Rewind: Claudette LaBonte's Journey To Becoming Massachusetts' First LPGA Golf Professional - MASSGOLF

Claudette LaBonte Was An Amateur Standout Before Making History As A Golf Professional

For years, the Mercedes-Benz with the license plate “LPGA 1” cruised down the charming streets and exquisite neighborhoods along Cape Cod’s Nantucket Sound. During the golf season, it was often parked at The Club of New Seabury, where one of the state’s most charismatic and talented golf professionals was breaking barriers and helping golfers find enjoyment in the game.

Claudette LaBonte sits atop her Mercedes with its custom plate. (Contributed)

The vehicle belonged to Claudette LaBonte, the first woman to be hired as a golf professional in Massachusetts and the state’s first woman to serve as a head golf professional, as recognized by the LPGA. One of the best long iron players of her time, LaBonte took home 14 club championships on top of several Women’s Golf Association of Massachusetts victories as an amateur and could have earned a living on a rapidly blossoming tour circuit. However, she much preferred being a homebody rather than living out of a suitcase.

LaBonte’s life was as varied as her teaching style, though, as she was a stockbroker, real estate broker, stamp collector, and entrepreneur – inventing a cast metal golf ball and putter door knocker that sold in 19 states and Canada. When it came to golf, LaBonte believed pursuing the game required self-determination, and she would base instruction on each individual’s motivation.

“It’s a way of teaching good balance,” LaBonte once said. “If you can set yourself up properly, a good swing comes naturally. I try to make it as uncomplicated as possible.”

What was more complicated at the time was the apprehension some men had to take a lesson from a woman. That took time, but soon word spread that LaBonte’s lessons were effective.

“I’ll have to admit, though, that when a man is taking a lesson from me, he may be sheepish at the start,” LaBonte once told Tom Fitzgerald in an article in Golf Journal. “But we break down that attitude in maybe 10 minutes, and then everything goes just fine.”

Claudette LaBonte was a teaching professional at The Club at New Seabury for 9 1/2 years. (Contributed)

The LPGA was founded in 1950, the same year LaBonte swung a golf club for the first time. The decedents of French-Canadian immigrants, LaBonte was a multi-sport athlete growing up in Fall River, but she first pursued golf during an eight-week indoor golf school in the city. She was hooked and later began taking lessons from Marty Higgins, then greenskeeper at Fall River Country Club and previously NEPGA president.

Upon graduating from Colby Junior College, LaBonte began to play competitively, winning the ladies’ club championship at the Country Club of New Bedford. By the late 1950s, she was taking the WGAM summer circuit by storm. She won the 1960 Women’s Mid-Amateur (Keyes Cup) and 1964 Women’s Stroke Play (Baker Trophy) and captured the Women’s Four-Ball (Townshend Cup) three times with Gene McAuliffe (1959, 1961, 1963). She was a member of the Massachusetts State Team from 1956 through 1964 and qualified for the U.S. Women’s Amateur twice. That’s all in addition to holding the women’s course record at Newport Country Club.

Then an opportunity presented itself. Former hockey standout Bill Ezinicki was fresh off his 1964 Massachusetts Open victory when he was hired at the brand-new Club at New Seabury, in the soon-to-be heavily vacationed region by the shoes of coastal Mashpee. George Page, known for his forward-thinking projects that included night golf at Colonial Country Club in Lynnfield, entered another chapter to his progress ideas by inking LaBonte to a deal as New Seabury’s assistant professional.

LaBonte, who moved into a house along the 11th hole of the Ocean Course on the 36-hole property, held an LPGA Class B certification and taught the steadily growing membership. She particularly enjoyed working with kids for their lack of equivocation and focusing on swinging rather than hitting.

With junior girls, she believed many instructors, especially young men, at that time overemphasized discipline. Her approach differed.

“I think it is easier for a woman to be friends with them and make the lessons fun,” LaBonte said. “Keeping their attention is a matter of allowing them to be bored or self-conscious, so I play a little game, offering a package of tees or a ball as a prize to anyone who reaches a certain goal.”

“She is extremely unique in the way she teaches golf,” New Seabury member John Meade testified in a 1970 Boston Globe article announcing LaBonte’s promotion to head golf professional. “I call it a knock-kneed approach to the way she teaches the backswing and the follow through.”

Claudette LaBonte (center) signs on as a golf professional at The Club at New Seabury in 1965 surrounded by club operator George Page, left, and head pro Bill Ezinicki. (Contributed)

LaBonte earned a promotion in early 1970 when New Seabury reorganized following Ezinicki’s departure from the club. She earned Class A Professional status, making LaBonte among just 85 nationwide. As busy as she was with teaching, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect.

The year 1970 was the first playing of the Cape Cod Hospital Classic pro-am at New Seabury at Oyster Harbors, marking the first time LPGA pros gathered for a competition on Cape Cod. The first event featured seven of the top 10 money winners on tour, and LaBonte was the first pro to register for the event, finishing middle of the pack. The event adopted a four-ball format in subsequent years, with Jane Blalock and Sandra Palmer earning the 1973 title in sudden death. LaBonte was later the first female to be invited to play in the Cape Cod Indian Summer Invitational.

LaBonte held the reins at New Seabury through 1974 when she opted for a change of scenery. She moved back to the Fall River area to take a position at Pocasset Country Club in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, shortly thereafter jumping to Rhode Island Country Club in Barrington.

With her reputation for keeping a stellar pro shop, she decided to open her own business, Golf Design Originals in Somerset, providing merchandise for golfers in the Greater Fall River area. In the spirit of providing opportunities for women, she hired golf professional Jennifer Brown as part of a staff well-versed in the game.

Similar to how people still reference classics such as Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book, LaBonte’s wisdom can still be applied today. In an article explaining why golf clubs should hire more female professionals, she listed the following reasons:

  • Hire a female professional to work in your shop and assist with teaching. She should be especially effective on the lesson tee with women and juniors.
  • Advertise her as part of your staff not because she is a novelty, but because she is a qualified individual.
  • Watch how she does things…you might learn something.

Worth repeating: “Watch how she does things…you might learn something.” (Contributed)

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