Celebrating Judy Rankin, One of Golf’s Original Glass-Breakers

Few have done as much for women in golf as Judy Rankin.

She would never tell you that, often describing herself as an “accidental trailblazer,” but those who have risen through the glass ceilings that women like Rankin have helped break say otherwise. 

Rankin joined the LPGA Tour in 1962 when the organization was barely a teenager and still very much a novel concept in a traditionally male-dominated sports world. She won 26 times on Tour over the next two decades and was the first player to earn over $100,000 in a single season, making over $150,000 in 1976. 

Judy was also one of the first female golfers to travel with her children, an early iteration of the group of women now referred to as LPGA Moms, and was a two-time Rolex Player of the Year while doing so, earning the honor in 1976 and 1977. 

After back pain forced her into retirement in 1983, Rankin turned her attention to television, once again cracking glass as an on-course analyst for ABC and ESPN where she quickly became one of golf’s most recognizable voices. 

But humble Rankin doesn’t often talk about her times chatting with Tiger Woods or the legends she’s brushed elbows with over the years, rarely regaling enchanted listeners with tales of covering golf’s biggest events at the sport’s most hallowed halls. However, she will openly share one story about one thing she did years ago, an anecdote that speaks volumes to Rankin’s character and what she values in life as she truly considers it to be an accomplishment. 

“I always say my real claim to fame is I took Dottie Pepper to television for the first time because I thought she could do it,” laughed Rankin. “So that may be what I go down for in the end.”

And that’s Judy. Always there to help her fellow woman succeed, whether it be on the golf course or in the broadcast booth, 8-iron or microphone in hand.

Angela Stanford has been doing some on-course commentating for Golf Channel in recent years while still competing as much as she can on the LPGA Tour as her career begins to wind down. She oozes respect and admiration for Rankin when she talks about her fellow Texan, expressing genuine adoration for a person who has helped her in all facets of her golf life over the years.

“I don't even know how you describe Judy,” Stanford said. “The thing that I've learned early on in my career is that there are people out there that will help you, and that means they're secure in who they are. I'm learning now at the end of my career, the people who continue to help you are the ones who truly love the game and they truly love this Tour.

“Whether she was helping me with golf stuff or now TV stuff, I just love her heart. I love that she genuinely wants people around her to be great. Those kinds of people are hard to find in the world.”

But Rankin isn’t afraid to be frank every now and again, and Stanford fondly remembers a time that Judy gave her a piece of constructive criticism during last year’s tournament at Palos Verdes Golf Club, one that she still thinks about when holding a microphone to this day.

“(Golf Channel) called me (to work) Palos Verdes. I asked them who was working, and they said Judy would be there,” Stanford said. “I’m like, ‘I’m in’ because I don’t know how many times I’ll get to work with her. So, I told her, ‘Judy, please tell me what I’m doing wrong or if I need to do something better. I love being coached. Just tell me what I’m doing wrong. I’ll fix it.’

“I think it was after the first round at Palos Verdes, and I come in the trailer, and I’m putting all my stuff away. She comes around the corner, and she gets (super close to me), and she’s like, ‘You told me to tell you, so I’m going to tell you what I think.’ And I’m like, ‘Give it to me.’ And she said, ‘Stop telling me what you think. Tell me what you know.’”

Karen Stupples remembers first interacting with Rankin during her playing days, always delighted when the legend would stop by on the range to watch her hit a few shots or ask a few questions about her game. But their relationship deepened when Stupples transitioned to television, and as that star-struck kid on the range grew into another of the game’s well-respected voices on air, Stupples finally got an understanding of just what Rankin had done for women in golf over the years, as a player and a commentator.

“Making it in the TV world as a woman is not that easy,” Stupples said. “In terms of covering men's golf, not many get a big opportunity to do it. But she was a woman's voice covering the biggest championships in the game of golf, not just women's but men's. She made it all possible for other people to follow in those footsteps. She opened doors for everybody else, and she did it with such class.”

For Morgan Pressel, another player-turned-broadcaster who has spent plenty of time around Rankin over the years, those opened doors have led to an entirely new career after professional golf, one in which she gets to fill Rankin’s shoes as a lead analyst for Golf Channel and NBC.

“It’s a huge honor to follow in Judy’s footsteps and sit in her chair and continue to shine a light on the LPGA Tour and its players, something I know Judy and I are both very passionate about,” said Pressel. “Judy epitomizes what it means to ‘act like a founder.’ She has left an indelible mark on the golfing world. She is a pioneer in every sense of the word and has paved the way, especially for women in television, and has been a wonderful mentor and friend to me over many years.”

Current players also recognize Rankin’s significance in the game and the impact that she’s had on so many generations of women in golf. Twelve-time LPGA Tour winner Nelly Korda can’t help but smile when she thinks of Rankin commentating at The Chevron Championship, chuckling to herself as she remembers Judy’s famous “it breaks towards Indio” line, something the pair often joked about when they saw one another and a memory that makes her miss seeing the legend week in and week out on Tour.

“I definitely had a couple of interactions with her throughout my career, and every single one of them has been really pleasant,” Korda said. “I know that it's been an adjustment not seeing her out here every event or every year. I'm always wishing her the best.”

Lydia Ko, whose career Rankin has had a front-row seat to having become a lead analyst in 2010 for Golf Channel, knows that while Rankin was impressive as a player back in her heyday, it’s the contributions she’s made to moving women forward in golf that will long outlive her accomplishments on the course.

“Sometimes when you are a generation or a few generations behind, some of these former players, you don't realize how great they were,” said Ko. “Judy was an unbelievable player. Then she stayed and still stays with the game by covering. I think because of people like her, women's golf has grown so much. I think we do have to thank people like Judy who have kind of set the path for all of us.”

A public thank you to Rankin will take place at the annual Golf Writers’ Association of America dinner on Wednesday, April 10 in Augusta, Ga. Judy will be recognized with the PGA of America Lifetime Achievement Award and is the first woman to be honored with the accolade, a fitting tribute for one of the original barrier-breakers in golf. And despite all she’s done for the game, it was still something that Rankin never expected to happen, especially after retiring from full-time coverage of LPGA Tour golf a few years ago.

“It is extremely gratifying for it to be in journalism because (after) 40 years in TV, I hope I became a little bit of a journalist,” said Rankin. “Not like some of the very trained people, but I have garnered information, shared it and shared opinions. I was so pleasantly surprised and really appreciative because, at this time in my life, it's a huge deal.

“It's very special to be acknowledged in the industry that you've played a part that mattered. Women in television now, I don't know if I inspired them, but somehow, at some point, it became quite natural to hear women on TV calling golf, and in many cases, to hear women calling men's golf. I do feel really good about that.”

This won’t be the last time that golf thanks Rankin for her contributions to the game, and she is certainly still celebrated by the LPGA Tour every day as one of female golf’s pioneering game-changers.

But this award feels like the perfect culmination to Rankin’s spectacular career, one in which she blazed new paths and forged new opportunities for women in golf that were rarely a possibility until she broke through.

And it’s just another testament to Rankin’s impactful legacy, another tally in her “first woman ever” column, another ceiling shattered for one of the game’s original glass-breakers.