Our Mothers Ourselves

Lea Alcott's Unerring Support for her Daughter's Golf Passion. A Conversation with Amy Alcott

January 14, 2021 Katie Hafner Season 3 Episode 7
Our Mothers Ourselves
Lea Alcott's Unerring Support for her Daughter's Golf Passion. A Conversation with Amy Alcott
Show Notes Transcript


As anyone who's watched the new HBO documentary Tiger can tell you, when you catch the golf bug as a kid, it can stick with you for a lifetime.

Amy Alcott fell for golf when she was a little girl growing up in Los Angeles in the 1960s. Her mother gave her garden over to her daughter's passion, and the front yard became a putting and chipping green. Soup cans were hammered into the ground to make the holes. 

It paid off. Amy became a member of the LPGA Tour in 1975, and won five major championships and 29 LPGA tour events in all. She's in the World Golf Hall of Fame.

What kind of kid -- especially a girl in pre-title IV era --has the self confidence to pursue a dream like that? And what kind of mother would glory in her daughter's delight, as Lea Alcott so clearly did in hers?

Katie and Amy chat about Lea's own childhood, the idea of giving to your daughter what you didn't have access to, and the evocative powers of a good glass of Scotch whiskey.

Artwork by Paula Mangin (@PaulaBallah)
Music composed and performed by Andrea Perry
Producer: Alice Hudson

Mother Word Cloud: Please contribute the one word that best describes your mother to the Mother Word Cloud.

Katie Hafner:

This is Our Mothers Ourselves, and I'm your host, Katie Hafner. I have a confession to make. I love golf. And if anyone had told me just a few years ago that I'd ever be stringing those three words together, "I love golf," I'd have said, "Okay, yeah, yeah, give me a bed of nails to sleep on while I'm at it." So I'm not going to bore you with the whole story of how I got into the game, which by the way, I spent my life thinking was the domain of privileged white men with punches, which it is, but I will say this: golf is a whole lot more than that. And there's a golfer named Amy Alcott, who was a star in the 1980's. And she got me to wondering what kind of mother a professional female golfer pre-Title Nine might have had. So Amy joined me recently to talk about her mother, Lea Alcott. Amy Alcott, thank you so much for coming on to Our Mothers Ourselves to talk to me about your mother, Lea Alcott.

Amy Alcott:

My pleasure, I'm glad to be here. What a treat.

Katie Hafner:

Oh, she sounds like an amazing woman. And she has an amazing daughter. So I'm super excited about this one, partly because I just took up golf as a, in my later years to spend more time with my husband. And, man, oh man, what a game. What a tough game.

Amy Alcott:

Yeah.

Katie Hafner:

So you know, so much of it is mental. And this is going to be a big part of what we talk about today. I hope we get into this whole question of, of what it took for you to become the champion that you became and sort of the role that your, that your parents, specifically your mother, played in that. So what I'd like to ask you right off the bat, and that is that if you had just one word to describe your mother, what would that word be?

Amy Alcott:

Oh. Wow, that's a toughy. The fastest word is awesome. She was awesome.

Katie Hafner:

Mmm.

Amy Alcott:

I have a lot of gratitude in my life for having such a quality person as my mom, I was very lucky. So she would be awesome.

Katie Hafner:

Do you think you knew you were lucky while you were growing up? Or is that something more in retrospect?

Amy Alcott:

I think my mom gave me a sense of belonging and comfort and stability. And I think with that I felt safe, you know, and I think that was very important. It was only that, you know, you get older in life that you really appreciate certain things and how lucky you were.

Katie Hafner:

Well let's, let's let's delve into her life a bit. I'd like you to s- Actually let's start at the beginning. She was born in Louisville, Kentucky?

Amy Alcott:

Yeah she was from Louisville, Kentucky, born in 1928. And I found out later, much later in life- I don't talk about this to too many people. My mother was adopted. But she was never told she was adopted. It was something that kind of traveled with her for quite a while. And there were always kind of like things that may have, may have been said that made her wonder until kind of later in life. She asked a relative, and the relative said, "We don't know anything more, Lea, but you were adopted." My parent- grandparents were Russian Jewish immigrants who didn't speak the language great. They probably didn't feel a necessity to tell my mother that she was adopted. And she used to sit on the front step, she used to tell me later, and watch the kids from the orphanage walk by and tell her mother that she wishes she could, that they could take all those kids in. But she didn't know she came from there. So I think-

Katie Hafner:

Oh wow.

Amy Alcott:

Yeah.

Katie Hafner:

Did your mom do anything to find out about her?

Amy Alcott:

She never really wanted. It didn't really interest her that much. She just had made peace with the fact that her parents were her parents. She loved her parents and that was just kind of it for her.

Katie Hafner:

Do you know what what kind of education your mom got?

Amy Alcott:

Well they eventually moved out to Santa Monica from Louisville, and she went to Santa Monica High School. And then she went to UCLA. I don't know if my mom graduated UCLA, but she went to UCLA for a few years. She met my father, who was in the Air Force. And he was from Brooklyn. And they, you know, eventually headed back, I presume, headed back East where my dad went to dental school. And that's where the three Alcott kids were born. I was the baby. And they left there when I was six months old, and moved out to LA and rented a house. That's kind of where it all, all began.

Katie Hafner:

So maybe they wanted to get back to California where they had met.

Amy Alcott:

Yeah, yeah, maybe. I think if I grown up in New York or Kansas City, I might not have been the, ended up being the love of sports. And I think my dad wanted his kids to have what he didn't have growing up on the streets of New York. So I think it was a real plus in my life, you know, finding sports and tennis and then ultimately golf and junior golf.

Katie Hafner:

It's all about giving your kids a better life, which we, in this generation, can't claim to be able to do.

Amy Alcott:

Yeah.

Katie Hafner:

So was your mom athletic? Was either of your parents athletic?

Amy Alcott:

My dad was quite a good handball player. Growing up on the streets of New York, he used to play in Brooklyn. When I was a little girl, he on Saturday mornings, he would take me down to Venice Beach. And I would watch all these transplanted New Yorkers, mostly doctors like himself, play handball. And, you know, my dad was the first woman's liber I ever knew. From that he used to include me and stuff. I was a, you know, girl shouldn't do this, or a girl shouldn't do that. Even when I started to play golf, he would enter me in all-boys golf tournaments. And I would kind of like not kick and scream, but I would say, "There's no girls' division, there's no..." Well, he said, "You'll do the best you can. And you might find that you have a really good time." And my mom just felt probably the same way. She was very, you know, she was athletic. She played tennis. And as my obsession for golf grew, she gave up her garden in the front yard. And I turned that into the Alcott Golf and Country Club on my front lawn. Gave all our relatives membership cards with a logo. And I had a putting green and-

Katie Hafner:

Yeah, I'm trying to picture this. So it sounds like an idyllic childhood. Here, your parents who want to give you what they didn't get. Your mom gives up her garden-

Amy Alcott:

Yeah. Put soup cans in the front yard. And-

Katie Hafner:

You know, what's funny is the way I even thought of coming to you is that our mutual friend, Allison Thomas, was a good friend of mine, and who you went to elementary school with, said, "You know, Katie, who you have to talk to, is Amy Alcott. Because we used to, quote, 'practice' on her front lawn with the soup cans drilled into the lawn as as the hole!" And she said, and she was laughing. And she said, "You know, I just thought we were playing around. But Amy was so focused." And I'm imagining that your mom, I'm just trying to think of, do you have any sense of what she was thinking when she saw how driven you were? She didn't think "Oh, this is weird. And it's also a weird sport for her to take up." And also, you know, let's remind listeners that this was in the 1960's when there was no Title Nine. There was, there were- Being an a female athlete was very different back then. And there you were, and she then, you had no way to get, to get anywhere. So I'm assuming she just drove you everywhere, is that right?

Amy Alcott:

Yes. Yeah. I, I think she drove me to all the, you know, junior golf tournaments that I played in. And all over Southern California. She gave up her summers. You know, she gave up her yard. And I can, you know, think she thought it had gone too far when I was in like 10th or 11th Grade in Palisades High School. And, you know, my golf teacher said, "She doesn't need to take homemaking, and she doesn't need to, you know, do all this." He went to the principal of the school, Jim Mercer. He let me out of school

by like 12:

30, I was getting out of school so I could go practice golf. And my mom just said, she just wanted to, it was just getting to be too much. So she told the principal she wanted to throw my clubs out in the ocean, you know, because this was getting out of hand. I only had one college scholarship, and that was to go to Dartmouth and play on the men's golf team. And I wanted to just go test my skills against the best in the world. So a scholarship to go to Dartmouth didn't really mean much to me. God, it gets cold there and, whatever. So I chose-

Katie Hafner:

Hahaha.

Amy Alcott:

I chose the LPGA Tour.

Katie Hafner:

Let's, let's talk for a minute about mental preparation and the game of golf. And your mother. One, one thing that I've read, and you'll have to tell me if this is actually true, is that when you would go play in a tournament, she would say, she wouldn't say, you know, just you know, "Hey. Amy. You know, win. Focus. Whatever." She would say, "Have a nice walk in the park, dear." Is that true?

Amy Alcott:

Well, it wasn't quite like that. But because she wasn't a golfer. And because she just wanted me to enjoy myself. And because I think she was thrown into a world where, which I saw, of Little League parents and pushy parents. And, you know, kids, parents that wanted, you know, were borderline abusive to their kids because they wanted their kids to, for them to be successful. How they talked to them and the expectations these kids had. My mother just was probably outraged by that. She just used to let me off and say, "I don't care what you shoot today. Have fun. I still love you." And so she picked me up and then, or she go to an antique store in one of these towns, you know, that I was playing in, like Arcadia, or Montebello, or Antelope Valley, cause she liked antique. Looking for antiques. And she'd say, "How'd you play today?" And then I would tell her how I played. And she wouldn't really care whether I won or finished last. It didn't really matter to her. And I think, I'm convinced that all the drive and desire to play golf was because I had a m- parents, both- but mother that was like that. That just let me do my thing. I mean, even later in life, when I was on the Tour and I didn't see her that much. I would, she would always use the expression, "Follow your bliss. You know, just follow your bliss, whatever makes you happy. Just do it." So I was very- I live in a place of gratitude to have had a mother who was that cool.

Katie Hafner:

What is your sense of how she approached being a mother to all three of her kids in a larger sense?

Amy Alcott:

Her kids were the best. She, and she really enjoyed, I think, being a mother. I mean, it was- And, you know, you think back on women of that generation. You know, later in life, she sold real estate, she worked in an art gallery when she moved out of Los Angeles, she moved to Carmel. There's a lot of things women of that generation could have done, and how they could have lived their life differently. But they were kind of predisposed. You get married, you have kids.

Katie Hafner:

Did she ever express any bitterness? Or, "Gee, I wish I could have done this with my life?"

Amy Alcott:

No. No, I think that she- All I felt from my mom was a sense of pride. But she had, you know, here her daughter was like one of the great golfers of all time. And she treated all her kids the same. I don't think to say she had a favorite. Maybe in some ways because- only from the standpoint that, I think, having a daughter who was so successful, that stood for something, in a particular occupation gave her some, you know, feeling of pride that she'd done something pretty amazing. But it didn't mean that she loved my sister or brother any less. I mean, she loved us all. So.

Katie Hafner:

And when you decided not to go to college and to turn pro instead, which I'm assuming she was supportive of that, did you, do you remember any kind of discussion about it?

Amy Alcott:

Yeah, I think that it became, you know, there was a lot involved at the time. It was something that I wanted to do. And then my golf teacher kind of got involved because I had gone to find some people to put up the money for me to go out and start and play the tour. We didn't have. There were some changes in our family life. My folks were divorced when I was sixteen. My mother had to kind of, her life really changed radically. But I think we, she, my teacher found, you know, fifteen sponsors who put up $1,000 apiece for me to go out and play. To start out on the golf tour.

Katie Hafner:

So when you say, so your parents split, split when you were sixteen? And did you live with your mom? Did they split custody?

Amy Alcott:

Yeah, yeah.

Katie Hafner:

And when you say things changed for her radically, you mean financially for her?

Amy Alcott:

Yes, she had to ultimately sell the house that we lived in, and tap into some money from her some real estate, sell some real estate. But she really had to hold, hold herself together, she had to get a job. And I think that that really, later in life, after raising three kids and living in Brentwood, and having a, you know- She was very proud that she was able to kind of hold it together, and she was pretty amazing that way.

Katie Hafner:

Yeah. What, what it makes me think is that, you know, it was such a tough time for women of a certain generation, because they were kind of the between generation. When their mothers might not have been able to do things that they wanted to do. But then they couldn't do these things, because they got married and had kids, but they could pass that on to their daughters.

Amy Alcott:

Right.

Katie Hafner:

And I think that that was what happened in your case.

Amy Alcott:

Yeah, I think I was just kind of definitely raised with the, raised with, in a place that I could do anything.

Katie Hafner:

Uh, here's a kind of an offbeat question. But what is something you've learned about your mom that you didn't even know about her, or that kind of came to you, that you realized about her only when you were an adult?

Amy Alcott:

You know, life is about choices. And life can be tough sometimes. You know, when you're young, you think the world's your oyster. And you don't see these things. You know, you just see the meatloaf on the dinner table. But you don't see kind of what goes on with, in life, I think. Different things that you have to deal with, kind of hold yourself together. And you know, she had three children who she loved, loved a lot. I think my mom had a lot of courage.

Katie Hafner:

And she got sick, right? She got cancer?

Amy Alcott:

Yes, uh huh. She got colon cancer. And after she had moved out of Southern California, moved to Carmel was working in real estate events up there. She got sick, she lived the last six years of her life in the Carmel area. And had got colon cancer. And she kind of got through that. You know, she- I don't know that they discovered it. But for a woman that had so much class, so much dignity, and never complained. It was really hard to watch her kind of go through that. She had to have a colostomy and wear a bag. And I think it really took a lot out of her and she got through that. You know, she got through that. She almost got to five years, and I was up in Carmel. I would go up there after tournaments. And I would be on the road for four or five weeks and I would just be exhausted. And I'd go in her back room and I'd just sleep. And when we had come out, you know, I knew that was a safe place to go, you know, to be in her home. Where I could just rest, you know. But I think she kind of wanted to show me off to people. And you know, here her daughter, her daughter wins the US Open in 1980. And I won it. And she was selling an open house on that Sunday in Los Angeles, and had to sneak into a closet with like a portable TV to watch her daughter win the US Open.

Katie Hafner:

Oh my gosh.

Amy Alcott:

You know. But she just, she just wasn't a- had a lot of courage about things. Picking up, moving out of Los Angeles later in life, not really knowing many people in Carmel, getting a job, renting a house, buying a house, making new friends. Watching her dog, her kids from a distance, you know, watching her daughter, her well-known daughter on television, on weekends, waiting for me to come visit. And, you know, she kind of went on with her life, you know? In a beautiful place. But she only live, lived for six years. So, you know, like a lot of people that lose their mothers, I just wish I had ten minutes with her. You know, just one more time.

Katie Hafner:

If you had ten minutes with her, what, what would you say to her?

Amy Alcott:

I'm looking forward to seeing you someday. Don't go too far.

Katie Hafner:

So she was, I'm assuming she was in Carmel when she died?

Amy Alcott:

Yes, uh huh.

Katie Hafner:

What year was it?

Amy Alcott:

It was 1990.

Katie Hafner:

Mm. And you were still on the, on the Tour. You were still touring, right?

Amy Alcott:

Yes, yes.

Katie Hafner:

And were you-

Amy Alcott:

She was actually okay, and she was in hospice. And I hadn't played for several weeks. And I thought, "Well, maybe I'll go to Minneapolis." And, and I got to Minneapolis, and she really took a turn for the worst. And I didn't even get to tee it up. And then I wasn't there, unfortunately, right when she passed away. I was on the plane coming back. I don't know why I had done it. She just always encouraged me just to go. Don't worry about things and whatever. And I'd been there for so many days and was supporting her along the way. But we had, at least we got to have some very, very long goodbyes. And that, that I'm grateful for.

Katie Hafner:

Yeah, I mean, I hope you don't beat yourself up for having been in Minneapolis.

Amy Alcott:

No, it was a passing thought. I think about, try to think about all the laughs we had, and the dancing. You know, just, she was a pretty cool lady. She, we started drinking Scotch together and-

Katie Hafner:

Woah, woah, woah. Wait. Okay, so tell me about the dancing, and tell me about the Scotch. And when was that?

Amy Alcott:

Oh, just different times. You know, she loved Rob- a drink called Rob Royce. And we would go to a place in Carmel called The Pine Inn, and have these little sandwiches and drink Rob Royce. And then, you know, I love Scotch now. I think I've turned into my mom. And I look at the stuff and when I go to the store that she used to drink. And I don't, I don't think J&B is awful and like some of these lower, lower level brands of Scotch that she just thought were terrific back then. But I look at it and I think, "I've been to Scotland. I've been around real Scotch drinkers. And I know my Scotch now." And that's where I'm like really, really grateful is that my mother gave me the opportunity to be who I am. And my craft took me to, which I'm forever thankful about, took me to some amazing places to be, with, with wonderful people, different people who knew a lot about it. And I can talk about Scotch, and lowland Scotch, and peat, the peatiness of Scotch, and Speyside. You know, I know about it, and my mom really was the one that introduced me to it. So.

Katie Hafner:

I, Amy, there's something about that story I absolutely love. Just that she, she thought J&B was just the best. You, you, because of what you pursued in your life, happened to end, since golf is so big in Scotland, you got to go to Scotland and see what, you know, great Scotch really is. And it comes full circle to gratitude to your mother who introduced you to Scotch!

Amy Alcott:

And she would be so, she'd be laughing now that her daughter has, like, has now taken- she, first of all, she'd say, "You can't-" She would probably say, "You shouldn't be spending sixty dollars on a bottle of Scotch when you can spend ten," you know. But I have to thank her for my life. And because I'm- love people. She gave me the love of people, and interacting with people. And, and for that, that's opened up my world.

Katie Hafner:

She sounds like an absolutely remarkable person. So let me just say that I think she was really lucky that she landed in the, she got plucked out of the orphanage, landed with the family she landed with, and that you landed with her.

Amy Alcott:

Yeah. You're gonna make me cry.

Katie Hafner:

You've already made me cry.

Amy Alcott:

Yeah. I try on a, I tell people on a daily basis to be half the person that my mom was. She was just really a great lady. And here I am on four years, three years, four years, whatever, older than- She died at sixty one. So here I am getting ready to start filling out things like for Medicare. That, I don't even, I didn't even think about Medicare. I was thinking the other day my mom didn't even get the chance to file for Medicare, you know. How young she was.

Katie Hafner:

So, yeah. I'm so sorry you lost her when she was that young.

Amy Alcott:

Yeah. Life, it is a gift.

Katie Hafner:

Well, I would like to thank you, Amy, so much for talking with me about your mom, who I feel like I kind of know

Amy Alcott:

I hear you get a lot of satisfaction from doing a now. show like this.

Katie Hafner:

I do.

Amy Alcott:

Yeah. I think that women who have great mothers are very lucky, you know. And I guess I was one of them.

Katie Hafner:

And that's it this week for Our Mothers Ourselves. Our theme music was composed and performed by Andrea Perry. Paula Mangin is our artist in residence, and Alice Hudson is the show's producer. Please visit us at ourmothersourselves.com and contribute the one word that best describes your mother to the site's mother word cloud. That's ourmothersourselves.com. Our Mothers Ourselves is a production of Odradek Studios in San Francisco, and I'm your host Katie Hafner. Stay safe, everyone.