A different course
Dale McNamara helped pioneer the women’s golf program at The University of Tulsa. Today she remains involved with the city’s Park and Recreation and Gilcrease Museum boards.
There is life beyond the 18th hole for Dale McNamara.
The woman who took The University of Tulsa’s women’s golf program to four national championships during her 26 years as head coach has found fulfillment in a second career as the chairwoman of the Tulsa Park and Recreation Board.
“Being on the park board has put me in touch with my city,” McNamara says.
She became well-known locally when the TU women’s golf program rose to prominence in the 1970s and 1980s, but her love affair with the sport stretches back much further.
Now 79, McNamara was just 12 when she began playing golf at the Oaks Country Club. She immediately showed an affinity for the sport.
After graduating from Holland Hall in 1953, she attended TU, which didn’t even have a women’s golf team.
“Women’s college golf was nil at that point,” McNamara says. However, the university did manage to send her to tournaments to compete as an individual player.
Playing as an amateur against professionals such as Mickey Wright and Betsy Rawls “was truly an experience,” she recalls. “I learned an awful lot from them.”
McNamara says she was on the brink of turning pro in the late 1950s but chose marriage instead. After living in Pennsylvania for a few years, she returned to Tulsa in 1963. She says she spent the following decade raising two daughters, volunteering and occasionally golfing just for fun.
Then, she received a phone call that changed her life.
As a result of Title IX, the 1972 law meant to ensure equality in collegiate athletics, TU established a women’s golf program in 1974. The university wanted McNamara to be its first coach.
“My husband said I would enjoy it, and I did have more time on my hands than I wanted,” she says.
The coaching job was initially an extension of McNamara’s volunteer work. She didn’t get a salary for two years, but that didn’t stop her from throwing herself into her new role.
The addition of golf prodigy Nancy Lopez to the roster in 1975 brightened the new team’s outlook.
“Nancy captured the community,” McNamara recalls. “We had access to every golf course in the city. Everyone was so welcoming. Recruiting became a lot easier, too.”
McNamara was honored as National Coach of the Year in 1985, the year her team won eight of 13 tournaments. Under her direction, TU eventually won more than 70 tournaments and produced 27 first- or second-team All-Americans.
Another of McNamara’s star players was her daughter, Melissa. The two joined forces on the 1988 TU title team with Melissa capturing the individual championship.
Melissa subsequently played more than a decade on the LPGA tour before coming home to coach the TU program after her mother’s 2000 retirement. She has been the women’s golf coach at Arizona State since 2002, leading her team to a 2009 NCAA championship.
After McNamara’s retirement, she received another life-changing phone call.
This time it was from late civic leader Walt Helmerich, who told her, “The city has backed you all the way. Now it’s time to pay the city back.”
That call led to McNamara’s role with the city’s Park and Recreation Board. She soon became a true believer in the importance of parks.
“Parks keep people safe, and they keep kids busy,” she says.
These days, McNamara hears children playing in Florence Park from the porch of the home she shares with her daughter Cathy. The two moved in together after McNamara’s husband, Jim, died in 2007.
McNamara lost sight in her right eye four years ago, which led her to give up the sport she loves.
“Golf is a thing of the past for me,” she says. “Been there. Done that.”
“That” includes her induction into the Women’s Golf Coaches Association Hall of Fame (which also inducted Melissa last year), the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame and the TU Athletic Hall of Fame.
However, McNamara seems just as proud of the Gilcrease Bluestem Award she received earlier this year for her leadership since 2003 as chairwoman of the city’s Gilcrease Museum Board of Trustees. The award is presented to those who have shaped the museum’s future. Helmerich is among the honor’s past recipients.
“He exposed me to a different type of life in which you are trying to make things better for everyone,” McNamara says. “It’s a whole different world.”