Kathy Whitworth: Golf’s Winningest Player Looks Back At LPGA Career
She is the winningest golfer on the LPGA Tour, with 88 career titles, but Kathy Whitworth might also be the most humble player on the planet. The lanky Texan with the contagious laugh launched her professional career in 1959, and played on the LPGA Tour for 38 years, winning more than $1.7 million on a tour that was just getting on its feet.
During that tenure, Whitworth was the tour’s leading money winner eight times, a seven-time LPGA Player of the Year, and a seven-time Vare Trophy winner (for scoring average.) A member of the LPGA and World Golf Halls of Fame, here is what she had to say to the LPGA developmental tour’s senior writer Lisa D. Mickey in a recent interview:
LPGA: Early in your career (from 1965-1968), you won 35 tournaments in a span of four seasons. Were you thinking, “This is easy?”
WHITWORTH: Laugter No, I never thought that. In 1962, I won once and in 1963, I won eight times, but in 1964, I wasn’t winning. At our last tournament of the year in San Antonio, I went to dinner with Hardy Lowdermilk [a good friend and sponsor when she launched her career] and I was whining about my year and complaining that I had not won. Hardy listened to me and then he said, “Well, it sounds like you have the big head.” That was a shocker. I knew Hardy didn’t want to hurt me, and truthfully, if anybody else had said that, I might have poked them, but I thought about that all night and I said, “He’s right.” It was one of my best lessons and it made me wonder how I had let that happen. I won that week and it was my only win of the year, but I never took winning for granted, ever again. I kind of hope kids today who have success so quickly don’t fall into that, and if they do, they’d better hope there’s someone around who cares enough about them to tell them the truth.
LPGA: You became the seventh member of the LPGA’s Hall of Fame in 1975. Was that a goal?
WHITWORTH: No, because back then, you had to be retired for two years before you could qualify for the Hall of Fame. The year I got in was the year they took out the retirement part and put in the rule that says you have to be an LPGA Tour member for 10 years to be eligible for the Hall. I was thrilled to get in, but it wasn’t a motivation and it was never something I went on tour thinking about.
LPGA: In 1981, you also became the first player in LPGA history to surpass the $1 million mark in career earnings. How big was that milestone?
WHITWORTH: Well, at some point, somebody had to do it and I was glad it was me. Laugter It was a milestone, but more importantly, it showed the growth of the LPGA Tour. Now, some players make more than that in one season.
LPGA: The biggie is that you own 88 career golf titles – the most of any golfer in the world. How hard was it to win that many tournaments?
WHITWORTH: Winning was never easy. I had a string where maybe it looked easy, but winning got harder as I got older and there were more players. I won my 85th tournament in Rochester [N.Y.] and broke Sam Snead’s record. That was pretty special. But you have to understand that I played a lot of tournaments – 28 to 30 or so a year for a long time – and if you’re a pretty good player, you’ll win a lot. I still say that if Mickey Wright hadn’t quit playing so early, there’s no telling how many tournaments that woman would have won.
LPGA: Eighty-eight tournament wins in modern times would have a slightly different price tag, wouldn’t it?
WHITWORTH: I’m sure it would, but that was not the motivation for me. I loved playing golf on the LPGA Tour and I wouldn’t give up those early years for anything. It was a special time. We were still a fledgling tour, but every year, we got better. These were really smart, strong-willed women. Sometimes, we had some rowdy meetings, but in the end, it was always about what was best for the LPGA. I felt like I was part of something and helped it grow. Everybody served on the board or served as president, and I was out there with people like Patty Berg, Louise Suggs, Betsy Rawls and Betty Jameson.
LPGA: You won a lot, but like Sam Snead and Nancy Lopez, the U.S. Women’s Open eluded you. Why do you think you never won the Open?
WHITWORTH: Because I wanted it too much. That’s the one tournament everybody wants to win, but it wasn’t there for me and it wasn’t for lack of trying. I just didn’t get over the finish line. I had a great career, I won a lot, but I never won the Open. Still, I had a great time trying.
LPGA: Who were the most complete players you ever competed against?
WHITWORTH: Mickey Wright had the best golf swing. Betsy Rawls was the best thinker I ever saw and I learned to putt from her. Louise Suggs also had a wonderful golf swing, and I just loved Patty Berg. Marilynn Smith was our president and ambassador and she got tournaments for us that we wouldn’t have had. And then there was Carol Mann, Sandra Haynie and JoAnne Carner. I played in almost five decades, so I got to see a lot of players, but the thing that always stood out for me was how these women handled themselves, and the integrity and honor they brought to the game. Mickey Wright had her own quiet charisma and you just knew you were watching somebody great. She could play shots that nobody else had. I think she and Betsy Rawls were truly students of the game.
LPGA: Which player made the biggest impact on you?
WHITWORTH: Through Wilson Golf, Patty Berg taught us how to hold golf clinics. We did 40 or so a year. She made us hit all of these different shots for the exhibitions. We had to execute the shot and talk about how we hit it. That made me a better player. I was a really good bunker player because we practiced them all the time.
LPGA: Which player made you better?
WHITWORTH: Mickey Wright was the standard. There wasn’t anybody who could hit the ball like her. Of course, there were so few of us back then that I got to watch how they all played and I got to see how bad I was. But because of them, I got better.
LPGA: How were your two different terms as U.S. Solheim Cup Captain different?
WHITWORTH: The first one was just great. I’ve never played team sports in my life and I wasn’t really sure about the whole team thing. It was like, “What do you say to players who have already won 40 times?” I just tried to stay out of their way. Going into it, the best advice I got from a former Walker Cup captain was to pair “like and like,” meaning, put players together who are similar. So I put Rosie Jones and Patty Sheehan together, Betsy King and Beth Daniel together, and Dottie Pepper and Cathy Gerring together. I shouldn’t have done the second one. My mother was not healthy and she passed away while I was in Scotland with the team. I had to leave and it all fell into [LPGA Tour President] Alice Miller’s lap. I feel like I let them down because somebody else should have had that chance to be captain. It was a selfish thing on my part, but it was such an honor to serve as captain.
LPGA: Is there one highlight of your LPGA career?
WHITWORTH: I thnk the first win was the most important. Sandra Haynie three-putted the last hole in that event, so she reminds me of that every chance she gets. So maybe the second win was the most important to make the first one not a fluke. Laugter Really, my whole career was a highlight.