Kathy Whitworth lives in a ranch house on a big property (five acres), near a big lake (Grapevine), on the outskirts of Big D (Dallas). She lives with her partner, their two rescue dogs and a handful of trophies from her ridiculously long and wildly underappreciated career. Most of her hardware — she won a record 88 LPGA events — is nearby, on display in Whit’s 88, a pub at the Trophy Club, where one course is named for Ben Hogan and the other for Kathy Whitworth her own self. Some one-two punch. So fitting.
For years, Kathy Whitworth would drive five hours to Houston for a golf dinner like you bop down to your 7-Eleven for a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. She’d drive to Austin for a lesson, to El Paso for an exhibition, to — wherever, for whatever. She’s put ruts in Texas 121, the straight-shot highway that takes her from her house to the Mira Vista Country Club in Fort Worth, where the Kathy Whitworth Invitational, a national junior tournament for girls, is played each March.
So if you’re driving in the Lone Star State and you see a square-jawed lady of a certain age with a perfect helmet of white hair in a late-model GMC Terrain who looks like Kathy Whitworth, you can bet the farm it is Kathy Whitworth. There’s only one.
Miss Whitworth is 81 and very much au courant. Because of her junior tournament and her involvement with the annual LPGA event in Dallas, Kathy — Whit, to anybody who has ever played even nine holes with her — knows a host of female golfers who are half her age, a third her age, one-fifth her age. After the veteran golfer Angela Stanford won the Dallas event (the Volunteers of America LPGA Texas Classic) late last year, Kathy could cite to you, chapter and verse, the various swing changes Stanford had made with her instructor, Todd Kolb, in recent years.
The following week the U.S. Women’s Open was played at Champions Golf Club in Houston, a club cofounded by Jackie Burke, now 97. Whit has known ole Jack for 50 or 60 years, something like that. She followed with particular interest the golfing exploits of the Korda sisters at that Open, as well as Morgan Pressel and Brittany Lang, among other KWI alumnae. She’s got skin in the game.
If there’s a hole in her professional résumé it is this: like Phil Mickelson and Sam Snead and Nancy Lopez, Kathy Whitworth never won her national championship. She’s fine with it. Turns out, you can have a rich and rewarding life without ever winning the U.S. Open. Kathy’s golf stories are seldom about how she won this event or that one. They’re about how she and her contemporaries got on tour in the first place, and what they did there once they did. You’d be hard-pressed to find any Hall of Famer (name your hall) more modest than she.
We spoke for hours.
“Nancy Lopez was our Arnold Palmer,” she told me. “Mickey Wright was our Hogan.”
“Who does that make you?” I asked.
“The chorus line,” the great Whitworth said.
She was cackling.
The first time I saw Harvey, he changed my life forever. That’s when I became a golfer.
Her admiration for Mickey Wright runs to her bones. She once told Jack Nicklaus, “No offense to you, but Mickey Wright was the best I ever saw.” Mickey won 82 LPGA events, between 1956 and 1973. The first of Whit’s 88 was notched in 1962 and the last in 1985. If Kathy even knows she faced Mickey Wright three times in playoffs and won all of them, she would never let on. She does know that Mickey Wright won her first U.S. Open the year Kathy played in her first pro tournament, in 1958. Then again the next year. For a third time in ’61. For a fourth time in ’64. That’s going to leave a stamp on you.
Last year, when the Open was the final major of a dismal year, Kathy found herself rooting for Amy Olson down the stretch. Olson was one shot back through 54 holes and played the final round through the grief wrought by the unexpected death of her father-in-law on the tournament’s Saturday night.
I asked Kathy if Amy’s experience reminded her of anything from her own career.
“Nothing like what Amy went through,” she said.
But eventually one event did come to mind. Miss Whitworth turned the clock back 29 years to unearth it, to 1992, when she was the captain of the U.S. Solheim Cup team, held near Edinburgh. She had also been the captain of the inaugural team, in 1990, when the Americans won handily in Florida.
“I left for Scotland knowing Mother was sick,” she said. Kathy refers to her late father, the former mayor of Jal, New Mexico, and the owner of a hardware store there, as Dad. Her mother is always Mother. “I got a call in the middle of the night, at the hotel, that Mother had died. That was before the event had begun. I told the team that I had to fly home and I turned the reins over to one of my assistants.” The Americans were trounced. “I didn’t handle it well. I shouldn’t have gone in the first place, that was my big mistake. I take full responsibility for that loss.”
Can you imagine any losing Ryder Cup captain saying something similar?
As best she can remember, she flew from Edinburgh to Heathrow, Heathrow to JFK, JFK to Midland, Texas. From there she drove to Jal.
A lot of Kathy Whitworth stories start or end in Jal, a city of 2,100 people and half that number in the 1940s, in the straight-lined southeastern corner of New Mexico, just over the Texas border. A lot of Kathy Whitworth stories feature Kathy Whitworth in a car, going here, coming from there. LPGA prize money was never gaudy in her era and out of necessity the schedule had geographic logic built into it. Kathy drove in an era when all the LPGA players drove, often two to a car. The tour was a tour. She made $1.7 million in her LPGA career.
Curiously, one of the biggest checks of her career came in 2000, when Kathy was 61 and playing with J.C. Snead in a glorified exhibition. J.C.’s uncle is Sam, and over the years Kathy had barrels of fun with The Slammer at various clinics and receptions. But K-Whit’s fondness for Sam did not extend to J.C., a taciturn (some would say grumpy) man. Still, the organizers of that 2000 event, the Hall of Fame Golf Challenge, paired them anyway. Despite being a combined 24 years older than the winning team of Beth Daniel and Johnny Miller, Kathy and J.C. managed to finish only five shots behind them, good for second place. They split $120,000. Kathy set aside Uncle Sam’s cut (don’t get her started!) and bought herself a Lexus with leather seats, no payment plan needed. “I’d always wanted one,” she said. She got herself one. She drove it for a decade.
When she first got on tour in 1958, at age 18 and after one year at Odessa College, she drove the family car, a green, four-door, manual-transmission Plymouth from the early 1950s. The car was already a road warrior before it logged its first LPGA mile. While still in high school, Kathy and Mother made a series of trips in that green Plymouth “to Austin, to see Harvey.” Harvey Penick, of course. The Austin Country Club. Four hundred miles there, U.S. 87 all the way. Three days of golf. Four hundred miles home. A five-day trip.
“We had a pro at our nine-hole course in Jal, Hardy Loudermilk,” she said. “Most pros, if they have a kid with some talent, they want to hold on to that kid. Hardy thought I needed to see Harvey. He called him.
“The first time I saw Harvey, he changed my life forever. That’s when I became a golfer. We spent the whole first day working on the grip. He said, ‘It’s not the most important thing but it’s the first thing.’ He said, ‘You place your hands on the club, you don’t twist them.’ My mother was taking notes on a paper bag — it was the only piece of paper we had. Harvey gave me a molded grip. I held it all night.
“Eventually, Harvey gave me the magic move. You don’t start the downswing from the top. You start it from the bottom. He’d say, ‘You swing from the ground up.’ You don’t hear instructors saying that anymore.”
We spoke of her trips to see Harvey for at least an hour. Kathy talked about her father in the driveway, her mother at the motel, the car in need of parts. She was in a reverie.
Over the past 20 years, now and again, Kathy has tried to teach her partner, Bettye Odle, something about playing golf. They had some challenges.
“I did the one thing Harvey said not to do,” Kathy said. “’Don’t give somebody more than two things to work on at a time.’ But I loaded Bettye up. And it wasn’t going too well. Finally, I just couldn’t take it anymore. I said, ‘I’m going to put your hands on this club. Do not change this grip.’ She didn’t, and she actually started hitting some pretty good shots.
“Then one day we were in the backyard, hitting shots, and I could see she wasn’t getting her arms away from her body,” Kathy said. “That night — with friends, at dinner — I said, ‘When you throw a toy for the puppies, you let that arm go. Same in golf. You gotta let those arms go.'” It was a breakthrough, for teacher and student. In golf, the arms must go. Harvey talked about taking dead aim. Fine. A keeper, for sure. Kathy’s motto is more basic yet: Let it go.
There’s a whole world in these little scenes Kathy chose to share. An athletic life, a social life, a teaching life. A home life, backed by a soundtrack of barking dogs. Kathy and Bettye have two black lab mongrels from an animal shelter, Lillie and Jetta. Jetta has only one eye but gets along just fine.
Kathrynne Whitworth gets along fine, too. She’s in good health. She’s managed her money well. She’s been most of the places she ever wanted to see. She was last in Jal, her hometown, about five years ago. Drove there from Dallas, of course. Another 400-mile drive, in the opposite direction from Austin. It’s a big country. Kathy Whitworth has logged a lot of weeks in Rochester, N.Y. In Sylvania, Ohio. In Augusta, Ga. LPGA capitals to Kathy Whitworth.
She doesn’t know many people in Jal anymore. Her parents and her two siblings, Carlynne and Evelynne, are dead. The aunt who logged thousands of holes with Kathy, on the nine-hole course in Jal, is still alive but now living in Sacramento. (She and Kathy speak every day.) The Whitworth family’s small, wood-frame home, on South Fourth Street in one of Jal’s first postwar developments, is still there, but nobody named Whitworth has lived there for years.
Kathy told me about her last trip there, alone. Staying in a hotel. Playing the Jal course, or some of it, with a few clubs in a carry bag, on a slip-out basis. Six holes, some good shots, no birdies. Golfers know.
Golf is some teacher. This is Kathy Whitworth’s education: four years at Jal High, one year at Odessa College, 35 years playing the LPGA Tour, sitting on its boards, promoting its tournaments, helping players older and younger than she. Getting help, too.
As we wound down a series of long interviews, I asked Miss Whitworth if she had a philosophy of life she could share, an insight into the human condition.
“We can all be honest with ourselves,” she said. “We can accept who we are. But we can change the things we think need changing.”
Then, after a brief pause: “You should like yourself.”