W. Paul Reeve
History Blazer, September 1995
In August 1938, "Utah's Queen of Swing," Helen Hofmann Bertagnole, added a third Utah state golf title to her string of victories, prompting one local sportswriter to declare her "the greatest woman golfer ever to wander the Utah fairways." Less than a decade later her exploits on the golf course as well as her talent as an exceptional bowler, softball player, basketball star, swimmer, and diver earned her the 1947 pioneer centennial award as Utah's outstanding woman athlete of the past century. Her illustrious career proved her worthy of such praise.
Helen was born April 15, 1916, in Salt Lake City to George and Carol Hofmann and demonstrated an interest in a variety of sports at a young age. She first became acquainted with golf while caddying for her father at Forest Dale golf course and soon developed an interest of her own for the sport. She began swinging her own clubs in 1931 at age 15, and though her game was initially erratic Helen quickly increased the power and control behind her drives and soon began winning tournaments.
In 1935, going into the state competition, Helen had already won the Fort Douglas Invitational as well as the Salt Lake City Championship and needed only to add the state title to capture the local grand slam of women's golf. She was heavily favored to win the state crown, but Helen H. Means had also entered the event and had proven challenging in earlier meetings. As predicted, both Hofmann and Means played brilliant golf through the initial stages of the tournament, which ultimately landed them in a head-to-head battle for the state title. After being six down on the first eighteen holes of the finals Means staged a rally and came back to within three on the 33rd hole, but that was as close as she would get. Hofmann sank a 35-yard approach shot for an eagle three on the 34th to end the match and clinch her grand slam victory.
In addition to her extraordinary year as a golfer in 1935, she also starred on the Barnett and Weiss girls basketball team that competed in the national AAU tournament. The following year she again demonstrated her talent on the basketball court, this time sinking shots for the Auerbach's basketball team, which won the Intermountain title and made a good showing at the national meet. That year she also repeated her wins at the Fort Douglas and state golf competitions but did not enter the city tournament.
In all, Helen won the women's state golf championship six times and played consistently on the national golfing circuit. She became the first Utah woman to qualify in the National Amateur Golfing Championships, but perhaps her biggest victory came against another golf legend, the great Mildred "Babe" Didriksen Zaharias. Not only did Helen beat "Babe" in the semifinals of the 1938 Women's Western Open, but she drove the ball farther than any other woman competing.
By 1945 when Helen married Robert K. Bertagnole her flurry of golf victories had largely diminished. However, even after becoming the mother of two, she did not forsake her love for golf. She turned professional in 1958 and worked as a teaching pro at Salt Lake's Bonneville golf course. Her career was cut tragically short when she was diagnosed with cancer in 1961. Despite ailing health Helen continued promoting her favorite sport and labored untiringly in the Utah girls golf program. She died at her home in Salt Lake City at age 45 on February 14, 1962.
Fortunately Helen's outstanding achievements in Utah sports were not soon forgotten. In November 1974 before a packed house at the Prudential Federal Plaza in Salt Lake City, Helen became the first woman inducted into the Utah sports hall of fame. Her daughter, Barbara Bertagnole Sestabem, accepted the honor on her mother's behalf.
Sources: Salt Lake Tribune, June 29, August 17, 1935, August 13, 1938, February 16, 1962; Deseret News, February 15, 1962; November 21, 1974