Kathy Whitworth’s greatness was rooted in much more than just winning
The first time I interviewed Kathy Whitworth was in 2006. I reached her at her Dallas-area home to discuss a new book she had written about golf instruction and her unmatched 88-win LPGA career.
Whitworth was generous with her time, spending 45 minutes talking with me about her Texas background, her LPGA success and efforts to stay busy in her post-career life. But what most stuck with me is she seemed generally enthused that someone would call to ask her questions she undoubtedly had answered many times before.
The more I got to know Whitworth, who died Saturday at 83, the more I learned she wasn’t just nice to me — she was nice to everyone she met for no other reason than…well, you know that old saying: Kindness doesn’t cost a thing.
“From the humblest individual to the President of the United States, Kathy was just nice to everybody,” said close friend Cathy Harbin, a PGA master professional who sits on the PGA of America’s board of directors.
Whitworth’s words reflected her warmness, but so, too, did her actions. Virtually anywhere Whitworth was asked to help, she would show up, work hard and keep working as long as her help was needed.
She oversaw the Kathy Whitworth Girls Junior individual at Fort Worth’s Mira Vista Country Club since 1999 and was the public face of the LPGA’s Volunteers of America event in North Texas for nearly a decade. She also assisted with junior events at Harbin’s course in Paris, Texas — Pine Ridge GC — as well as the Kathy Whitworth Classic Women’s Golf Association event at her home club in North Texas, where for some participants just carding double figures for 18 holes was cause for celebration.
Harbin recalled the time Whitworth called her after Whitworth had read about a charity event at Pine Ridge.
“Cathy, was I supposed to be at that tournament? Did I tell you I would be there?”
It was the same story at Whitworth’s own event at Mira Vista, which began in 1999 and attracted players from all over the world. “She more than just lent her name,” said Mira Vista head professional Courtney Connell. “She was very hands on and over the years she personally met more than 1,700 junior golfers. When it came to helping others, it really mattered to her.”
I once asked Whitworth if she thought many of those juniors knew who she was or what she had accomplished in her career.
“I’m not really sure,” she said, “but I know who they are and that’s what really matters.”
Another charm of Whitworth’s: Much like her fellow Lone Star golf legend Byron Nelson, she never took herself too seriously. I once encountered Whitworth walking on the practice green at the Volunteers of America LPGA event, in Texas, and asked what she was doing.
“I’m just feeling the grass with my feet,” she said. “Thinking about how great it would have been to play on pristine grass like this when I played. Byron Nelson once said one of the biggest changes in golf was the invention of the lawn mower after we actually had grass to mow. I think I agree.”
Whitworth also had a sense of fun. When fellow LPGA legend Betsy Rawls came to visit Whitworth at Trophy Club Country Club, just north of Fort Worth, instead of convening at the clubhouse where they might have drawn attention to themselves, the two golf pioneers took turns hitting shots into a creek that ran behind Whitworth’s house.
Whitworth was all over the Paris golf scene. At her insistence, she was there to support Harbin at the Pine Ridge grand opening, its annual anniversary tournament, the junior tournament Harbin helped found and the Putting with Police event that Harbin oversaw. Whitworth could have been a part-time resident of the small town, two hours from where she lived.
”Because of her involvement at Pine Ridge and the country club here — the only two courses in the area — the golfers in Paris, Texas, felt like they had a real friend in Kathy Whitworth,” Harbin said.
“I once told her, I cared more about her legacy than she did. She said that might be right, but she still cared about helping people.”
Added Volunteers of America CEO Mike King, who has been around many great players, “She was a dear friend, an inspiration and a Hall of Famer on and off the field.”
I once told her, I cared more about her legacy than she did. She said that might be right.
Whitworth grew up in tiny Jal, N.M., close to the Texas border, and attended Odessa college, in West Texas, around which time she connected with another Texas golf legend, teacher Harvey Penick.
Whitworth and her father would spend hours on dusty roads driving to Austin for lessons with Penick, absorbing the methods that would last a lifetime and produce 88 professional wins, a mark not yet challenged by any golfer, male or female.
“Every time somebody gets close to another one of my records, a reporter will call me and my career is more alive than it has been in years,” Whitworth once said. “Men are always better in keeping golf history than women, but I’m glad to do my part.”
The last time Connell, the Mira Vista head pro, saw Whitworth was last fall while planning for another Kathy Whitworth invitational at the club. Even into her 80s, she was still giving of her time.
Harbin said when she and Whitworth had their annual Christmas luncheon just two weeks ago, she had never seen Whitworth looking better.
“Then she went suddenly,” Harbin said. “I think that’s the way she would have wanted to go, not linger with anything.”
Whitworth never made it about herself.