Shelley Hamlin was winning golf tournaments on an international level by the time she was a teenager at Roosevelt High School.
This was the 1960s, however, and her southeast Fresno high school didn’t yet have a girls golf team, so she played with the boys. It didn’t last long. As a sophomore, she was beating seniors, and they were taking it real hard, said her brother, Kent Hamlin, a Fresno Superior Court judge.
She said, “You know what, these guys take this way too seriously,” Kent Hamlin recalls. She stopped playing golf at the high school level and joined the girls tennis team. As she played high school tennis, she was “going around the world winning, beating everyone” in golf.
She enjoyed a lifelong golf career that continued until recent days, when breast cancer, that was in remission for 20 years, returned.
Hamlin died Monday at her home in Laveen, Arizona, at the age of 69.
She’s remembered as one of the most decorated professional golfers to come out of the central San Joaquin Valley. Hamlin was inducted into the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame in 1980.
Her family said that while she never reached the kind of fame that would have made her a “household name” in golf, she won more than $1 million over 27 years on tour “in an age when purses in women’s golf lagged well behind those in the men’s ranks.”
Hamlin once talked with The Bee about that disparity.
“It is almost embarrassing to admit it, but we’ve never been paid to be on television,” Hamlin said in a 1980 Bee article about the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) when she was serving as its president. “We’ve had to go out and get sponsors and then come back and more or less beg for exposure. The men have been dumping their TV money into their purses, thereby increasing the prize money considerably.”
Four years later, she got some TV time in a commercial for the Portland PING Championship. A 1984 Bee story described its filming, which took little time: “Shelley was asked to execute a difficult, quite lengthy explosion shot from a deep bunker. … It took Shelley just one swing, the ball bounced once and disappeared into the cup.”
Hamlin’s success and “bright” personality bolstered the sport of women’s golf. As a breast cancer survivor, she was also a tireless advocate for breast cancer research.
A favorite memory for Kent Hamlin was watching his sister beat Jan Stephenson last year in the Legends Honors Division of the Walgreens Charity Classic near her Arizona home. Hamlin was suffering from stage-four cancer at the time and undergoing chemotherapy.
“Nothing compares to that moment for me,” Kent Hamlin says.
She received numerous awards over the years for her spirit and overcoming obstacles to excel in her sport. In a statement, the LPGA said it is “deeply saddened” by her death. She was enshrined into the Legends Hall of Fame on Oct. 11, 2018.
The organization shared a long list of her accolades, including that her “decorated golf career started at an early age with appearances on the 1966 and 1968 winning USA teams at the Espirito Santo Trophy and the victorious 1968 and 1970 Curtis Cup teams.”
Hamlin turned professional in 1972 and went on to win three times on the LPGA Tour at the 1978 Patty Berg Classic, 1992 Phar-Mor at Inverrary and the 1993 ShopRite LPGA Classic. Her victory in 1992 came only seven months after a modified radical mastectomy.
Other honors: Runner-up to Catherine Lacoste in the 1969 U.S. Women’s Amateur; California Women’s Amateur champion from 1967-1970; and 1971 AIAW national collegiate individual champion for Stanford University.
Hamlin died a few days before her first wedding anniversary with her life partner of 35 years, Janet Anderson.
“She was just a person that always saw the good in someone … she just lived every day with fun,” Anderson said. “Even if it was a bad day, she’d find something good. Even as sick as she was, every morning she woke up with a smile.”
Steve Menchinella, another Fresno Athletic Hall of Famer, said she carried that spirit into her golf game.
“She had one of the bubbliest personalities … she just giggled all the time when she was playing golf and she was awfully good,” Menchinella said. “She brought so much joy to the gallery.”
Her brother said she played golf, in large part, because she wanted to bring joy to others.
“She had a way of making people feel valued,” Kent Hamlin said. “It was a special quality that everyone out on the tour and senior tour remembers. It was something that set her apart.”
Born: May 28, 1949
Died: Oct. 15, 2018
Residence: Laveen, Arizona
Survivors: Wife Janet Anderson; brothers Tom Hamlin and Kent Hamlin; niece Rachel Hilderbrand; and nephew Charles Erickson “Eric” Hamlin
Celebration of life service: 3 p.m. Nov. 3, Sunnyside Country Club, 5704 E. Butler Ave., Fresno.