There Isn’t Much Left to Win Now for the Most Successful Golfer of All Time, but That Won’t Stop Her From Trying : KATHY WHITWORTH
Kathy Whitworth wasn’t a charter member when the Ladies Professional Golf Assn. was formed in 1950 but she has won so many tournaments--88 in all--that it sometimes seems like it.
The tall woman from Jal, N.M., joined the fledgling tour in 1959 and won her first tournament, the Kelly Girl Open, in August, 1962 in Baltimore. She won $1,300.
To put that in perspective: Mary Beth Zimmerman and Juli Inkster, this year’s leading money winners, were 2-years-old then. Patty Sheehan, 1983 player of the year, was 3 when Whitworth turned pro. Her reaction, at age 25, on meeting Whitworth:
“I thought she was a real old lady. It’s like meeting the Pope--you never expect to really meet the guy.”
The winner of this week’s Nabisco Dinah Shore, a $430,000 tournament at the Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif., will receive an LPGA record $75,000. The 50th-place finisher will receive $1,350--more than Whitworth won in the Kelly Girl Open.
In 28 years crisscrossing the country with her golf clubs, Whitworth, 46, has won just about everything there is to win, except the U.S. Open. She has teed it up at 714 official LPGA events, won 88 of them, collected $1,618,481, been leading money winner eight times, Vare Trophy winner for lowest scoring average seven times and Player of the Year seven times. Between 1965 and 1973, she was the leading money winner every year but one. She has won at least one tournament in 22 of the last 24 years, including the last five in a row.
In 1975 she was named to the LPGA Hall of Fame and in 1982 to the World Golf Hall of Fame. In 1965 and again in 1967, she was voted Associated Press Athlete of the Year.
When Whitworth won the 1982 Lady Michelob tournament in Roswell, Ga.--her 83rd career win--she passed Mickey Wright as the winningest woman in golf history. Two years later, when she won No. 85 in the Rochester International by beating Rosie Jones in a playoff, she passed Sam Snead as the all-time winner of official U.S. tournaments. She got No. 88 last May in the United Virginia Bank tournament, where she was nine-under-par to edge Amy Alcott by a stroke.
Friday, at a presentation at Mission Hills she will receive the William Richardson Award from the Golf Writers Association of America as “an individual who has made consistently outstanding contributions to golf.” She is the third woman to receive the award, joining the late Babe Zaharias, who received it in 1954, and Patty Berg, the 1959 recipient.
“I don’t know what I contributed other than to win a lot of tournaments,” she said. “I guess it goes to show that if you stay with anything long enough, good things will happen. I’ve been fortunate to be blessed with good health and the ability to make a lot of putts. Best of all, I’ve been doing something I love to do. If a person is enjoying what she’s doing, I can’t see any reason not to keep doing it. That’s why I’m still at it.”
Kathy Whitworth is not only still a force on the golf course, a threat to win anytime she tees it up against women half her age, but she still maintains an active interest in the LPGA. A president of the organization in 1967 and again in 1971, she is currently a player representative on the LPGA board of directors.
“I miss those days when the girls did everything. We made up the schedule, handled the publicity, made the pairings, set up the course and then went out and played. All the players worked on all the committees at one time or another. We all worked together, we got to really know one another.
“Now, money overshadows the tour. Back then it was important, sure, but in the back of our minds the important thing was to make the LPGA grow. I miss those days.”
The growth of the LPGA has come in spurts, and Whitworth has seen them all, except for the beginning when the tour was a vehicle to show off Babe Didrikson Zaharias.
“If I have a single regret in life, it’s not meeting the Babe,” Whitworth said. “I came along a couple of years after she died. There were few role models for young girls then who wanted to be an athlete. I think Mickey Wright was head and shoulders above her as a golfer, but Babe was such a great all-around athlete. She is the only person I feel I would like to have met.
“Babe was the reason for the women’s tour when it started. Wilson (golf club manufacturers) had Babe under contract and they hired Fred Corcoran to put on a tour to give Babe a place to play. At that time, she was doing clinics and exhibitions, but they felt a tour would be a better showcase.”
Whitworth joined Wilson’s staff in 1961 and is still with them.
“Wilson was really the Wilson Meat Packing Co. back then, and they used to tell me, ‘If you don’t play better, we’ll put you to work as a meat packer.’ ”
Kathy Whitworth isn’t the type person to have idols, but if she did, Mickey Wright would be it.
“Mickey had one of the greatest swings I’ve ever seen, man or woman. I’ve played with all the greats, except Ben Hogan and Babe, and I’ve never seen anyone with better swing control. She was only 35 when she retired (in 1970). If she had stayed out here, she might have won 100 tournaments.
“What an amazing person she was. Look what she did in 1973 when she won Dinah’s tournament. She comes out of retirement, wins, then goes back home. Just like it was nothing. Mickey and I had a lot of head-to-head battles over the years, but one of the highlights of my career was playing with her in the Legends of Golf two years ago, against the men. Seeing her step up to the first tee was like seeing Hogan coming out of retirement, and to have her as a partner in an event like that was an unbelievable thrill. It had been six years since I’d seen her play, but the swing was as super as ever.
“The response from the gallery was a high for me every day. We did well until we began to tire, but the people cheered Mickey all the way around. I was told that ticket sales were up 25% after it was announced that we were going to play.”
Wright won four U. S. Opens, but Whitworth, like Sam Snead, has never won.
She will be there in July at Dayton, Ohio, for her 28th attempt, but she says that winning the Open is not quite the obsession it once was.
“I always tried too hard, and in the beginning I felt out of place. The Open was so different from all our other tournaments, ones we worked on ourselves. The Open was a USGA (U.S. Golf Assn.) tournament. I was always in awe of it. I felt like a public course player suddenly in a country club atmosphere. I had never played in a USGA event as a junior or an amateur and I believe that really hurt my chances.
“The USGA atmosphere was blue-blood, even more so when I was young, and I was a country girl from New Mexico who had never been around anything like that. Girls like Nancy Lopez, Hollis Stacy, JoAnne Carner, even Mickey, had all played in USGA tournaments, so they knew how to act in that environment. It’s not that way now, because most of our tournaments, like the GNA at Oakmont, and Dinah’s coming up, are conducted by the LPGA staff with a major tournament atmosphere.”
Whitworth has had 12 finishes in the top 10 in U.S. Open competition, including a second in 1971, but the closest she came to winning was in 1981.
“I was leading going into the last round in ’81 at LaGrange, Ill., but it rained the night before and changed the course. Instead of a fast track, the way I liked it, the course became slow and soft and Pat Bradley shot 65 and I couldn’t keep up with her. The year I finished second I wasn’t close. I was seven shots back of JoAnne (Carner).
In both 1969 and 1970 she finished two strokes behind the winner, finishing third and fourth, respectively. Donna Caponi won both times.
“I haven’t given up on winning the Open, but I’m not hyper on it like I used to be. I would be winning going into the Open, but I couldn’t keep it going. I tried so hard that I was out of reality. I would miss a shot and go berserk. Everything was out of proportion, bigger than life. I feel more at ease playing in the Open now.”
Kathy, a tomboy who played tennis, baseball, basketball and even sandlot football as a teen-ager, didn’t take up golf until she was 15. She lived in Jal, a village of less than 3,000, in a remote southeast corner of New Mexico, where her father ran a hardware store.
When she was a sophomore in high school, a nine-hole course was opened in Jal. A friend invited her to try the game and soon Kathy was taking lessons from Hardy Loudermilk, the local pro. He quickly recognized her talents and recommended seeing Harvey Penick, a nationally renowed teacher in Austin, Tex., who was Ben Crenshaw’s first teacher. As often as Whitworth could make the trip to Austin, Penick taught her the stylist swing that would win many tournaments. After she won the New Mexico Amateur in 1957 and 1958, Whitworth decided she would rather play golf than stay in school at Odessa College, so she turned pro.
“We used to caravan from tournament to tournament,” she recalled. “We’d pile things in the back of a car and move on to the next stop. Some days, when I’m trying to cram all my things into one suitcase for an airplane trip, I long for the days when I could haul all my stuff around with me.”
Another thing that has changed, Whitworth noted, is the size and strength of the younger players.
“I used to be considered one of the bigger players,” said Whitworth, who stands 5-foot-9 and weighs 140. “There are a lot of tall, solid girls now. I seem to have lost my bigness.”
What many people don’t know is that at one time the slender Whitworth was really big. Like 215 pounds when she turned pro at 19.
“I’d probably be the fat lady in the circus right now if it hadn’t been for golf,” she said, laughing. “It kept me on the course and out of the refrigerator.”
There was also a time, earlier in her career, when one of Whitworth’s dreams was to get married, raise a family and live what folks call a normal life.
“I grew up like most girls did in the ‘40s, expecting to get married and have children, but when I was at the crossroads and it seemed I had to choose between golf and a family, I opted not to have a family. I guess you could call me a career woman. Golf was my career and I was really wrapped up in it. In those days it wasn’t considered right for a man to be married to a woman athlete. Things have changed now. Lots of the girls are married and very happy, but 20 years ago men wouldn’t accept the idea.
“There were a few, like Judy Rankin and Marlene Hagge who were married and kept playing, but it was very rare. The only option, if you wanted to get married, was to quit, and I just couldn’t see myself doing that. I couldn’t marry and give up the game. I have no regrets. I’ve never looked back. So many wonderful things have happened to me, I don’t feel unfulfilled. I don’t feel I have sacrificed a thing.
“I might not have been a very good wife. I’ve always felt I should be in control of my own destiny. I hate to have anything or anybody in control of my life. That’s probably why I enjoy individual sports. And I like being alone. I have never felt lonely, except maybe when I first left home for the tour. I have friends all around the country, but I stay mostly in hotels because I cherish my private time and that’s something you don’t get when you’re staying with someone else. I’m not anti-social. I enjoy going out, but not all the time.”
Winning her first tournament, the Kelly Girl Open, and her biggest tournament, the 1977 Colgate Dinah Shore, were great thrills, but win No. 2 has a particularly fond place in her memory.
“The first win is always great, but I backed into it. I was sitting in the clubhouse when the leaders fell apart and I was the winner. It was the second one that made me feel I was capable of winning regularly. It was the Phoenix Thunderbird and I battled Mickey (Wright) over the last nine holes before I won.
“Funny thing is, Mickey was sort of responsible for my winning. After I’d won the Kelly Girl, I went into a terrible slump. I could hit everything great on the driving range, but I couldn’t score. I was really frustrated.
“Mickey and I were hitting balls on a practice range in Salt Lake City and I told her how desperate I was, that I couldn’t hit the ball once I got on the golf course. I asked her if there was such a thing as being too swing conscious and she told me not to think of the swing, to trust my swing and think about what problems were ahead of me on the golf course. She said not to practice anymore except to warm up before I played.
“That was a big turning point in my career, learning to trust my swing and play the golf course. After that, I finished second six or seven times and then won in August in Phoenix. That proved to myself that I could handle pressure. There was no greater pressure than facing Mickey down the stretch. The next year I won nine tournaments.
“It was so nice for me to be a part of a small organization like the LPGA was then. When Mickey or Patty (Berg) or Jackie Pung or Betsy Rawls were playing, I would dog their steps. I would watch everything they did, especially the way they hit trouble shots. Pung was an artist around the green, and I can still see Rawls getting off the side of a hill for a birdie in my sleep. No one ever saved shots like she did. I was lucky enough to be around when it was all happening.
“I wonder about some of the young girls today. They don’t seem as dedicated. Winning is not such a big thing now. There is so much money to be made that you can be complacent and not win and still make a lot of money. I don’t see the desire there that I had. There are some, like Nancy (Lopez) who have it, but not many.”
” . . . I won one tournament, the Dinah Shore, in 1977, and received more notoriety than I did from winning more than 70 tournaments before that.
Whitworth credits Lopez with elevating women’s golf to a higher level in the public eye than anyone before her. Lopez was 21 when she joined the tour in 1977 and immediately won five straight tournaments and was player of the year in 1978 and 1979. She won the same honor last year, but has not played in 1986 because she is expecting her second child in May.
“Nancy was our Arnold Palmer. She came out on tour, won all those tournaments in her rookie year and captivated people with her personality. She had such charisma that she attracted attention we had never received before.
“Of course, the tour’s godfather was David Foster, who brought Colgate and all that money into the tour in 1972. We grew in spurts and that was our biggest jump. He was the one responsible. He lifted us into another era with his love for the girls, the game and the LPGA. He not only lifted our purse structure into the $100,000 class, he also had 25 or 30 girls on his staff doing public relations for Colgate. He was a tremendous benefactor. If our Hall of Fame had anyone in it besides golfers, he should be the first.”
Foster was president of the Colgate-Palmolive Co. when he and Dinah Shore founded a tournament in her name in 1972 that produced not only record purses upwards of $100,000, but also put the women golfers on national television--not only on the golf course, but also in commercials. After Foster resigned as president, Colgate dropped the tournament in 1981, but it has been continued by Nabisco.
This year Whitworth is off to a slow start. In seven tournaments, she has won only $6,493.
“I don’t know why, the ball just isn’t getting in the hole quick enough. One thing might be, it hasn’t been too hot. I play better when it warms up. Another thing is that there are so many good players out here now. It used to be that one shot wasn’t too critical, but not now. Now it can cost you five or six positions, the leaders are so bunched together nearly every week.
“I always look forward to playing Mission Hills, though. I’ve had some good luck there and that always helps, although the course is quite different today. The trees were young and sparse then. Now they come into play more. There’s a lot of character to the course. It plays to a legit par-72 and you have to earn what you get. I like that. I like a course where you have to use every club in your bag. Mission Hills is one of them.”
Year Events Finish Money Rank Scoring 1959 26 9 $1,217 -- 80.30 1960 22 2 4,901 -- 77.11 1961 15 2 6,853 -- 76.05 1962 28 1 17,044 -- 74.32 1963 32 1 26,858 2 73.90 1964 31 1 20,434 3 73.60 1965 30 1 28,658 1 72.61 1966 31 1 33,517 1 72.60 1967 28 1 32,937 1 72.74 1968 30 1 48,379 1 72.16 1969 28 1 48,171 2 72.38 1970 21 1 30,235 1 72.26 1971 20 1 41,181 1 72.88 1972 29 1 65,063 1 72.38 1973 31 1 82,864 1 73.12 1974 25 1 52,064 6 73.50 1975 21 1 34,422 9 72.96 1976 25 1 62,013 9 73.60 1977 25 1 108,540 3 72.16 1978 26 1 67,855 12 73.60 1979 26 2 36,246 30 74.15 1980 29 3 48,392 24 73.91 1981 27 1 134,937 10 72.40 1982 25 1 136,698 9 72.28 1983 26 1 191,492 5 72.33 1984 28 1 146,401 8 72.82 1985 22 1 95,506 21 72.82