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For Luverne legend Jerilyn Britz, competition is everything

Jerilyn Britz (wearing visor) poses with three-time LPGA major champion Nancy Lopez (left) and her friends Mary Jo Graphenteen, Marilyn Bergman, Nancy Frakes and Jeanette Marsh earlier this month at the U.S. Senior Women's Open in Wheaton, Ill. (Special to The Globe)1 / 6
Britz poses next to some of her many golf trophies in her Luverne apartment. (Karl Evers-Hillstrom / The Globe)2 / 6
Britz shows off a medal she was given for winning the 1979 U.S. Women's Open Golf Championship. (Karl Evers-Hillstrom / The Globe)3 / 6
Britz's friends Marilyn Bergman (left), Mary Jo Graphenteen and Nancy Frakes pose next to a picture of Britz at the U.S. Senior Women's Open in Wheaton, Ill. (Special to The Globe)4 / 6
Britz plays earlier this month at the U.S. Senior Women's Open in Chicago. (Special to The Globe)5 / 6
Britz is pictured playing in the 1979 U.S. Women's Open Golf Championship in Fairfield, Conn. (Special to The Globe)6 / 6

LUVERNE — She’s a two-time professional golf tournament winner, the first woman inducted into the Rock County Historical Society’s Hall of Fame and the namesake of Luverne’s recently established “Jerilyn Britz Week.”

In her Luverne home, Britz’s modest trophy case is far too small to hold all of her awards.

But for Britz, the best part of being a professional athlete was never the hardware or the accolades. It was, and still is, all about the lifelong challenge Britz made to herself — to keep improving, learning and striving for perfection in a game where perfection is unreachable.

Britz was born in Minneapolis in 1943 and grew up in Luverne, where she fell in love with sports at a young age. She frequently challenged her brother in football and baseball, and was particularly enamored with basketball.

Golf didn’t come into the picture until Britz was about 17 years old. As a lifeguard at the city pool, her boss Charlie Weinman peaked her interest with great stories about his golfing escapades. With Weinman’s guidance, Britz first learned how to swing a golf club by hitting the heads off dandelions.

“I hit one solid shot and I’ve been trying to do it again ever since,” Britz said.

Soon enough, Luverne’s nine-hole golf course became a second home for the high-schooler. Britz would get out there any time she could — including one day when rain had closed the pool down. The rain dissipated and the sun came out, but Britz was still out on the course when Weinman showed up, equipped with his own set of clubs.

“What are you doing out here?” he asked Britz, wondering why she wasn’t back working at the pool.

“What are you doing out here?” she replied, wondering the same thing.

At that moment, it became obvious — now both golfers were completely hooked.

Loving the thrill of competition, Britz played to win, no matter what the sport was or who she was up against.

“I’ve never lost anything on purpose, let’s put it that way,” she said with a smile.

Still, winning wasn’t the most rewarding aspect of competition. Britz tried her hand at badminton while attending Minnesota State University, Mankato, and with just a few months of experience under her belt, she attended a state tournament, where she was immediately matched up against the defending state champion — a matchup she knew wasn’t winnable.

The match went as expected when a beginner faces a champion. Britz struggled, tired and out of breath, while her opponent never broke a sweat. Britz captured just one point — when her opponent hit the net. And she loved every minute of it.

“That was the most fun I’ve ever had competing in anything,” Britz said. “I thought it was fantastic. To watch her do what she could do … that was so much fun, and I learned a lot.”

Being able to adapt and learn was what drove Britz to become a great golfer. As a young golfer, she was never afraid to challenge experience frequenters of the Luverne course.

“In my experience, when I played whatever against someone who was better than I, that’s when I learn,” she said. “And I loved that. I love that because they’re better than me for a reason. I need to figure out why that is.”

Just as learning was embedded in Britz, so was teaching. After graduated college in 1965, she taught in St. Anthony Village for five years. She went on to pursue her master’s degree and teach high school in Albuquerque, N.M.

Being a teacher, Britz could dedicate her summers to her passion. Having improved her game and having won the Minnesota Women’s Public Links Championship in 1969, Britz, at age 30, finally decided to go pro in 1973. She used to her winter break to travel to Miami, Fla., where she officially joined the LPGA tour after making the cut at LPGA qualifying school.

Five years after setting off on a new career, Britz had a breakthrough performance in 1979, winning the U.S. Women's Open Golf Championship in Fairfield, Conn. and setting a 72-hole record with a total score of 284.

But the signature victory of Britz’s career was surrounded by multiple close calls. After setting a record by shooting a 64 in the first round of the 1979 LPGA Championship, she finished the event in second, losing by three strokes to Detroit, Mich. native Donna Caponi.

In the 1981 LPGA Championship, Britz again finished second to Caponi, who chipped the ball in on the final hole to win the title by a single stroke.

For most players, it would be a heartbreaking loss. For the level-headed Britz, “It felt pretty good to get second in a tournament and have a chance to win it. You don’t every often get that opportunity, so I was very comfortable being in that position.”

Going into the 1979 U.S. Open, Britz treated it like any other tournament. She was a fiery competitor, but never put any pressure on herself.

“I believe pressure is self-inflicted, so I never felt any pressure,” she said. “When I was playing and winning that tournament, people would say, ‘you look so relaxed.’ I was, and I was enjoying the experience.”

That didn’t stop others from having expectations for the Minnesotan. During warm-up shots, World Golf Hall-of-famer Marilynn Smith walked over to Britz and told her, “You could win this.”

Britz certainly heard the comment, but it didn’t stick with her. Frankly, it didn’t matter. She would play her best golf, and if it wasn’t enough, so be it.

“I never have expectations; I just try to do the best I can on every shot,” Britz said. “If I do the best I can at the time I’m doing it, I can’t be disappointed if I don’t win. It means someone else did better.”

In that same mindset, Britz never looked at the score. The only time it came in to play was if she was deciding whether to take a risky shot.

“I didn’t pay any attention to it — I can’t do anything to influence what anyone else is doing,” she said.

Winning the U.S. Open was an “interesting” feeling for Britz. All of her years of practice and professional competition seemed to result in that single, brief moment of holding the big trophy.

“It’s like playing king of the hill with your buddies — you fight and you scrap, you pull them off and you get up to the top of the hill, and it’s like ‘is that all there is?’” she said. “All of a sudden, it’s done. It’s a short-lived exhilaration of the moment.

“Then you have just a few hours to enjoy it and then you’re going on to the next event, and you’re all on the same level again. That win was last week. What are you going to do next week?”

The win never damaged Britz’s motivation. She went on to secure her second and final major win at the Mary Kay Classic in Texas in 1980, beating golf legend Nancy Lopez in a sudden-death playoff with a birdie. She would play professionally until her retirement in 1999.

Her time on the tour was filled with memories and lasting relationships with her fellow players. Even though they were competitors, they got along well.

“It’s like going to the office and seeing your fellow office workers — our office just moved as a unit from city to city,” Britz said.

Britz, along with all former U.S. Women’s Open champions reunited for the first ever U.S. Senior Women’s Open on July 12-15 in Wheaton, Ill.

At 75, Britz now spends her summers in Luverne, and still enjoys playing at the Luverne Country Club as much as possible. Her personal favorite tee time is in the evenings, when the sun casts long shadows through the course’s many trees.

“There’s a few trees I haven’t hit yet,” she said with a grin.