team was no small feat. The Chieftains finished 14-1, and they were so good and competitive amongst themselves that eight different players, including Jessen, received varsity letters.
Competing alongside the men in college, Jessen knew that this had made her a better player. She decided it was time to match her skills against the best women golfers in the country. She was one of the Northwest's original one-and-done athletes.
With Seattle U returning to full Division I championship eligibility for the first time in 33 years -- when the Redhawks host Washington in a women's soccer match at Championship Field on Aug. 17 -- this is the 13th in a series of 33 stories replaying memorable SU events previously held at the NCAA's top level (1952-80).
SU was innovative in the 1950s for the mere fact that it didn't have any women's teams in place but it encouraged the better female athletes to play for its men's teams, something no other college has done in a grand scale. Jessen competed for the golf team while Janet Hopps was SU's No. 1 tennis player. A year earlier, Pat Lesser had been a SU golfer, playing anywhere from 1 to 6.
"I remember her as confident," Hopps said of Jessen. "I think we had that in common."
It was rare for anyone in the 1950s to leave college early and pursue a professional sport. Jessen, full of confidence, was the exception. The LPGA was in its formative stages, and beckoning players to come join it.
Jessen turned pro shortly after sharing in a nine-hole golf clinic with pro player Patty Berg at Seattle's Jackson Park Golf Course. Jessen's first clubs were Patty Berg models. As it turns out, Berg wanted to swing one of Jessen's current clubs.
"Patty wanted to try my driver because I was outhitting her," Jessen said. "When I got to play with Patty, I just knew I could play."
Despite a career marked by freak injuries and a bout with cancer, Jessen, who died in 2007, won 11 times on the LPGA Tour, five times in 1964. Her first tour victory came at the Tampa Open in 1959 -- at the same time she would have been a Seattle U senior.
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