She was one of North Dakota's greatest athletes, so why is she still such a mystery?
Beverly Hanson, unknown to many and the first-ever winner of the LPGA Championship, is deserving of the state’s Rough Rider Award.
FARGO — Having done history stories for as long as I have, I’m not surprised by much. With the earliest reports I did for WDAY-TV for the North Dakota Centennial in 1989, I learned some interesting little nuggets. (Did you know “Tootsie” stars Dustin Hoffman and Jessica Lange both once lived in Fargo, at the same time!?)
But I have to admit I was caught off-guard the other day when I stumbled upon an acclaimed North Dakotan I had never heard of — a groundbreaking athlete named Beverly Hanson.
Hanson, a 1941 Fargo Central High School graduate, was the first-ever Ladies Professional Golf Association champion. But that’s not all. In her 10 years as an LPGA touring professional, she won 17 tournaments, including three majors: the inaugural LPGA Championship in 1955, the Western Open in 1956, and the Titleholders in 1958. She was also the leading money winner and a winner of the Vare Trophy for the lowest-scoring average in 1958.
I say I “stumbled” upon Hanson because that’s pretty much what happened. I was actually researching the identities of the men in a photo from WWII as a follow-up on a story former Forum columnist Bob Lind wrote in 2019. Fortunately, we found the answer to that question with the help of a few avid Merchant Marine scholars. The photo was taken in 1943 aboard the U.S.S. Edward Livingston and included a Fargoan, Gordon Sten Hanson.
When I started researching Gordon Sten Hanson, I learned he had a younger sister named Beverly. When I clicked on her name, I was taken down a research rabbit hole that led me to learn Beverly Hanson was a top-notch professional golfer.
Knock me over with a 9-iron. I’ve lived in this area for more than 50 years and I had never heard of this woman. And I should have.
In a 2014 story written by my colleague Jeff Kolpack following Hanson’s death, Kolpack notes even top sports journalists missed the connection to her home state.
“When Sports Illustrated came out with the top 50 sports figures in North Dakota a few years ago, Bev Hanson was nowhere to be found. It's ironic, actually, since she was portrayed in the magazine's ‘Faces in the Crowd’ segment in 1958 for being the leading money winner on the LPGA Tour,” he wrote.
The early years
Hanson didn’t play golf while at Fargo Central High School, because the school didn’t have a girls’ team. But she might have honed her skills at Fargo Country Club where her father was a member.
Following graduation from Central when she was just 16 years old, she attended the University of North Dakota to study journalism. In 1944, at the age of 19, she went to work for The Forum for 50 cents an hour. When she was assigned to cover a golf tournament, she used the byline “Ben Hanson,” presumably because she believed readers were more likely to trust a male writer.
But soon she would choose to make news on the golf course instead of writing about it. In 1947, she decided it was time to follow her heart and pursue a career in golf.
A stellar career deserving of more recognition
According to Kolpack, Hanson “was part of the pioneers of LPGA golf with the likes of Patty Berg, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Louise Suggs, Mickey Wright and Peggy Kirk Bell.”
But unfortunately, she hasn’t been given the same credit others have. All five of those women have been inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. Hanson, while nominated last year, has not been inducted.
Friends noted that she was never one for chasing headlines, but nonetheless, they wish she knew that she was appreciated for her accomplishments.
She did get her share of coverage from The Forum during her days on the tour. But for some reason, she fell off the radar in both media and golf circles in later years.
After retiring from professional golf in 1961, she became a golf instructor at Eldorado Country Club in Indian Wells, California. She became active in civic and community affairs and was elected to two terms on her local school board. In 1961, she married Andrew J. Sfingi. During their 34 years of marriage, they adopted three children: Sharon, John and Jay.
Upon her death in 2014, several national sportswriters questioned why she had not received the same accolades other early athletes on the LPGA tour had.
Those in her home state wondered too. Some North Dakotans have decided to try and right some of the wrongs.
In 2001, the University of North Dakota honored her with the Sioux Award for her distinguished career in golf. Hanson flew home for the first time in many years to accept the award. Her sons said despite not making it back here frequently, “she spoke highly of North Dakota" and “never forgot growing up in Fargo."
The Fargo Country Club is honoring her as well. Head professional David Schultz says they plan to reframe a photo they have of Hanson and prominently display it in the clubhouse.
But North Dakota's highest award still eludes Hanson.
Time for the Rough Rider?
According to its website, the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award “recognizes North Dakotans who have been influenced by this state in achieving national recognition in their fields of endeavor, thereby reflecting credit and honor upon North Dakota and its citizens.”
Recipients of the award are chosen by the Governor, with the concurrence of the Secretary of State and the Director of the State Historical Society.
As of July 2021, 46 North Dakotans have received the award. Their portraits are on display in the lower level of the Capitol building,
According to Gov. Doug Burgum spokesperson Mike Nowatzki, Beverly Hanson has been nominated for the Rough Rider Award multiple times, most recently in 2002.
"Nominations for Beverly Hanson were submitted to Govs. Sinner, Schafer and Hoeven, the oldest nomination being from November 1991," he said.
For whatever reason, she was not chosen to receive the award. Nowatzki doesn't know why and can't speculate on past administrations.
It seems to me Hanson is deserving of another nomination and, this time, acceptance.
I might have just “stumbled” upon Beverly Hanson while researching her brother, but little sister Beverly took center stage. Fargo’s “Forgotten Star” left a legacy in women’s sports that cannot be denied, no matter how many of us failed to remember it.
For a state whose slogan is “Be Legendary,” let's honor someone who clearly was.