A Great Who Never Knew It


Editor's Note: The Memorial Honorees Ceremony will be show live on The Golf Channel Wednesday May 22 at 3:00 p.m. ET.
I never knew Kathy Whitworth during the years when she was the most dominating player on the LPGA Tour. But I would guess her personality was the exact same when she was winning 88 times as it is now ' reserved, extremely polite, humble, modest beyond belief.
A lot of the current generation of golf fans didnt know her, either. That will be rectified at the Memorial this week when she and the late Bobby Locke are the honorees. To see this great - if modest - lady honored is sweet, indeed.
I was around her in the 80s and 90s. It was in the 60s and 70s that she was walking all over the LPGA, winning just about every time she brushed her teeth. It makes no difference, though, when she was winning and when she finally stopped winning. Class never fades, and Kathy Whitworth had it in abundance.
It will come as a surprise to most of us that Whitworth once had a weight problem. As a golfer, she was tall (5-feet-9) and slender. She remembers, though, when she was a junior Roseanne instead of a little Nancy Reagan.
I was big enough to carry that bass drum in high school, Kathy says with a laugh. I was 5-feet-7 and weighed 215 pounds.
She went on a stringent diet, though, and lost 40 pounds in five months. Since then she has lost even more weight. Now she weighs just 145, which is 60 pounds below her weight in high school. That type of dedication, however, has been her trademark throughout her adult career.
Whitworth began playing at the relatively advanced age of 15. She must have been a natural ' in three years time, she won the first of two successive New Mexico state amateur championships.
She was the daughter M.C. Whitworth, who owned a hardware store in Jal, N.M. Her father, Hardy Loudermilk (the pro at Jals nine-hole course), and two Jal businessmen fronted her $5,000 a year for three years. She was to return 50 percent of the prize money she earned.
She went on tour with her mother. The two found expenses ran about $150 a week (this was 1959, remember), and Kathy wasnt making any money.
It was terrible, recalled Whitworth in a Golf Digest interview. I wanted to quit, but mother and father talked me out of it. I didnt know any of the other girls, and I felt they didnt want me around.
Mother was as scared as I was after I found I couldnt step right in and win. Sometimes Id cry and feel sorry for myself, and she try to buck me up. Then shed cry and Id try to comfort her.
Finally, six months after she started, Whitworth won a prize - $33 ' for finishing 16th at Asheville, N.C. Ill never forget that day as long as I live, she said.
Still, it was two years before she finally won. That was the 1962 Kelly Girl Open, and when it rained, it poured. Before it finally ended, in 1985, she had established a win record that is seven more than the PGA Tours mark ' 81 by Sam Snead.
Kathy returned to enter the Chrysler-Plymouth Tournament of Champions in 1995, by request of the LPGA. She has a quiet pride, however, and after a first-round score of 80, she wanted to drop out. The most prolific player in womens golf sat by herself in an upstairs corner of the clubhouse, not content just merely to be on parade for the gallery. She was 54 years old, yet if she had a club in her hand, she felt she had to be in contention.
I dont know why you want to talk to me, she said with a nervous little laugh. She never thought that people are tremendously interested in what she had to say, regardless of what her final score was.
By the way, she continued playing, and she shot in the 70s her next three rounds. She also defeated three of her much younger opponents that week.
Whitworth went through another financial crises around 1990. She ' and a lot of other professional athletes ' had sunk most of her money in a business venture called Technical Equities. It turned out to be fraudulent, and Whitworth lost most of her nest egg. Kathys playing career was virtually over and she had no means by which to recoup the $300,000 she lost.
Her only income consisted of an equipment contract with Wilson, fees for writing for a womens golf magazine, and an instructional booklet. She consequently had to sell her Fort Worth home that she had planned for her retirement.
Im not destitute, she said at the time, but when I think of all the money that got away
So she started all over, giving lessons, teaching at a golf school in West Columbia, Texas. She lent her name expertise to a brand of golf clubs. And today, she is back on her feet again.
She is like an aunt to everyone, this lady who never seems to have a bad day. She is honest to a fault, answering every question put to her, yet never bad-mouthing. She is just Kathy. The golf world is much better for her presence.