Kathy Whitworth 1939-2022
REMEMBERING KATHY WHITWORTH – GOLF’S GREATEST WINNER
By Ron Sirak
The dining room at Trophy Club Country Club near Flower Mound, Texas, gazes upon the rolling hills and old oak trees through which two courses meander, one named for the club's most famous member, Kathy Whitworth, the other the lone design by the icon of Texas golf, Ben Hogan.
Inside the dining room the wall opposite the windows appears at first to be a shrine to the rich golf history of a state that gave the game Hogan, Byron Nelson and Babe Zaharias, among others. The glass case running nearly the length of the room overflows with the spoils of victory.
But closer inspection reveals the hardware was all earned by just one daughter of the Lone Star State —Kathy Whitworth — whose 88 LPGA victories are the most ever on a professional tour.
Whitworth, who along with Mickey Wright gave the game golf’s greatest rivalry, passed away suddenly on Saturday evening, December 24, while celebrating Christmas Eve with friends. She was 83. As LPGA Founder Louise Suggs said: “Mickey was the greatest golfer, but Kathy was the greatest winner.”
That Whitworth fashioned such a career after a rookie season in 1959 in which she had a stroke average of 80.30, won only $1,217, coming within a hairsbreadth of quitting, is testimony of the grittiness that defined her.
What started as a plan concocted around her family's kitchen table in Jal, New Mexico, a company town tucked so far in the southeast corner of the state that it is almost in Texas, ended up being a blueprint for greatness, albeit one that needed years to pencil in all the lines.
There was reason during Whitworth's early LPGA seasons to think she was never going to win, let alone set a record that may never be broken. If there is a lesson from Whitworth's odyssey it is this: Do what you love, commit to it completely and learn from your mistakes.
“I was really fortunate in that I knew what I wanted to do,” Whitworth said. “Golf just grabbed me by the throat. I can't tell you how much I loved it. I used to think everyone knew what they wanted to do when they were 15 years old.”
Whitworth's domination crossed generations as she won at least once a record 17 consecutive years. She began against Wright, Suggs and Betsy Rawls and finished with Nancy Lopez, Betsy King and Beth Daniel. Along the way she tussled with Carol Mann, Judy Rankin and JoAnne Carner — a Hall of Fame roster against whom she established her record number of wins.
And in addition to Whitworth's 88 victories, she was runner-up a staggering 93 times — 181 top-two finishes.
Whitworth, whose athletic features stretched over a 5-foot-9 frame, was born in Monahans, a tiny dot on the west Texas map. Her parents owned a hardware store in Jal, where she grew up as the youngest of three daughters and learned golf with her grandfather's clubs on the nine-hole course built for employees of El Paso Natural Gas.
When Whitworth talked about golf, it was with a passion that explained what drove her. Discussing a long-ago shot — “a knock-down cut 2-iron from 160 yards into a howling wind” over water to a back right pin to beat Hollis Stacy—her eyes sparkled as if seeing the ball in flight.
“Winning never got old,” said Whitworth, who developed a love affair with golf by learning on the course rather than on a practice range.
"A lot of young players today don't have that chance,” she said. “They can go hit balls, but they don't have the chance to just drag the bag along and learn how to play."
Her first teacher was Hardy Loudermilk, the pro at Jal, who was friends with Austin's Harvey Penick. When Whitworth was 17 Loudermilk introduced her to Penick.
“Hardy and Harvey would talk on the phone,” she said, “and Harvey would tell him what I was working on and what to look for so Hardy became a surrogate, so to speak.”
Two years after taking up the game at age 15, Whitworth won the 1957 New Mexico Women's Amateur, a success she repeated the next year.
“Mickey [Wright] and I played an exhibition with her in Roswell, N.M., and she was this teenager and green, just starting out in golf,” remembered Rawls, who also studied with Penick and won 55 LPGA events.
“We never thought we’d see her on tour because she was just so unpolished,” Rawls said. “She learned to play on tour, and she learned it very well.”
But the on-the-job training involved a lot of losing. Fortunately, her father and a couple of local businessmen subsidized Kathy with $5,000 a year for three years.
“I almost quit because I was playing so bad,” Whitworth said. “I went home after being on tour three or four months, and I thought, ‘I just don't know if I am good enough.’ I was talking to
Mom and Dad around the kitchen table, which we usually did, and they said, ‘Well, you have three years. If you don't make it, just come home and we'll do something else.’ When they said that it kind of took the pressure off me.’
Whitworth won her first check at the Land of the Sky Open in Asheville, N.C. “Thirty dollars,” she said. “Tied for last-place money, but you would have thought I won the tournament.”
But there were five second-place finishes and 3½ years on tour before Whitworth claimed her first victory, at the 1962 Kelly Girls Open.
“I really didn't win it,” she said with typical self-deprecation. “Sandra Haynie three-putted the last hole and gave it to me.”
Whitworth notched six more runner-up finishes before she got her second win at the Phoenix Thunderbird Open later that year.
If a career could ever be reduced to one shot — and it is never that simple — it was the approach Whitworth hit on the final hole at Phoenix.
“I point to the second [victory] as the one that made the first one not just a fluke,” Whitworth said.
“It boiled down to Mickey and I the last nine holes, and Mickey was playing behind me,” Whitworth said. “I wasn't sure what the spread was [because there was no leader board], but I made a decision to go at the hole. The pin was stuck behind a trap. I thought, ‘If I am going to [win], I can't back away.’ So I whipped it in there about 15 feet and made the birdie.”
Whitworth won by four strokes.
“That gave me a lot of confidence to think that I could play knowing I was in contention,” she said. “I didn't have to back away.”
The next year she won eight times. Seven times in her 33-year career, she won seven or more tournaments in a season. In 1981, Whitworth became the first LPGA player to pass $1 million in career earnings.
“She just had to win,” says Rawls. “A lot like Mickey Wright and Louise Suggs. There's just something that drives them. Kathy was a very intelligent person. It was unacceptable for her to make a mistake. She hated herself when she made a mistake. She was wonderful to play with — sweet as she could be, nice to everybody — but oh, man, she berated herself something awful. And that's what drove her.”
From her maiden victory to her last, the 1985 United Virginia Bank Classic, Whitworth was relentless. Everyone has stories about how Whitworth carried on a running dialogue with herself about how she didn't deserve to be a professional golfer. The standards she set were unreasonable to everyone except her.
“From 100 yards in she wasn't trying to get it close, she was trying to hole it,” said Greg Sheridan, who caddied for Whitworth late in her career.
Whitworth started in an era of 35-player fields competing for $7,500. Players traveled by car, stayed in cheap hotels or with local families and did all the bookkeeping, scheduling and promotion for the Tour themselves.
“I'm glad when I look back on it that I didn't succeed right away,” Whitworth said. “When it happened, I was ready. I think some people win without even knowing how they won. I had lost some playoffs. I had come close a few times. You have to learn how to win. You learn by making mistakes and analyzing the round after the tournament and thinking back and saying, 'Ah, I should have…’”
That Trophy Club display sits in silent affirmation of Whitworth’s achievements, a fitting destination for an odyssey that began around that kitchen table in Jal and was always about substance over style.
Simply, Kathy Whitworth got the ball into the hole faster than anyone else in her era – and that made her golf’s greatest winner.