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Joyce Kazmierski and Sandra Spuzich: A Golf Love Story Comes Out of the Closet

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The Daily Beast

Date:
October 18, 2015

On August 22, Joyce Kazmierski and Sandra Spuzich were married in the enclosed porch of their Indianapolis home, 50 years after they first met in 1965.

“Thank god her sister bought flowers,” Kazmierski says, laughing. “I thought about getting flowers, but our yard is full of flowers. The roses are blooming. We have all the flowers we want.”

The porch looks out on the yard and a golf course beyond. “It was the perfect location for it,” Kazmierski says softly.

Did it move them both?

“Yeah,” she says quietly. “It wasn’t something we had dreamt about.”

Spuzich, who had leukemia, died less than two months later on October 6, aged 78. She had won the United States Women’s Open—her first professional golf victory—in 1966, the year after the women had met, and still holds the record of being the oldest player in the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) to win two tournaments in one season.

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In 1982, then aged 45, Spuzich won the Corning Classic and the Mary Kay Golf Classic.

“To be honest with you, I don’t think she was even aware she had that record,” Kazmierski tells me in an interview which takes in the story of their 42-year relationship, and the prejudice faced by lesbians—and women, more generally—in golf, a sport both women loved and played in pre-equality times.

“Sandy was aware in her 40s it would be nice if she won one more time and maybe become the oldest player to win an event,” says Kazmierski. “But her mother was quite ill. She didn’t play as many tournaments as usual that year, but when she did play it was a good relief from what was going on with her family.

“Like most situations, she was able to stay in the present, which is where you play your best golf anyway. The fact Sandy had such a good year in 1982 when her mother was so ill made sense to me.”

Kazmierski, 70, is a wonderful storyteller, relating near and far history vividly—her emotional honesty and directness meaning she can piercingly segue from funny story to sad.

Her collective name for her fellow players is “gals.” Her voice cracks occasionally when we talk about Spuzich’s death, and the “new normal” she knows she must adapt to.

Kazmierski first met Spuzich when Kazmierski, then 20 (she is eight years Spuzich’s junior) was an amateur playing at the U.S. Open, paired with Spuzich and another professional.

“I couldn’t believe how nice they were,” she says, laughing. “I thought they couldn’t care less about a lowly amateur.”

The next year Kazmierski won an amateur women’s collegiate tournament, then drove to Minnesota to the U.S. Open, which Spuzich won. Kazmierski herself turned pro in 1968.

“We just became friends,” Kazmierski recalls. “We were such a closely-knit group because at that time there were so few professionals. We were maybe 60 players.”

Women’s golf was not taken seriously at that time, Kazmierski says. There was no advertising or PR budget: “We were like the best-kept secret in town.”

Certain cities would amass enough corporate sponsorship to “get the gals to come to play a tournament.” The LPGA was founded in 1950, Kazmierski notes, “by extremely good athletes and outstanding players like Babe Zaharias, who was an Olympian.”

Kazmierski recalls that it took the president of Wilson Sporting Goods to ask sports agent Fred Corcoran to organize a professional tour for women as a way to—of course—advertise his products.

“There was very little prize money,” says Kazmierski. “Let’s say you had 60 players, the average tournament purse would be $7,500. The winner would get 18 percent, then it was graduated down. So, depending what your expenses were, for the gals who were playing golf in the early years this was not a good economic decision because there really was no money.

“Everyone traveled around in cars trying to get a weekly rate in a local hotel—well, mostly motels. You could get a caddy for a week, a local lad who would carry your bag for $40. Now you’re paying that for an hour.”

She laughs, noting that caddies today typically make approximately 10 percent of whatever the player makes whenever he or she wins a tournament. “Caddies are making hundreds and thousands of dollars a year.”

Male golfers have always earned around 10 times more than women, Kazmierski says.

“Most sport was sponsored by corporations, the ‘good ol’ boy’ network. Companies run by men wanted to be associated with male athletes. There really wasn’t a whole of interest in promoting women’s sport because the cultural attitude was, ‘Well, how long are these little ladies going to do this before they wake up and realize they should get married and have children?’”

The day before a tournament started, most tours would play a “pro-am,” says Kazmierski, in which amateurs from the local community would pay money to play a round of golf with a pro, “and 99.9 percent of these amateurs were men. They would make comments like ‘Are you enjoying this?’ and ‘How long are you going to do this?’ The unspoken question was, ‘How long are you going to do this before you stop, get married, and have children?’”

It was quite easy to qualify as a pro in the LPGA, Kazmierki said: You had to play better than 10 players every week, and do that three weeks in succession. Membership was $50 a year, “and maybe $25 per tournament.”

As for feminism or overt politicking around the inequality they faced, the LPGA of the 1960s sounded deliberately, self-consciously conservative. Lesbians were utterly closeted.

“There was a heavy emphasis on the reputation of the tour, and that if you were gay you certainly didn’t come out because it would reflect on everyone on tour,” Kazmierski recalls.

To protect themselves from being targeted by misogynists, the women of the LPGA made themselves as inoffensive as possible. It wasn’t just calls for equality that were silenced, but players’ lesbianism. In those days, to be openly gay would have reflected badly on the Tour, so the gay players—wanting to play golf and have the Tour taken seriously—took on the message of suppression and closeted themselves.

Kazmierski says, “There were unwritten, unspoken inferences that you could try to dress like a lady, you could try to act like a lady, go to the cocktail parties, and schmooze with the local sponsors, and tell everyone you’ll get married in a couple of years because you can’t wait to have children. Whatever the lie was.

“We were trying to grow women’s golf and we were very protective of the image—and the image, probably up until the mid- to late ’70s, was you had to stay closeted.”

***

Kazmierski herself didn’t come to an awareness of her own gayness until she was 20, and she joined the LPGA tour three years after that.

“I had a very good friend in high school. It was the summer. We went out for dinner, and she ended up telling me about herself being gay and it was like all these light bulbs went off.

“She wasn’t trying to convert me. It was just, ‘This is the way I am.’ It was sort of like a validation that it was OK. Now this is 1965. This is not something you went to your mom and dad and said, ‘Hey, guess what?’ about. Kids can do that now and it’s great.”

Kazmierski grew up Catholic in Detroit, with two older sisters and one younger sister. “I was involved in sports. I was quote-unquote a tomboy. You don’t hear that term any more. Parents like to say, ‘My daughters are interested in athletics,’ or other flowery terms.

“I loved to run and jump, and do what my boy cousins were doing. I didn’t want to play dolls with my sisters. This was boring. Plus, my dad played sports and what he did I wanted to do. He was very encouraging of my activity from a fairly young age.”

Kazmierski started playing golf when she was 9: She and her sister Joanne would win local junior events.

“There was always that positive reinforcement from my parents, but until my teenage years I even know there was the possibility of doing it for a living. The only message I got from my parents was, ‘Whatever path you want to take, that’s fine with us.’”

She laughs that she came to a greater understanding of that when she left the LPGA tour, aged 40, having gotten through the 1985 season, not “a happy camper. I wasn’t playing that badly. I just wasn’t enjoying it, and I didn’t want to end up hating something that I loved.”

Her father suggested upgrading her credentials, and returning to the Tour, while her mother said, “Well, I didn’t want you to turn pro in the first place.”

Kazmierski was shocked as she had never felt that vibe from her mother, but “like most women with children, she was a worrier, and she had thought her daughter was going to be on the road in her late 20s—what was going to happen?”

Growing up, Kazmierski had had a couple of boyfriends, but it wasn’t, as she puts it, “too much of an emphasis,” as she was so busy. Her sister Joanne was the opposite, she says, laughing: She was planning her wedding when she was 14, dress and all. Joanne married and had children young, too.

“I just didn’t have the interest,” Kazmierski says. “I wasn’t dreaming about finding Mr. Wonderful and getting married and raising a family. I figured maybe in a previous life I had already done that.” She laughs.

She had had a couple of crushes on girls at school, “though I probably titled it ‘hero worship’ or something like that. The word ‘queer’ was the only word you would hear. I didn’t hear ‘gay.’ I didn’t hear ‘lesbian.’ It was just, ‘You know, they’re queer,’ and ‘We know where the queers are in downtown Detroit.’ That kind of thing.”

After the talk with her friend everything made “so much more sense” to Kazmierski, “and I found my own way to protect my quote-unquote straight image.”

Kazmierski had a couple of relationships with women: Her friend told her “not to go crazy or anything. I wasn’t hellbent on finding a permanent relationship. I was busy doing golf.”

Her parents were worried how she would support herself financially. They were not wealthy. Kazmierski’s father was a toolmaker at Cadillac, and her mother a housewife who occasionally did retail-related jobs.

They agreed to send Kazmierski to college, which cost $1,000 a year. Her father couldn’t understand why she wanted to go, but Kazmierski wanted to be a teacher, so her summers could be free for golf.

She graduated from Michigan State and taught for a year, all the time plotting to get on to the LPGA tour.

Her parents financially supported her early golf tournament-entering, and then Kazmierski struck lucky: a friend didn’t want to turn pro, and gave Kazmierski her sponsor. “He said, ‘Just go out there and play golf. Whatever we make goes into a joint account.’ We did that for six years.”

Being on the LPGA tour meant Kazmierski was around Spuzich.

“I just liked her. She was such a nice person. She was easygoing, had a great sense of humor. It seemed like everyone on the Tour liked her.

“Probably what made the first impression was when I arrived on the golf course in Minnesota for that 1966 Open. She saw me and said, ‘Congratulations for winning the collegiate,’ and again it was like, ‘What’s a pro interested in an amateur for?’ She was aware that I had won an event.”

Kazmierski got to know Spuzich more. “She really was everything in a person that I guess attracted me. She wasn’t extremely social, but then again she was not an introvert. The fact we are both fire signs—she was an Aries, I’m a Leo—meant there was little bit of competition. If she was playing well and I was not playing well, those were difficult times sometimes.

“In golf, your opponent is always the golf course. It’s not like ‘I’ve gotta beat so-and-so.’ It was never like that for me. When she played well I was genuinely happy and when I played well she was happy, but it was tough when one person was up and the other was down. Then you learned not to talk.” Kazmierski laughs.

***

The two women didn’t get together properly until 1973, while playing a partnered tournament in Cape Cod. They were coincidentally both staying in the same house-share.

Because it was a team event the pressure wasn’t the same as the Open. “I just knew I liked her a whole lot and I told her so,” recalls Kazmierski. “She said, ‘I’m interested in someone else.’ I said, ‘OK, that’s cool. I just want you to know how I feel.’

“Anyway,” Kazmierski laughs now, ‘“I’m interested in someone else’ just makes you more interested, doesn’t it? I kept telling myself, ‘I’m sure she’s crazy about me.’ It wasn’t too long, probably a couple of weeks after that, that we gave it a shot.

“She said I was a little stuck up. I wore contact lenses, but when I put my glasses on they didn’t fit properly so I had my nose in the air. I said, ‘I’m really not that stuck up, it’s just my glasses.’”

Kazmierski laughs, then pauses.

“I started smiling, Tim, and I never stopped.”

We are both silent for a moment. “It was evident we were a good match,” says Kazmierski. “I was more of a giver and she was more of a taker, but not to the extreme that it would ruin a relationship, and we realized that early on.

“We actually defined ‘forever’ as half a day. We could make a choice every day that for half a day we were together. Our whole relationship was based on that. For people to say, ‘I love this person, we’ll be together forever’—that’s silly. I mean, people change.

“There was never any pressure on either one of our parts. There was never ‘We’ve been together 10 years, we can’t break up now.’ It just evolved into 42 years. Putting expectations and demands on the other person that are not fair will break people up for sure.”

But surely as time went on the commitment and love deepened?

“Yeah, it changes form,” says Kazmierski. “It grows. There’s so many more ways to be intimate than in bed. We realized that. The things we shared, the interests we shared, the interests we didn’t share: We gave each other enough space, probably more so on her part. I wanted to travel, do this-and-that, and she gave me the freedom to do it. I wasn’t running off to Europe in the summer, but I was much more outgoing than her.”

Still, lesbianism itself was publicly invisible in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s worlds of golf, which Kazmierski and Spuzich and other gay players felt they had to play along with.

“Keeping in mind the press room was 99.9 percent men,” says Kazmierski. “I’m sure they wondered, ‘What are women doing involved in this sport?’ I have a pretty significant interest in astrology, and would use that as a deflection when they asked questions.

“Inevitably they would say, ‘Do you really believe in this stuff?’ I would say, ‘No, it’s all bullshit.’ But I did: It’s the oldest science known to man and a unique way to look at yourself and other people.”

The parents of some of the younger women who came on the Tour were, Kazmierski remains sure, “scared to death that they were going to be persuaded to become lesbians by some of these old dykes on tour, which was not even close to being accurate.”

The LGPA formed a committee to help the rookies answer questions from the media, “still in the mode of trying to protect the reputation of the Tour.”

She recalls Muffin Spencer-Devlin coming out in 1996, the first pro golfer to do so: “It was like, ‘I’m gay, so what.’ It was never the LPGA wanting to promote we have these lesbians. There was still a strong Christian athlete membership on the women’s tour.”

Was it flirty? Was there lots of bed-hopping in the old days?

“It was mostly proper,” says Kazmierski. “There was an expression, ‘fruit basket turnover’ about relationships—there would be a little bit of flirtation going on, and you’d hear so-and-so was no longer with so-and-so, and now with so and so. But most of us were trying to play golf and make a living out of it.”

Kazmierski and Spuzich’s friends on the Tour knew they were a couple, “but we weren’t about to be open to our families.”

Neither woman ever told their parents they were lesbian, or together as a couple; eventually they told their siblings, who were supportive.

“Sandra chose not to be honest with her parents, and I respected that. She was very protective of her family. She was eight years older, and from a slightly different culture, where you just didn’t talk about it. She taught physical education, and one of the reasons I didn’t was that I didn’t want to be stereotyped as the women who taught it were.”

The women’s peers on the Tour reinforced the “stay in the closet” ethos. “We had the reputation of the Tour to protect. We just wanted to play this game for as long as we can—the game of staying in the closet.”

Kazmierski is sure “on some level” her own mother knew she was gay: She never implied her daughter should be getting married or having children. Her sister Joanne did get married, of course, “and took the pressure off me.”

Of course, both families knew the women lived together, but believed—on the surface at least—that it was as friends: for Kazmierski’s father, it made sense that they would want to share living expenses.

Spuzich also had a sister who married and had children. “We were both lucky in that respect,” says Kazmierski. “It could have been much more difficult, I think.”

I ask if their lives changed, opened up, with the dawning of more equal times, and more LGBTs coming out.

“Not really,” says Kazmierski. “We had our golfing family. The ones closest to us certainly knew about our relationship and we knew about theirs, and we always supported each other.

“It wasn’t like, ‘We can’t wait to get to New York and go to the clubs.’ We went to a few gay bars here and there—there are a couple of great bars in Palm Springs—but you get tired.” She laughs. “You get old. I’d rather go home and get to bed early, thank you.

“I was really fine with it. It sort of followed the culture of the time. As society’s attitudes started to change, it just got easier and easier. We were busy trying to perfect our craft: It wasn’t like we were trying to make a social statement. I’m sure it was different for some of the other gals.”

When Kazmierski left the Tour, aged 40, she told Spuzich that she needed to do something to make money, and so started teaching golf (she still does) and shepherding people on golf tours overseas to Scotland and Ireland.

Between 1986 and 1993 Kazmierski also caddied for Spuzich, on the latter’s suggestion.

“My thinking was this,” says Kazmierski. “I wanted to be with Sandra, and this was a way for me to be with her, plus all my friends in the Tour, and not have the pressure of playing. And my expenses were paid. I mean, what’s not to like?

“Anyone who ever caddied for Sandra will tell you she was wonderful to caddy for. Besides being a very fine player, she didn’t make super-demands on the caddies. If she wanted their advice, she would ask for it. They respected that.”

Watching her partner swing a golf club day after day helped Kazmierski develop her own strategy for teaching golf, she says. “The average player says, ‘I want to play better, but don’t change me.’”

Kazmierski—who has taught for 25 years now—began to tailor advice individually according to the motor skills of each student she sees at the Eagle Creek course in Indianapolis.

All standards, I ask.

“Yes, the golf ball doesn’t who know you are,” Kazmierski says, laughing.

Being a player prepared her for being a teacher, and she thinks she has gained more satisfaction doing the latter than the former.

Did Kazmierski feel envious of Spuzich’s greater professional success, enshrined in that still-held tournament record?

“Not to any great degree. I had feelings of self-doubt, self-worth, as any individual does when you’re in a competitive career. I would say there was a little bit of competitive envy of anyone who was higher up on the [prize] money list.

“But personally between Sandy and me there was very little of that, fortunately. We’re all busting our chops to play our best. The golf course in your competitor, not your fellow players.”

***

After Spuzich retired she became a gardener. Born and raised in Indianapolis, she always wanted to settle down there. She loved nature, and growing vegetables—particularly tomatoes—at the couple’s home, which is on a golf course itself. “We became friends with all the squirrels and critters here,” says Kazmierski.

Spuzich loved to cook. “I have to cook now, I’m going to be losing weight,” Kazmierski says, laughing softly. “She, her mother, and sister were marvelous cooks. She was Polish, Serbian, Macedonian, and Lebanese: These people know how to cook and eat. They know good food.” She laughs again. “I never turned anything down.”

Spuzich enjoyed her retirement, Kazmierski says: Her family was around, she watched her oldest nephew take up golf (“He’s an Aries too, so he figured his own way of doing it.”)

Then, almost 10 years ago, Spuzich was struck down by pneumonia and hospitalized over the Thanksgiving of 2005.

Additional tests uncovered Spuzich might have leukemia, and she was advised to see an oncologist. “But she didn’t do anything for over a year,” says Kazmierski. “Call it denial, call it ‘What is this all about? I don’t feel that bad. I’ve just come through pneumonia.’”

After a confirmed leukemia diagnosis in early 2007, Spuzich’s doctor told her it was manageable: chronic, not acute.

“She had a couple of rounds of chemo,” says Kazmierski. “Not the type where you lose your hair or you’re nauseous all the time. Over the course of 10 years, she had only two sessions and then it was on to other medication.

“Unfortunately, the medication used to treat her hampered the immune system, which is the only thing that can heal you. So you know the path you’re on: You’re going to be weaker and weaker unless you supplement like crazy, or do things to boost your immune system.

“You fight from one end and try to help the other, and in the last year she just got weaker and weaker and couldn’t fight off things. She had a very simple infection, but because she had lost a lot of her mobility and her energy, I think she just got tired of it.”

Kazmierski pauses, and adds very softly, “And I can’t say I blame her.”

I ask how that final period was for them both.

“Yeah, well…” Kazmierski’s voice breaks. “I did as best as I could. I actually started cooking. That could have sent her on her way too.” She laughs and sighs. “She knew how to tell me what to do. I cook a decent meal.”

We are both momentarily silent. How is Kazmierski doing, I ask. Does she have good support from friends and family?

Yes, she says. Her sisters and Spuzich’s sister have been with her. Her sister’s husband christened the house with strains from some small bagpipes.

“Sandy became my purpose,” Kazmierski says, crying. “So it will be a lot of new normals coming up …”

Spuzich, Kazmierski says, “was not much into fanfare. She was cremated, and didn’t want a service or memorial, and so we honored that request.”

Kazmierski hopes to travel, and tells me she has Mars in her sign, which is thoughts and energy, and Uranus, which is mental energy—both ruled by Mercury, the messenger god.

Friends have suggested New Zealand, she may return to Scotland. She particularly wants to go the Hebridean island of Islay to sample her favorite whiskey, Bunnahabhain. “Not Laphraoig or Lagavulin, ’cos they will put hair where you don’t want it—way too strong. Do you know what ‘whiskey’ means in Gaelic? ‘Water of life.’ I like that.” She laughs.

“But I’ve got a house to clean, stuff to go through. I’m not in any hurry to do anything. I’m fortunate that I have that luxury at this point.”

***

It’s then I ask if Kazmierski and Spuzich had ever married. I expected, but hoped against, a ‘no,’ as Kazmierski had made clear they had lived separate from those evolutions of LGBT equality.

Yes, Kazmierski says, on August 22 this year. I wish her congratulations.

“Because by then it was hard for Sandy to get around, I wanted to find someone to come to the house,” says Kazmierski. She called a local wedding agency, and said she wanted someone to conduct a “short and sweet” ceremony.

That was on the Wednesday, and on Saturday, the celebrant—who lived 10 minutes away—came to marry Kazmierski and Spuzich, 50 years after they had met.

“And guess what her name was, Tim? Angel. We got married by an Angel. This angel walked through the door, she was great. On the 22nd of August, too—if you’re into numerology that’s a very special day. It’s good numbers.”

We both laugh. “We did it more than anything for economic reasons,” says Kazmierski. “Sandra said there were all these benefits they talk about. I found out what we had to do, and got all the paperwork done.”

Spuzich’s sister and brother-in-law were there. How was the ceremony?

“We just promised to take care of each other…” Kazmierski’s voice breaks…“one day at a time.”

Were there rings? “No, we weren’t into bling,” Kazmierski says, laughing a little.

“After our one-minute ceremony we were talking about golf,” Kazmierski says, because Angel’s husband was learning to play.

He was sitting in the car, and was invited in to receive—on Spuzich’s suggestion—a gift of 12 golf balls. He told Kazmierski he was left-handed, and she told him, “Well, it’s a good thing golf balls are round.”

Her point, she says, is that striking a golf ball well—whether male or female, whatever your size—is not about strength. “You’re not trying to bench-press 300 pounds here.”

So, where does the power come from?

“If you watch women’s golf you will see, say, a South Korean woman, five foot one, 115 pounds, hitting the golf ball 280 yards. The power comes from rotation, centrifugal force.

“So many women come to me, and say ‘I’m not very strong. I can’t hit the ball as far as my husband.’ I say, ‘Do you have children?’ ‘Yes, four,’ a woman says. ‘You’re strong, honey,’ I say. ‘Let him have four children and see how strong he is.’

“It’s not just physical power. If the emotional, spiritual, and mental power connect, then you’re a happy camper, and I believe in happy campers.”

Does Kazmierski still play golf, as well as teach it?

“Yes, maybe nine to 12 holes. I like to go early in the morning. I jump in the cart, and play until I have to go somewhere else. I was given some advice once that, for a teacher, it’s important to play every so often to remind yourself how difficult it is.

“But it is the game of a lifetime, and there is no such thing as the perfect game. I prefer to play by myself. I can play faster. It’s just me and the golf course. I’m always with someone. I’m with the golf course.”

So, what’s the ultimate pleasure of golf for her?

“Really just to hit the shot that you’re trying to create in your mind before you’re doing the physical motion. It’s creativity. To me, the hardest part is trusting. You’ve trained the body to do the motion: that’s the easy part. But you have to trust it, and when you trust it it’s magic.”

Did Kazmierski and Spuzich have a favorite shot? Kazmierski laughs. “We used to have a saying: ‘That shot was so good it was like hitting a high 2 iron to a well-trapped green.’ The 2 iron is a very difficult club to hit. There is no margin of error.”

When I ask if Kazmierski thinks sexism in golf has been eradicated, she says, “It’s better, but it’s hard to imagine the game without it. It’s just so ingrained. I think the youth are a little more attuned and advanced, and understand what’s important. Sexism is not important. We are one people on the same planet.

“You play your best tennis, golf, whatever game when you’re cooperating with the elements, with the equipment, with your weaknesses and strengths. When you can co-operate the magic happens. When you’re resistant, there’s suffering and pain.”

More generally, Kazmierski believes sexism is “probably going to be around for a long time. Its roots are so deep. It goes back to the story of Creation. What did Eve do to Adam if you believe that story? Well, she led him astray. Well, isn’t she the bitch?” Kazmierski says, laughing.

Besides the astrology she seems very spiritual, I say. “Absolutely. It may not be a religious tradition as other people’s, but I was brought up Catholic and that gave me discipline. That means being a disciple, it doesn’t mean strapping yourself down and making yourself do things. You do things, you have the passion to do them. [The Prophet author] Khalil Gibran said, ‘Work is love made visible.’”

In this lifetime, as she puts it, Kazmierski has been incarnated as female, “and that’s fine because eventually society will evolve to a place where there is no gender, no time, no space, just eternal present. As a good friend says, ‘This is the great mystery.’ We’re all going to experience it.”

She pauses again and says softly, “Sandra has experienced it, and I look forward to meeting her again.”