If Babe Zaharias were alive today, she wouldn't recognize the course that bears her name. In the late 1940s and early '50s, when Zaharias was at the tail end of a spectacular athletic career, she would spend time at Forest Hills Golf and Country Club in Tampa. It was one of the most exclusive clubs in town. Built in 1926, it is one of Tampa's oldest courses, along with Palma Ceia and Temple Terrace Country Club. The Babe, along with her husband George Zaharias, liked it so much that they bought it in 1949. One of the greatest female athletes ever and her professional wrestler husband could be seen regularly at the course. But when Babe died of cancer in 1956 at age 42, the course died as well. It could have become wasteland, or condominiums. Instead, the city of Tampa restored it and named it after its late owner.
On Saturday, Babe Didrikson Zaharias would have been 99 years old. The city is planning to celebrate by throwing a party and a tournament at Babe Zaharias Golf Course.
"This originally started with the (Forest Hills) Neighborhood Association wanting to do something in recognition of Babe's birthday,'' Babe Zaharias Golf Course head professional Laura Beuhring said. "They wanted to have a celebration. It's been a ton of work. We spent a few weeks getting the word out, and now the tournament is full and lots more people want to play. We think it will be a great event.''
Legend has it that Mildred Ella Didrikson earned the nickname "Babe'' when she hit five homers in a baseball game growing up in Texas. She was a tremendous natural athlete. She won two gold medals and a silver in track and field at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, was an All-America basketball player, mastered tennis, baseball and softball and was an expert diver, roller skater and bowler.
She was encouraged by sportswriter Grantland Rice to take up golf in 1934. A year later she won the Texas Women's Invitational. In 1946-47, Didrikson won 17 straight amateur tournaments, including the 1946 U.S. Women's Amateur and the 1947 British Amateur. She was a founding member of the LPGA Tour.
In 1938, Didrikson married professional wrestler George Zaharias. Once her playing career wound down, the Zahariases purchased Forest Hills. In 1954, she and George moved into a house not far from the clubhouse's current location.
Tampa, and most of Florida, was wide open in 1926. It was a boom time in Tampa Bay, and the Forest Hills Golf and Country Club was built around an elaborate two-story clubhouse and about 10 homes scattered throughout the course. The course remained a quiet getaway for the elite as one of the few courses in Tampa.
In 1949, as Babe Zaharias' athletic career was slowing down, she and her husband purchased the course. For a while the couple lived on the second floor of the clubhouse before moving into a residence on the course in 1954.
Forest Hills became overgrown after the Babe's death. The clubhouse burned down in 1962. A contractor wanted to buy the property and turn it into condominiums. The city of Tampa stepped in and re-zoned the property to be used only as a park or for recreational use.
For many years the property was used as a motorcycle track. There were few signs of it having been a golf course. But the city decided to reopen the course in 1974, bearing Babe Zaharias' name. Since then it has undergone a complete makeover and is now an 18-hole, par-70 course that winds through the Forest Hills neighborhood and hundreds of homes.
"I've been golfing here for 25-30 years,'' said Tampa resident Doug Norton, who plays every Tuesday morning at Babe Zaharias. "It's in much better shape than it used to be.''
Start of a tradition
This year's event will be a trial run for next year's 100th birthday celebration. The hope is that people in the Forest Hills neighborhood will stop by, even if they aren't golfers, to learn about the course that winds through their back yards.
Aside from the tournament, there will also be artifacts from the Babe Zaharias museum on display as well as lunch and music.
"We absolutely hope this will be an annual event,'' Beuhring said. "We want to make this something that the neighborhood can enjoy every year.''