Whitworth Remembered

The room filled up quickly. By 2:45 in the afternoon on Feb. 5, it was hard to get a seat. The banquet room of the Trophy Club Country Club, a busy facility on a hilltop about 12 miles from the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, maxed out at 300 attendees so seating was at a premium that Sunday. Still, about 20 invited guests lingered in the vestibule, visiting with old friends and introducing themselves to new ones until they realized they might be left standing in the aisles. Whit would have loved that. She would have no doubt made a joke or two about it.

There would have been more people, lots more, but Kathy Whitworth’s closest friends wanted to keep this celebration of life as tight and intimate as you could for the greatest winner of all time. Judy Rankin visited with Hollis Stacy, only stopping briefly to say hello to Rosie Jones and Donna Capone. Amy Alcott held court with JoAnne Carner and Angela Stanford, and Stacy Lewis told Whitworth stories with Brittany Lang.

“Did you play in Whit’s junior tournament?” I asked Stacy, referring to the Kathy Whitworth Invitational, one of the premier girls’ events in the country celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Whitworth attended every meeting leading up to those tournaments, and she made a point of being out on the course, regardless of weather, to watch every girl in the field.

“I played in one,” Lewis said, to which Lang jumped in and said, “I played in it several times. It was great.”

John Solheim arrived a couple of hours early. We shared lunch in the grillroom. He recalled stories of Kathy’s time with the Solheim Cup, captaining the U.S. team in the inaugural matches at Lake Nona Golf & Country Club in 1990. She came back in 2013 to captain the U.S. Junior Solheim Cup team in Colorado. Whit-led teams won both. When asked later what her most vivid memories were of the Solheim Cup, she said, “Winning.”

Kathy Whitworth won 88 professional events, the most of any player, man or woman, in golf history. Those who attended the memorial service on Sunday wore lapel stickers in the shape of Texas with the number 88 in the middle. But her wins weren’t recounted on Sunday. No one mentioned this victory or that, one shot or another. The stories were about the kind of woman the game lost on Christmas Eve, and the friend people will remember for years to come.

In video messages, Jack and Barbara Nicklaus called Kathy “a dear friend” and “an ambassador of the game,” while Annika Sorenstam apologized for not being able to attend (she was in Portugal for an event). Annika spoke about how much she treasured her time with Whit.

Ron Sirak, who wanted to come but was snowed in at his home in Massachusetts, also sent a tribute where he said, “Golf’s greatest winner was also one of golf’s greatest people…Kathy was always extremely kind with her time and with her insights. And the passion with which she talked about the game of golf gave me goosebumps.”

LPGA Commissioner Mollie Marcoux Samaan read a tribute letter from former president George W. Bush and one friend after another recalled stories – some funny, many touching, all poignant – about their friend.

Mike King, the president and CEO of Volunteers of America, talked about naming the trophy for the Ascendant LPGA benefiting Volunteers of America the Kathy Whitworth Trophy. “I had to tell her it was a fundraiser just to get her to come,” King said of the announcement. “She would only come if she thought it was a fundraiser.” Then King said, “It might be presumptuous, but I firmly believe God has already gotten that lesson on the golf grip.”

The often-told story of Whit’s defense of Renee Powell came up again. When Renee came out on tour in the late 1968, she was the only active Black player and only the second in LPGA Tour history behind Althea Gibson. At one tour stop, players lined up to check into a hotel when the manager told Renee that they had mysteriously lost her reservation and she wouldn’t be able to stay. Kathy, in an adjacent line, marched over, pointed at the manager, and said in a Texas twang loud enough for all to hear, “Either we all stay, or we all walk. You choose.” They all stayed.

“She had a strong sense of right and wrong, and she always stood on the side of right” good friend and LPGA Professional Cathy Harbin said. “And she loved her country. You rarely saw her when she wasn’t wearing an American flag pin. She reveled in our military and she never stopped loving America.”

The most moving tribute came from Kathy’s longtime partner Bettye Odle, who held it together better than others. In addition to speaking about the love Whit had for those in her life, she told a story about when the two of them were at dinner after a long day. Bettye noticed a young girl and her mother at a nearby table. The girl was looking at Kathy and smiling.

“That young girl recognizes you,” Bettye said. Despite the fact that she hadn’t eaten a bite, Kathy got up, went to the table and spent 20 minutes chatting with the girl while her mother fought back tears. When Whit came back to the table, Bettye said, “Kathy Whit, you have no idea what you just did means to that girl.”

“Yes, I do,” Whitworth said. “I was that girl.”

That was the Kathy Whitworth we memorialized on Sunday. That is the Kathy Whitworth the golf world should never forget.