Ellen Port’s March on History

Beating the guys was just another highlight for the decorated amateur

By Jordan Perez

During her three-decade career as a coach and educator, Ellen Port heard every excuse imaginable for blown assignments. So imagine her mortification when she visited the Pinehurst website in June to register for the 2021 North & South Senior Women’s Amateur and the 2019 champion was denied access to the registration portal because the entry deadline had passed. “Oh, my God, I just missed a deadline for the first time in my life,” Port recalls thinking. “I can’t believe I did that. I gotta find something to play.”

Port decided to stay local and play a few events in the St. Louis area: the Normandie Amateur and the Metropolitan Senior Amateur Championship. Back-to-back starts were a new experience for the 59-year-old Port, who spent most of her decorated amateur career sporadically playing whichever events she could squeeze in between teaching PE and later coaching at Washington University while raising her kids, Drew and Katie. But Port retired in 2018 and has slowly embraced the possibilities of being a full-time competitor. “If I could ever play three or four weeks in a row, get the jitters out,” she says, “I could be dangerous.”

As the adage goes, well-behaved women seldom make history. In August, Port became the first woman to win the Metropolitan Senior Amateur. Playing from the 6,686-yard back tees at Sunset Country Club in Sunset Hills, Mo., her home club, Port shot 72-67 to get into a playoff against Joe Malench and then snagged the victory with a 20-foot birdie on the fourth extra hole. The George F. Meyer trophy was hers.

The spoils of victory.

Had she not missed the North & South entry deadline, she wouldn’t have made history in Missouri. But as much as Port loves breaking barriers, she is candid that the Met Senior Am was supposed to be just a good warmup before returning to the national stage for the U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur at the Lakewood Club in Point Clear, Ala. The first round is on Sept. 10, and all eyes will be on Port in her quest to collect her eighth USGA championship and match JoAnne (Big Mama) Carner for the most USGA titles won by a woman. Not bad for an accidental, part-time golfer.

Golf was never in Port’s original plans, but competition was all she knew. A self-described “typical tomboy,” she loved basketball the most. As a teenager, her exposure to golf came through a father who loved the game, but it failed to generate much interest for her until nearly a decade later.

She attended the University of Missouri to play tennis and graduated with a degree in education in 1983. Her first job teaching PE was at John Burroughs School in St. Louis, and along the way she coached five teams across three decades: basketball, track and field, field hockey, and boys’ and girls’ golf. She finished her teaching career as the women’s golf coach at Washington University.

Her own competitive fervor was still alive and well in her adult life. Port decided to give golf another chance at age 25. “I was such an innocent kind of newbie with all this talent but no clue,” she says. Terry Houser, the head pro at The Falls Golf Club in suburban St. Louis, helped Port reshape her swing. He once mentioned she had the talent to make a Curtis Cup team. Port hadn’t heard of it. 

Nevertheless, Port wound up on the 1994 Curtis Cup team, at age 33. She represented the U.S. again two years later and in between won her first USGA championship, the 1995 U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur, with husband Andy cheering her on. “The first one’s great, because you wonder if you’re ever going to do it,” Port says.

She defended her title at Mission Hills Country Club, site of the ANA Inspiration (the Dinah Shore), and this time another member of the Port family accompanied her, as she was pregnant with son Drew. Port won another Mid-Am title in 2000, but the demands of family and coaching contributed to an 11-year USGA victory drought. The journey to her fourth Mid-Amateur championship required qualifying after her 10-year exemption had expired. Port spent the week of her 50th birthday claiming the 2011 Mid-Amateur title.

Her transition to the senior scene appeared seamless, as she won the 2012 U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur, but Port says winning is “hard, period.” That was especially true when she defended at CordeValle in 2013, after the death of her father-in-law, Robert Port. “He was like a dad to me,” she says, “and I probably shouldn’t have even gone [to the tournament], but we moved the funeral to later.” Yes, that’s how important Ellen’s golf is to her family: they delayed the funeral so she could play. The victory is also a testament to her laser focus. “I think once I get inside the ropes, I’m able to shut down a lot of stuff that’s going on,” Port says. “So if there is adversity, the course is just like my happy place.”

Capt. Port led Team USA to victory at the 2014 Curtis Cup. (USGA/Steven Gibbons)

As captain, Port led Team USA to victory in the 2014 Curtis Cup, lending her expertise to a younger generation. The experience was more than learning from the best, though. Emma Talley, now an LPGA Tour player, recounts Port’s captaincy contributing to one of the “best golf weeks of my life”—a week in which Talley’s winning point was supported by the “enthusiastic, competitive, and loving” captain (and some sweetly painted Curtis Cup drivers made by Port’s kids).

Two years later, Port won the 2016 Senior Women’s Amateur. 

But her latest run was born out of an uncharacteristic slump. In April, she and best friend Lara Tennant, a fellow USGA champion, competed in the U.S. Women’s Four-Ball. The duo failed to advance to match play, and that was when Port realized something needed to change in her game. “I was really at a low at that point,” she says. “I kind of drifted away from what I needed to be doing.” She believes her impact position was not the same as it once was.

She credits Hank Haney for improving the foundation of her swing in the 1990s—before, she adds in jest, “Tiger stole him away.” In April she reunited with Steve Johnson, director of instruction at Hank Haney Golf. Through videos sent back and forth and one-on-one sessions this spring and summer, Johnson helped Port address bad habits and find her old swing. In July, she qualified for the U.S. Senior Women’s Open and tied with Martha Leach for low amateur. Then came the Metropolitan win against the fellas, followed a week later by a victory at the Missouri Senior Women’s Amateur.

Though the Four-Ball might have felt like a low, it was another defining moment in Port’s career, as she and Tennant were the oldest competitors in the field. The duo met years ago at a state team event, where Tennant was in awe of Port and even admits to developing a bit of a friend-crush. The two reunited on the senior circuit, and Tennant fondly remembers Port being the first one to hug her when she won her first Senior Women’s Amateur title in 2018. “We really stood out [at the Four-Ball],” Tennant says. “People thought our daughters were playing.”

lara tennant ellen port
Port and bestie Lara Tennant were all smiles at the 2021 U.S. Women’s Four-Ball.

Nope, just USGA champions in disguise. Tennant has a particularly keen appreciation for her friend and playing partner. “Ellen doesn’t see age,” Tennant says. “She just sees the golf ball, and she wants to do her best with that.” Turns out her best is good enough to make Port an all-time great.

–Jordan Perez

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