by Mike Magers
Kathy Whitworth’s beginnings in golf can be traced to the southern Lea County town of Jal, New Mexico. When she was in high school, there were few organized athletic activities for girls. She and some of her friends enjoyed playing tennis together and when she was fifteen years old, some of them invited her to join them in a round of golf. She was not enthusiastic about it at first, but agreed to go. From that point on, Whitworth says, she “became hooked.” Even though golf was then somewhat more difficult for her than other sports, with the help of her teacher, Harry Loudermilk, she learned the basics of the game, playing many rounds at the Jal Country Club. She won the 1957 and 1958 New Mexico State Amateur Championship.
As she progressed, her family supported her, even driving her 400 miles to study with legendary coach and instructor Harvey Penick, long time coach of the golf team at University of Texas in Austin. Kathy became a professional player at 19, joining the LPGA in December 1958. She played her first important professional tournament in 1958, which began her stellar career. Known by sports writers as “the Gal from Jal,” she dedicated her life to the game, being named “Most Improved Professional” in 1962. She recalls competing in the early years with then leading pro Mickey Wright. Wright’s gifts and accomplishments gave Whitworth the incentive to continue improve her own skills, resulting in her being named “Woman Athlete of the Year” in 1964.
In 1962 Whitworth won her first tournament, the Kelly Girls Open. She was LPGA Player of the Year seven times between 1966 and 1973, won the Vare Trophy for best scoring average by an LPGA Tour Player a record seven times between 1965 and 1972, and entered the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1975. She was the LPGA Tour money leader eight times, and was twice named the AP Athlete of the Year.
She was the U.S. team captain at the inaugural Solheim Cup match in 1990 and again in 1992.
In 1974 Whitworth won the Orange Blossom Classic. It was her fifth triumph in this tournament, also known as the St. Petersburg Open. Only three other LPGA golfers have won the same tournament as many times.
Whitworth won a total of 88 tour tournaments. She served three terms as LPGA President and was the Honoree at Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament in 2002.
Whitworth developed tremendous powers of concentration, referring to reaching a “close-off” point enabling her to block out all distractions. Accordingly, she became known as a great pressure player. Not satisfied with making a name for herself, she worked over the years to improve the image of the woman golfer and promote the efforts of the LPGA. She contributed significantly to the growth of the LPGA. It has grown to the major organization that it is today, consisting of weekly golf tournaments for elite female golfers from around the world during the months of February through December each year.