Kathy Whitworth's professional golfing career spanned 32 years. From 1959 to 1991, she was a consistent figure in the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA). She started out with the LPGA when it was just beginning to take hold and participated in bringing it into its own. During that time she broke ground that set high standards for the women who follow in her footsteps. She was the first woman to earn a million dollars in LPGA tournament play. She holds the record for the most wins in tournament play for both the men's and women's professional associations. She was also the captain for the first American team to play in the Solheim Cup—a tournament that pits the top European women golfers against the top American women golfers. Her only disappointment in the midst of many achievements is never having won a U. S. Open tournament. In spite of that, she continues to maintain a proud yet humble opinion of her career, while having earned the respect of peers and fans.
Early Signs of Potential
Kathrynne Ann Whitworth was born on September 27, 1939, in Monahans, Texas. She is the youngest child of Morris and Dama Robinson Whitworth. Whitworth's father worked for a lumber company in Monahans, but eventually moved the family to Jal, New Mexico where their extended family lived. The small town of Jal had originally been a ranching community but by the 1950s the oil industry had built up around it. Whitworth's parents owned and operated a hardware store there until 1981.
Whitworth was a talented athlete who adapted to sports easily. She claims that most of her competitive spirit and athletic ability are due to her mother. In high school, Whitworth played tennis since it was the only organized sport available to women at the time. When she was 15 some friends from the tennis team convinced her to join them in a round of golf. It was Whitworth's first experience with golf and she was amazed when she couldn't play the game well. Sensing a challenge and wanting to prove that she could play the game, Whitworth spent the next year playing alone until she felt she was good enough to play in public.
Impressed by Whitworth's dedication to the sport, Morris and Dama joined the Jal Country Club so that Whitworth could play whenever she wanted. Around that time she started taking lessons from the professional at the country club who felt she had potential. Hardy Loudermilk was Whitworth's first tutor, but he felt his skills were limited. When he thought she was ready Loudermilk contacted one of golf's legendary teachers and asked him if he would work with her. Harvey Penick, a renowned tutor at the Austin Country Club, agreed to meet with Whitworth.
Whitworth began making periodic trips to Austin, a 400-mile trek, for three- and four-day lessons. She would make the drive with her mother who would take notes of Penick's suggestions. Penick would contact Loudermilk with information about Whitworth's progress and what she needed to practice. Whitworth explained to Dave Anderson of the New York Times, "Harvey changed the whole game for me.… He gave me a knowledge of the game and the swing." Armed with this knowledge, Whitworth began making the rounds of amateur tournaments in the Southwest.
Dedication and Focus
In 1957, Whitworth's tireless practicing and the dedication of her mentors and family helped her win the New Mexico State Women's Championship. Her prize was a turquoise necklace that she turned down, instead asking that the awarding committee give her a trophy. The committee obliged. In 1958, Whitworth won the state championship again. This second win bolstered her confidence and she began to meet the professionals of women's golf. With financial backing from her father and several Jal businessmen, Whitworth decided to turn professional.
Whitworth's first season of professional golf was in 1959. She had dropped out of Odessa Junior College to pursue her career and was learning the realities of tournament play. Although she was thrilled to be playing professionally, she did not play well and made no money. Increasingly discouraged, Whitworth went home to discuss plans of leaving the tour. She credits a pep talk from her parents with inspiring her to return to the tour. The next week she tied for last place and won $33. That win was enough to keep her going.
Whitworth became determined to make golf her career. In 1961 she attended a six-week golf clinic held by LPGA co-founder Patter Berg. Through Berg's clinic, Whitworth learned many different styles of shots, which she relentlessly practiced. The practice paid off. She started placing in the top ten. In 1962, at the Kelly Girls Open in Elicott City, Maryland, Whitworth won her first match. After that she routinely placed in the top two spots along with women's golf legend Mickey Wright .
From 1965 to 1974, Whitworth claimed at least two of the following three titles each year: player of the year, lowest scoring average, or leading earner. She earned all three titles five different years. For 17 years in a row, she won at least one tournament; a record matched only by male players Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus .
|1939||Born September 27 in Monahans, Texas|
|1954||Begins playing golf|
|1957||Begins attending Odessa Junior College in Odessa, Texas; wins first of two New Mexico State Amateur titles|
|1958||Drops out of college to turn professional; finishes almost last in Titleholders Championship in Augusta, Georgia|
|1961||Attends 6-week golf clinic held by Patty Berg, co-founder of LPGA|
|1962||Wins first LPGA tournament|
|1967||Becomes president of the LPGA for first time; other years as president are 1968, 1971 and 1989|
|1985||Wins last LPGA tournament|
|1986||Loses entire retirement fund of $388,000 when Technical Equities Corporation declares bankruptcy|
|1988||Mother diagnosed with cancer, goes into remission by 1991; serves as vice president of LPGA|
|1989||Serves as president of LPGA for final time|
|1990||Acts as captain for first U.S. team to play the Solheim Cup|
|1991||Retires from professional golf|
|1995||Finishes tied for 35th in the Chrysler-Plymouth Tournament of Champions|
|1996||Competes in the Chrysler-Plymouth Tournament of Champions and the Nabisco Dinah Shore|
|2001||Finishes tied for 13th at Hy-Vee Classic in Des Moines, Iowa; competes in the Great Lakes Classic in Green Bay, Wisconsin|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1965, 1967||Named Associate Press Athlete of the Year|
|1965-67, 1969-72||Awarded the Vare Trophy for best scoring average|
|1966-69, 1971-73||Named LPGA Player of the Year|
|1966-69, 1971-73||Named Rolex Player of the Year|
|1968-77||Named "Golfer of the Decade," by GOLF Magazine|
|1970||Wins Orange Blossom Classic third year in row; second in LPGA history to win same event three times in a row|
|1975||Inducted into LPGA Hall of Fame|
|1981||Becomes first LPGA player to surpass $1 million in career earnings|
|1982||Inducted into Texas Sports Hall of Fame|
|1984||Breaks record for number of tournament titles with 85th win; inducted into International Women's Sports Hall of Fame|
|1985||Sets record for number of tournament titles with 88th win; awarded William Richardson Award for consistent outstanding contribution to golf, Golf Writers Association of America; with Mickey Wright, first woman to play in the Legends of Golf tournament|
|1986||First recipient of the William and Mousie Powell Award|
|1987||Presented with the Patty Berg Award|
|2000||Named one of the LPGA's top 50 players and teachers|
|2001||Presented with the Leadership Award, Executive Women's Golf Association|
|2002||Inducted into the Sun Country Hall of Fame, New Mexico Golf Academy, Albuquerque|
The extreme competitiveness of professional golf eventually took a toll on Whitworth's nerves. By 1973, she was beginning to feel its effects and she began to back off from the idea of winning. Her game deteriorated significantly through the 1970s, hitting an all-time low in 1979 and 1980 when she recorded no wins. In 1981, Whitworth recollected herself. She began focusing on her practicing again, and met with her former coach Penick to pick up a few refreshing pointers.
Returning to basics did the trick for Whitworth's game. In May of 1981, Whitworth broke her losing streak with a win at the Coca-Cola Classic in Paramus, New Jersey. The win set her on track to break several more records. She became one of four women close to topping the one million dollar mark. She also started encroaching on Mickey Wright's record number of wins for a woman golfer. By August, Whitworth placed third at the U.S. Open held in La Grange, Illinois, putting her earnings over the one million mark. In 1982, she topped Wright's wins with her 82nd win at the Lady Michelob Classic.
Quietly Making Her Mark
Pete Axthelm of Newsweek wrote of Whitworth, "She is one of the quiet, gracious ladies of sport." In many ways, Whitworth was the epitome of the long, tall Texan. She dressed conservatively and sported a hairstyle that relied heavily on hairspray. She never wanted to draw attention to herself as a celebrity or a star. She explained to Barry McDermott of Sports Illustrated, "It's not necessary for people to know you.… The record itself speaks."
Whitworth made many sacrifices for a professional career in golf, including giving up the chance of having a family of her own. She explained to McDermott, "I wanted to be a golfer, the best I could be, and marriage and golf didn't mix." She further commented in her book, Golf for Women, "I didn't give up a family, I decided I didn't want one. I freely made the decision to dedicate myself to professional golf. No one held a gun to my head; the hours that I spent on the practice tee were hours I wanted to spend on the practice tee."
Whitworth's dedication put her in the history books. In 1984, she surpassed golfing great Sam Snead's record for professional wins when she won her 85th tournament. By 1988, she added three more tournament wins to that number and placed herself firmly at the top as the winningest professional golf player, man or woman.
Surviving Hard Times
Despite continuing wins, those were not easy years for Whitworth personally. In 1986, the entirety of Whitworth's retirement fund disappeared when the company she had invested in, Technical Equities Corporation, went bankrupt. Whitworth described the effect of losing her retirement fund to Sonja Steptoe of Sports Illustrated, "It definitely took something out of me.… I felt like I'd worked so hard. I didn't know if I had the energy to start over." Two years later her mother was diagnosed with cancer. Her mother's cancer eventually went into remission, but Whitworth told Steptoe, "There was lots of heartbreak and lots of tears."
In 1991, Whitworth announced her retirement. Instead of focusing on competition she began holding golf clinics and participating in exhibitions and eventually joined the Senior LPGA tour. As of 2002, she teaches the Kathy Whitworth Women's School at the Grand Cypress Academy of Golf in Orlando, Florida. She regularly contributes articles to Golf for Women Magazine, and has written a book titled Golf for Women.
Throughout her career, Whitworth has exhibited the finer traits of professional competition: control, concentration, humility, and persistence. With 32 years of play in the LPGA under her belt, she witnessed and participated in the growth of women's professional golf. Shelley Hamlin, former president of the LPGA described Whitworth's career to Axthelm, "She didn't fall into greatness.… She grew into it. It's been an inspiration for all of us to watch her keep reaching for perfection."
Address: Kathy Whitworth, 1735 Mistletoe Drive, Flower Mound, TX 75022.
SELECTED WRITINGS BY WHITWORTH:
(With Rhonda Glenn) Golf for Women, St. Martin's Press, 1990.
Related Biography: Golf Professional Harvey Penick
Harvey Penick might have remained one of the most obscure yet most important figures in professional golf had it not been for the 1992 publication of his book, Harvey Penick's Little Red Book: Lessons and Teachings from a Lifetime of Golf. The book sold more than one million copies and spent weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.
Penick started as a caddie at the Austin (Texas) Country Club (ACC) in 1913. During the 1920s he played the Texas PGA tours, and served as its president. In 1922, he was hired as the ACC's golf professional. He held that position until he retired in 1971. In 1931 he started coaching for the University of Texas golf team, retiring in 1963.
For 60 years, Penick collected his thoughts and observations about golf in a small red notebook. Penick mentioned the book to author Bud Shrake, and together they created one of the best-selling books about the sport to ever be published. Their collaboration also created two other notable books on golf.
Penick died on April 4, 1995, after suffering for many years from poor health. In 2002, he was named to the World Golf Hall of Fame in the lifetime achievement category.
"Kathy Says," Golf for Women Magazine, 2002-.
Whitworth, Kathy and Rhonda Glenn. Golf for Women. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990.
Anderson, Dave. "The Lady Is a Champ." New York Times (May 11, 1981): C3.
Axthelm, Pete. "The Million-Dollar Lady." Newsweek (August 10, 1981): 62.
Cartwright, Gary. "The Old Man and the Tee." Texas Monthly (December 2000): S20.
Eskenazi, Gerald. "Harvey Penick, 90, Golf's Top Author, Dies." New York Times (April 4, 1995): D25.
McDermott, Barry. "Wrong Image But the Right Touch." Sports Illustrated (July 25, 1983): 38.
Nichols, Bill. "Crenshaw and Penick: Inseperable Even Now As They Head To Hall." Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service (November, 13, 2002).
Steptoe, Sonja. "Playing Out of Deep Rough" Sports Illustrated (September 30, 1991): 6.
"Sun Country Will Have Its Own Hall of Fame." Albuquerque Journal (June 15, 2002): D1.
"LPGA-Players." http://www.lpga.com/players/index.cfm?cont_type_id=1681&player_id=31544#Persona (December 30, 2002).
Sketch by Eve M. B. Hermann