A Legend Like No Other
Fifty years after Kathy Whitworth joined the LPGA, she remains the tour standard for victories and flat-out determination
The main dining room at Trophy Club CC 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—Whitworth—whose 88 LPGA victories are the most ever on a professional tour, eclipsing the PGA Tour record of 82 by Sam Snead. Fifty years after a rookie season in which she averaged 80.30 strokes a round, won only $1,217 and came within a hairsbreadth of quitting, Whitworth stands alone as golf's greatest winner. But the trophies that fill the shelves represent more than victory on the course; they symbolize the lifelong demands Whitworth made on herself to master the game she loved.
What started as a plan concocted around her family's kitchen table in Jal, N.M., a company town 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 first few pro seasons to think she was never going to win at all, 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 says on a crystal clear morning, the sun streaming across Trophy Club and into the dining area that celebrates her career. "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."
That love affair survived a bumpy beginning and endured near financial ruin. Now, less than three months from her 70th birthday, Whitworth graciously fills the role of living legend at Trophy Club. She poses for photos with strangers, and members engage her in good-natured banter as if conversing with a neighbor across the back fence. Whitworth, who lives a short drive from the course near Dallas, plays little now except for occasional exhibitions and clinics.
"Basically, I live off my laurels," she says with a hearty laugh that frequently punctuates her conversations. "I certainly don't play that well anymore, but I still get a big kick out of it. You hit a good shot and you think, 'Ah!' but it goes away."
Like Jack Nicklaus, who is four months younger, Whitworth's domination crossed generations. Both won at least once a record 17 consecutive years. Nicklaus started in the Arnold Palmer/Gary Player era and extended through Lee Trevino and Tom Watson into Seve Ballesteros and Greg Norman. Whitworth began against Mickey Wright, Louise 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.
And if the achievements of Nicklaus or Whitworth need further validation, it resides in the what-might-have-been bin. Nicklaus won a record 18 professional majors, and he was second 19 other times. In addition to Whitworth's 88 victories, she was runner-up a staggering 95 times—183 top-two finishes. In hindsight, all those second-place finishes bolster her reputation as a fierce competitor. But for nearly four years the near-misses led many to wonder if this raw talent would ever learn how to win.
Still a woman of athletic features stretched over a 5-foot-9 frame topped by a shock of stylishly short white hair, there remains a small-town directness about Whitworth, who 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.