That time LPGA player Mary Bea Porter-King hit a wayward shot and saved the life of a drowning toddler

By T.J. Auclair
Published on
That time LPGA player Mary Bea Porter-King hit a wayward shot and saved the life of a drowning toddler

Hit a golf ball far enough off line and you never know what you might find.

If it weren’t for a wayward shot that former LPGA winner Mary Bea Porter-King hit during a qualifying tournament for the Standard Register/Samaritan Turquoise Classic on March 16, 1988, a little boy would be dead.

On a cool, crisp Wednesday afternoon in Phoenix just a few days before the official start of spring, Porter-King was on the par-5 13th hole at Moon Valley Country Club. Through 12 holes, the then 37-year-old Porter-King was at even par and knew she needed a couple of birdies coming in to have any chance at qualifying for the tournament proper.

She tried putting a little more oomph into the drive on 13, hoping to have a chance at reaching the green in two, but popped it up.

“Then I was forced to lay up,” she remembers. “And I pulled my lay-up shot about 50 yards left of center. It was bad. There was no yardage from there.”

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Porter-King and her caddie, Wayne Sharp, paced off the yardage. It was 98 yards. Sharp stayed at the green and Porter-King walked back to her ball.

As she arrived at the ball, Porter-King noticed something eerie just over a wrought iron fence.

It was a toddler, face down and motionless, in a pool.

She watched as a man, standing beside the pool, jumped in fully clothed, grabbed the boy -- 3-year-old, Jonathan Smucker -- by his feet and began shaking his lifeless body.

Other than that, there wasn’t much outward emotion shown by what appeared to be a mother and two young girls by the pool.

“Two sisters were quietly sitting on pool lounge chairs,” Porter-King said. “I thought I was in the ‘Twilight Zone’ and I was just waiting for Rod Serling to start narrating the scene.”

Porter-King instantly abandoned her third shot and sprang into action. She yelled for Sharp to come and help her scale the fence.

Sharp threw Porter-King over the fence. She landed on her hands and knees and the man – the boy’s father – handed her the tiny body of his son, with no signs of life, and then calmly joined his daughters by the lounge chairs.

Porter-King, in the meantime, put the boy on the ground and began to administer, “what I thought was CPR, but to no avail.”

Porter-King couldn’t get a heartbeat and Smucker was turning what she described as, “a pewter, putty gray color and his lungs were as flat as a pancake.”

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Acting fast, Porter-King then cleared the boy’s mouth. When the father shook him, the contents of his stomach had come up, blocking his airway.

Once the mouth was clear, Porter-King tried mouth-to-mouth.

What about a frantic call to 9-1-1 at this point, you might be wondering? Remember how the family looked reticent compared to what you’d expect in such a harrowing situation?

Well, there was a reason -- the Smucker family was Amish. A spiritual people, the Amish are known for not displaying their feelings.

They were in Phoenix visiting cousins they’d never met in person. While there was a phone on the property, they didn’t know how to use it and – as bad luck would have it – the cousins were not home at the time of the incident.

At Porter-King’s direction, Sharp tried to explain to the boy’s mother how to make the call. The mother said no one answered when she called 9-1-1. So, Sharp instructed her to dial “0” for an operator.

As this chaos is going on, Porter-King desperately tried one last thing in an effort to save Smucker. She began, “to slug him in the chest.”

“It seemed to work at first, but then he went limp again,” she said. “So, I went back to mouth-to-mouth and his heart started beating, but he was struggling to breathe.”

With the situation still bleak, Porter-King overheard the boy’s mother in the background begin to tell the operator, “we do not need any help.”

That’s when Porter-King made a dash for the phone and snatched it from the mother before the operator hung up.

“I didn’t know the address, so I just said, ‘13th hole at Moon Valley,’” Porter-King said. “I didn’t know the address, officially. I asked the parents and they didn’t either as they had just arrived the night before. Since I was a good girl scout, I knew there would be mail by the phone. I saw, ‘117 Boca Raton,’ told the operator and then heard, ‘Fire, police and ambulance are on their way.’”

What a relief.

When help arrived, Porter-King handed Smucker over to the paramedics. They quickly put Jonathan on a baby respirator.

Before this incident, Porter-King had never administered CPR. She had only seen it administered on TV and had promised herself that once she had children, she would become certified.

She had one young child when this happened, a son – Joseph – just one year older than Smucker.

“I broke my promise to myself about learning CPR before my son was born, but I took a class after this,” she said. “The way the scenario played out – I could not live with myself if I couldn’t save this little boy. I did everything I could to breathe life back into his lifeless body. The toughest part was that he looked just like my son.”

Porter-King stuck around to fill out an incident report with police.

While still there, Smucker’s father gave her a deposit slip from his sopping wet checkbook. It had a “rural route” address on it and he asked Porter-King to please visit them in Pennsylvania some time.

With everything sorted out at the house – incredibly – Porter-King got herself together to continue her round.

She asked Sharp to find a way for them to get back onto the course without hopping that fence again. He did. And, on the way there, a couple of bystanders to the incident asked if Porter-King’s golf shot hit the boy and killed him.

“I thought my caddie was going to hit them for even asking that,” Porter-King said.

Back to business, Porter-King’s third shot found a greenside bunker and she wound up making a bogey on the hole.

It’s bizarre, but worth noting – neither of Porter-King’s playing partner’s that day left the green when all the madness was unfolding. But they did wait for Porter-King to continue and allowed two groups to play through.

“Odd that my two fellow competitors stayed at the green, yes,” Porter-King said. “I will not say who I was playing with, but I will tell you that only one player stopped to help. That was Meg Mallon, who was playing behind me. She used to babysit my son for me.”

Porter-King shot a 73 that day to miss out on the tournament by a single shot.

Like it mattered.

That evening, she drove to Tucson for a tournament while Mallon stayed at her house to look after Joseph.

When Porter-King arrived at the course the next morning, she was warmly welcomed by players and caddies applauding her for the life-saving measures less than 24 hours earlier.

Shortly after, Porter-King learned that Alice Bauer – an LPGA founder – had handwritten a petition to John Laupheimer (then LPGA Commissioner), asking that he allow Porter-King to be the 145th player in the field the following week in Phoenix.

He agreed that would be the least that could be done given Porter-King’s heroic display.

“I didn’t play worth beans the next few weeks,” Porter-King laughed. “I was exhausted and that spent all of my energy. It quickly put life and golf into perspective. I was overwhelmed with all the publicity that came out of it and probably a little in shock. My life has been better since that day. Little things like bogeys don’t matter much.”

That same day, Porter-King got a call from Smucker’s mother from the hospital. Smucker was going to be fine – he spent two days in the hospital. The mother thanked Porter-King for saving her son and – like the father a day earlier – invited her for a visit to the family farm.

“It was very difficult for them because they didn’t want any attention,” Porter-King said. “We visited their farm later that year. I met all the family and they had a gift ready for me when I arrived – jarred peaches and a handmade potholder from Jonathan’s great grandmother. It was interesting to be in their home. There was no electricity, or creature comforts. It was an eye opener. Sports Illustrated actually came out for a photoshoot.”

Twenty-nine years later, thanks to Facebook, Porter-King keeps in touch with Jonathan Smucker. His family left the Amish community, but are still “very religious,” Porter-King said. Smucker is married with two children and a third on the way.

Smucker, 32 now, makes his living as a farrier for race horses in Pennsylvania. He’s fortunate to have been too young to remember what happened on that March day in 1988, but as a parent now, he couldn’t fathom experiencing such an ordeal with one of his own children.

“I mean, I couldn’t imagine if my kid was in a situation like that,” he said. “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.”

Smucker said he has told his oldest, a 5-year-old son, about what happened in the pool when he was a young boy.

“I’m trying to teach him what life is all about and the magnitude of certain situations,” Smucker said. “We believe in the afterlife and heaven, God and Jesus. I told my son that if things turned out differently, I would have never had the chance to meet his mom because I wouldn’t be here. We live life to the fullest and there are so many blessings that come with that.”

Back in 2011, Porter-King was presented with the PGA of America’s First Lady of Golf Award, given to a woman who has made significant contributions to the promotion of the game of golf.

Porter-King founded the Hawaii State Junior Golf Association in 1998 to help teach kids the game and gain college scholarships, after retiring from an on and off 25-year LPGA career. Her lone LPGA win came at the 1975 Golf Inns of America Classic, topping World Golf Hall of Famer Donna Caponi by four strokes.

At the ceremony for her First Lady of Golf Award, the PGA surprised Porter-King, as Smucker and his wife, Rosa, were in attendance.

“That was certainly special to see them there,” she said. “That award is one of the greatest honors of my life.”

Though many have called Mary Bea Porter-King a hero for what she did that day in 1988, she doesn’t see it that way.

“I’m not a hero,” she said. “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?”

Smucker said he’s forever thankful for the courage and the urgency Porter-King showed that day.

But, he said, it isn’t something he needs to tell her every time they have a chance to chat or exchange an email.

“At this point in our relationship, I think it’s a blessing for her to see what I’ve done, the person I’ve become and the family man I’ve grown into,” he said. “She’s an incredible woman and she just seems to be the kind of person who would do that – jump into action when something isn’t right. She has an amazing reputation and is so loved by so many, especially us.”

Is there any better “thanks” than that?