Professional golfer Mary Bea Porter-King isn’t a household name. She won one LPGA tournament in 1975, but she’s not considered one of the greatest or most important athletes in her field.
But at one tournament 29 years ago, Porter-King did something remarkable, something that few other athletes can claim—and to this day still earns her the admiration of her fellow players.
It was March 16, 1988. Porter-King, 37 years old at the time, was playing at Moon Valley Country Club in Phoenix, competing to qualify for the Standard Register/Samaritan Turquoise Classic… but it was seeming less and less likely.
By the 13th hole, Porter-King was at par. After a disastrous 12th, she needed her luck to turn around quick if she was going to have any chance at placing.
“At 13, I’m sort of flustered,” Porter-King recalled to the LA Times. “You can make the green in two, but I figure I’ll just lay up.”
So Porter-King took a hard swing—which went terribly wrong. “I hit the ugliest hook-roll-snap you’ve ever seen, 15 feet off the ground, over into a gully by a fence.”
The misfired stroke further doomed her chances—however, while it looked like the ball had gone way off course, it inadvertently led Porter-King to something far more important.
“If I’d have hit the ball in the fairway, I’d have walked to it, preparing for my third shot, my approach to the green,” she told the Chicago Tribune.
“I probably never would have seen what I saw.”
The golf ball had landed near a fence separating the course from some nearby homes. One of the homes had a pool in their backyard—and Porter-King had arrived just in time to witness the commotion.
She saw a fully-clothed man jump into the pool. When the man emerged from the water, he had a 3-year-old boy cradled in his arms.
The boy wasn’t responsive.
The father didn’t seem to know what to do—and the other onlookers seemed frozen in shock.
“Two sisters were quietly sitting on pool lounge chairs,” Porter-King told PGA.com. “I thought I was in the ‘Twilight Zone’ and I was just waiting for Rod Serling to start narrating the scene.”
Alone on the green with only her caddy, the golfer knew she had to do something—even though she had never performed CPR in her life.
She had the caddy give her a lift over the 7-foot fence. The father let her take over.
“[He] handed me the dead child and walked off back toward the house,” she told the LA Times.
Porter-King didn’t know what to do next. “For all I knew at the time, the boy was gone,” she told the Chicago Tribune. “There was no breath, no pulse. I had no training in CPR, but I did whatever I thought could revive him. I punched him in the chest, I gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, I laid him on his side beside the pool. There were no signs of life.”
She tried mouth-to-mouth again—and to her relief, the toddler’s heart began beating again. But he was still struggling to breathe.
Porter-King then heard the boy’s mother behind her on the phone, for some reason telling the operator that they didn’t need help. The golfer ran over and grabbed the phone from her, insisting that they did need help, and gave her best approximation of their location.
Paramedics arrived, and administered a respirator.
His life was saved—all thanks to Porter-King.
Porter-King learned the boy’s name was Jonathan Smucker. The Smuckers, she found out, were Amish—visiting relatives from Pennsylvania. It explained their surprising lack of emotional response to the incident.
“I know Jonathan’s mother and father and sisters appreciated what happened, even though they might not have been as expressive as you or I might have,” she told the Chicago Tribune.
They were so appreciative they gave the golfer their home address, and invited her to visit them in Pennsylvania.
Porter-King stuck around to make sure everything was okay and to fill out a police report.
Then she returned to the tournament.
She played the final few holes as if nothing had just occurred, as if she hadn’t just saved someone’s life.
Unfortunately, she finished the round with a score of 73—a single shot away from qualifying for the tournament.
But it didn’t matter. Word had spread about what Porter-King had done on that 13th hole (some confused onlookers first assumed the golfer had struck the child with her ball) and reporters and fellow golfers praised her as a hero.
But Porter-King has always been modest about the incident.
“I’m not a hero,” she recently told PGA.com.
“I’m just a lucky person who hit a terrible shot at just the right time and I was very lucky to save a life. I have always thought that is what anyone would have done in that situation. Wouldn’t you?”
While Porter failed to qualify for the tournament, in light of her heroics, her golfers lobbied the PGA to make an exception and let her play. After signing a petition, the organization agreed—an unprecedented move.
“Knowing how strict the LPGA is, how they never make allowances, to me [the exemption] was thank-you enough,” Porter-King told the LA Times.
Jonathan Smucker spent two days in the hospital but made a full recovery. Porter-King took the family on their offer and visited their farm.
That 3-year-old boy is now 32 years old, married, and with a son of his own. He has kept in touch with the golfer who saved his life over the years. In 2011, when Porter-King received the First Lady of Golf Award from the PGA, Smucker and his wife were in attendance.
Smucker doesn’t remember the drowning incident—but as a parent, he’s even more appreciative of what Porter-King did for him.
“I couldn’t imagine if my kid was in a situation like that,” he told PGA.com. “You’d hope someone could help. Having kids, you understand a whole new kind of love. I didn’t appreciate it then like I do now—I was too young, obviously.”
“But words can’t describe how grateful I am for Mary Bea.”
All this, thanks to a bad golf swing.
“First time I ever hit a bad shot and saw something good come out of it,” she told the Chicago Tribune.
“Something really good.”