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Wrong Image But The Right Touch

July 25, 1983
July 25, 1983

Table of Contents
July 25, 1983

British Open
USFL Championship
Billy Cannon
Hamsho-Benitez
Kathy Whitworth
Baseball
Swimming

Wrong Image But The Right Touch

Kathy Whitworth may not be an LPGA cutie, but she could soon become the biggest tournament winner in golf history

On the bus, cutting across the lower midsection of the United States, the mother and daughter were awed as the land changed from flat, dry Texas plains into the lush spring landscape of Louisiana and Mississippi. The journey was full of magic. It was also scary, because it led to an uncertain future. Forty-two hours on a Greyhound bus. Round trip fare: $62.40. Odessa, Texas to the Titleholders Championship in Augusta, Ga.

This is an article from the July 25, 1983 issue Original Layout

When the Whitworths, Dama and her 18-year-old daughter, Kathy, arrived in Augusta on that March day in 1958, they caught their breath and then hailed a cab for the old Bon Air Hotel, a huge, white structure that to these visitors from Jal, N.Mex. seemed the biggest, swankiest place in the world. Later they would discover the heat wasn't working. After registering, they walked out back. There stood Betsy Rawls and Mickey Wright, two giants of women's professional golf who had played an exhibition against Kathy and didn't regard her as pro material. "What in the world are you doing here?" Wright exclaimed. Kathy Whitworth wondered the same thing.

Now, a quarter of a century later, Whitworth will, in all likelihood, do something one of these weeks that will put her name in the record book in bigger type than those of Rawls or Wright. She'll win a tournament somewhere, and it will be the 85th victory of her pro career, tops for any woman, or man, in history. At present the 43-year-old Whitworth's 84 titles tie her with Sam Snead, another hero from rural-route America, for the most wins regardless of sex. She almost got No. 85 in early June, when she was in a playoff at the Rochester International in Pittsford, N.Y., but she was beaten on the third extra hole.

Whitworth turned pro in 1959 during the dark ages of the LPGA; she was a small-town girl in a small-time sport. Now she's a small-town lady in a big-time sport. Golf has changed, but Whitworth hasn't. She's still Dama and Morris' girl from Jal, a community of 2,675 in a bleak landscape. In Jal the back of a man's neck pretty much reflects whether he does an honest day's work.

Golf fans don't hear a whole lot about Whitworth these days. In the jazzed-up LPGA of the '80s, she has the wrong image. She's not willowy, or young, or colorful. Black-and-white is her favorite color scheme. She doesn't have bizarre love affairs or throw tantrums. But she still wins: four victories and $415,572 in the last 2½ years. She's fourth on the LPGA's 1983 money list, with $143,937. "Back in the old days, it took 10 years for someone to know your name," says Whitworth. "You could win 25 tournaments and nobody cared. Now, if you win the right one, you can be an instant star."

Whitworth has always had the stats for stardom but has managed to avoid the role for a lot of reasons: because no one was watching back when she joined the LPGA, because she was shy, because she does what she does for motives dear only to her. She never has excited the public. She has a matter-of-fact way—her vocabulary is laced with country expressions like "sashay," "I reckon" and "mosey." The only endorsement she ever did was a Colgate-Palmolive television commercial promoting the detergent Axion. But with her down-home twang, it kept coming out "Ass-eon." Says Judy Rankin, another LPGA veteran, "Some people are never meant for stardom, even if they are the star type."

And Whitworth was the star type out on the course. When she was good, she was very, very good. Only Wright could touch her. In eight of nine years from '65 to '73, Whitworth was the tour's leading money-winner. But some other good players, for example, Marlene Hagge, were also lucky. They were pretty. Every year Hagge would win something called The Best Dressed award, a euphemism for most beautiful, and get a lot more attention than Whitworth.

"It's not necessary for people to know you," Whitworth says. "The record itself speaks. That's all that really matters. Anyway, I don't know of any other thing I'd like to do or enjoy as much."

There have been two major disappointments in Whitworth's life. One she can do something about: Just as Snead somehow never won the U.S. Open, Whitworth has never been the U.S. Women's Open champion. The other item is tougher: Whitworth always wanted to be married and have kids, but that's a course she never could handle. "Back when I had my chances, it was something you just didn't do," she recalls. "I wanted to be a golfer, the best I could be, and marriage and golf didn't mix."

Whitworth is on the practice tee, down at the end, where distractions are fewer. To stay one-up on golf over the years, she has put in the hours, and a spectator can see the rhythmic, exact results. Whitworth still hits the ball as well as ever. Only occasionally does an odd hook creep in. When it does, she gives a little jump, as if she has seen a snake.

One hand on her hip, the other leaning on her driver, Whitworth waits. She's out of balls, but walking toward her down the line of golfers is a young attendant carrying a huge basket of them. Whitworth is at last April's CPC International at Hilton Head Island, S.C. and up near the lead as usual.

Halfway down the line, the boy pauses by a young player. She has that up-to-date LPGA look: cute, with silky hair. The boy asks her if she needs any practice balls and they begin a little flirting. Whitworth waits, watching. After a minute or so, the boy picks up his basket. Whitworth raises her hand, beckoning, and her mouth opens, probably to say "Thank you" to him. But the boy turns and walks the other way.

Whitworth is standing there, arm up, mouth agape. Someone else might have started screaming, "Hey, stupid, can't you see that I need some balls? I've only won more tournaments than the rest of the people here put together, and the bimbo you've been talking to is never going to win even one." Instead, Whitworth gives an imperceptible sigh and then sashays over to another pile of balls about 20 yards away, scoops them up and carries them back to her workbench.

A moment later, an old caddie walks up and watches her swing. "Kathy," he says, "you got where you are through hard work." Says Whitworth, "Yeah, but after all these years, you'd think it would be easier."

Harvey Penick wears a hearing aid and walks with a cane. His skin is mottled, an angry combination of red, brown and white patches, the result of being out in a searing Texas sun for all of his 78 years. And he's bent into a question mark because of a back that simply wore out, probably from teeing up too many golf balls. Penick started as a caddie at the Country Club of Austin when he was six. His mother made him wait until then. Later he became the golf pro, and his record as a teacher has made him a legend. Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite grew up "taking" from him, and he wears a watch the back of which is inscribed BETSY-MICKEY-BETSY, as in Rawls, Wright and Cullen. Penick says he has seen more golf balls hit than anyone. Until '75, he charged $5 for a lesson. His current rate: $15.

Penick is lovable and wise. People at the Country Club defer to him. He's a local treasure. Some mornings, at 8 a.m., when the dew in Austin is still thick on the grass, Penick shows up for work and finds Crenshaw waiting, first in line for his wisdom.

Penick has been Whitworth's teacher since she was a teen-ager. Hardy Louder-milk, the pro in Jal, realized he had a potential champion and called Penick. "I've taken her as far as I can," he said. "Will you work with her?" Dama and her daughter would drive the 420 miles to Austin. Kathy was a lot different back then. She was a big, heavyset girl, strong as could be. Penick liked several things about her. She was a terrific putter. "The ball would die true," he recalls. And she worked. Dama sat patiently and copied down what Penick said. Then they would drive back to Jal and the little nine-hole course hacked out of the mesquite and sand dunes, and Kathy would get down to business. Says Wright, "Probably the smartest thing she ever did was stick with Harvey. He always could tell her the word or phrase that would snap her out of a slump." Penick says, "She's been mighty faithful."

That's an apt word for Whitworth—faithful. To her family, to her town, to her coach and to her game. She's had the same putter for 21 years—and most of her friends just as long. They don't seem to wear out. But most of all, Whitworth is true to a set of principles: Be gracious but guard your time; it's more precious than money. Don't forget your roots. Remember favors, and pay them back. Be generous. And let your clubs do your talking.

Jal got its name because it sits on ranchland formerly owned by one John A. Lynch. And the town continues to exist mostly because the El Paso Natural Gas Company set up shop in 1928. Life in Jal revolves around the notion that people ought to be involved in their community. "We talk a lot," says Morris Whitworth. "You ask a man for the time, and he'll build you a watch. It's all a matter of attitude. People tend to everybody's business. If you think people caring about you is nice, then this place is for you. But if you don't want people butting in, then it's not."

About half the town is directly associated with El Paso Natural Gas, but not the Whitworths. Dama and Morris operated a hardware store for 30 years before giving it up in 1981. Now Morris, an extrovert with a politician's hearty laugh, is Jal's mayor. He's a chainsmoker, which doesn't thrill Dama, although she never would say anything to him. People in Jal call Dama "a doer." She's a member of the Chamber of Commerce, is active in the First Baptist Church, does volunteer hairdressing at a rest home in nearby Kermit, Texas, works in the local Democractic Women's Club and also at the Jal Hospital, and is treasurer of the Lower Plains Golf Association. She plays once a month. Her best score is a 92, and just recently, at age 65, she had a 95. "I'm kind of proud of that," she says in her prim way. That's as close to gloating as a Whitworth gets.

Asked what it is that has made Kathy so successful, the parents have different answers. "Luck," says Morris. But Dama sets her jaw. "Determination," says she. When Kathy, who started playing golf at 15, using a set of clubs that had belonged to her deceased grandfather, won her first amateur tournament at 17, officials offered her a choice: a beautiful turquoise necklace or a trophy. "I'll take the trophy," said Kathy.

Actually, neither mother nor father thinks it extraordinary that the youngest of their three daughters would come out of a small frame house at 629 S. Fourth Street, learn the game on a primitive nine-hole course where the rain shelters are lime-green fiber-glass sheds and where the ground is baked hard by June and is almost barren by August—and then go on to dominate a sport in which the best player wins only sometimes. "We always have a pretty positive attitude when we start something," Morris says. "It's hard not to make it with a positive attitude. You can't walk on water with one foot on the bank."

Kathy won the '57 women's state tournament, and the following spring an invitation to the Titleholders Championship in Augusta arrived. The tournament then was the equivalent of the women's Masters, right down to a green jacket for the champion, although it was played not at the Augusta National Golf Club but at the Augusta Country Club next door. Neither Kathy nor Dama had any clue what the Titleholders was, but an invitation was an invitation. "We thought it meant you had to go," Dama recalls.

Two things stick in Dama's mind from that tournament. No caddie wanted to carry Kathy's golf bag, a pitiful, scrawny plaid model from her father's store. And her daughter finished almost last. A few years later, when Kathy returned to the tournament as a pro, she employed the same caddie she had used in her debut in Augusta. Faithful. "She went on to win that green jacket twice, in '65 and '66," says Dama. "And I treasure those jackets more than any other trophies."

When Whitworth joined the tour, fresh from dropping out of Odessa (Texas) Junior College, she wasn't much of a golfer. Her credentials included a couple of New Mexico state titles, and Wright gently advised her to remain an amateur and go on with college.

During a rookie season in which her scoring average was a big fat 80 and her earnings were $1,217 in 26 tournaments, Whitworth went home and said she wanted to quit. She was testing her support. Dama, Morris and Loudermilk, who had kicked in with financial backing, sat around the kitchen table and talked sense into her. Said Morris, "Save yourself those tears."

"When I came back to the tour later that season," Kathy remembers, "I said, 'Well, self-pity isn't going to get it. If you're going to be out here, you might as well start working at it and see what you can do.' I practiced and I watched. I'd go to the practice tee and sit and study Patty Berg and Louise Suggs and Mickey Wright, watch 'em like a hawk." About that time she gave her parents a bottle of champagne. "We'll open this when I win my first tournament," she said.

It wasn't until 1962 that she popped the cork, upon winning on the last hole of a tournament in Baltimore. The following year Whitworth won eight tournaments, and she got to feeling pretty good about herself. She had dropped about 50 pounds. She had money to spend. And she had proved herself in golf and no longer was a hick nobody.

But in 1964 she suddenly lost it. By the time the tour reached San Antonio toward the end of the year, she hadn't won a tournament. Berg had a saying: "It's not how fast you get there, it's how long you stay." Whitworth, it seemed, was a flash in the pan.

Loudermilk had by then moved to San Antonio, and Whitworth had dinner with him and moaned to him about her season of bad luck. Her old pro looked her in the eye. "Did it ever occur to you that you have the big head?" he asked.

"Well, I was destroyed," Whitworth recalls. "But of course he was right. It was one of the great lessons of my life."

Whitworth won the tournament in San Antonio. And in the next five years she won 42 more, assumed a leadership role in the LPGA and became its president in 1971, and twice was named the Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year. She also was influential in the making of one of the LPGA's biggest decisions. In 1969 the players ousted Executive Director Leonard Wirtz, a strong-willed man who ran the organization, more or less, from the trunk of his car. Wirtz was good for the tour. He gave it backbone, but his autocratic style terrified most of the players.

By dismissing Wirtz, many of the players probably were standing up to a man for the first time. "It taught us a lesson," Whitworth says. "No one is indispensable." Aided by corporate money from firms such as Colgate and an infusion of young talent from the colleges, where Title IX was taking effect, women's golf took off during the 1970s, but Whitworth receded into the background.

In 1973 she decided that she just didn't want to push anymore. "My nerves were completely shot," she says. "I shook so bad in the last tournament of the year that I couldn't sign my scorecard. I knew then that if I didn't back off, I'd burn out. That was hard to face."

So Whitworth eased off on herself, but even operating at a kind of mental half-throttle, she continued to be a power on the tour, picking up an occasional win, though '73 was her last year as No. 1 on the money list. Then in '79 and '80 she hit a real slump—two years without a victory, two years of snap-hook ground balls into the left rough. If ever there was a time to quit, it was then. Whitworth finished 30th, then 24th, on the money list. "I was fighting for my life," she says. "I got real depressed. Scared might be a better word to use." Finally, she went back to Austin to see the old man with the cane. Penick just shook his head. Whitworth's swing looked O.K.—until she hit the ball.

"Let's try and get back to your old swing," said Penick. "It never was classical, but it was sound. Purty is as purty does."

Whitworth went home and practiced for two months. Slowly, the old feeling returned. And in the middle of 1981 in the Coca-Cola Classic in Ridgewood, N.J., she birdied three of the last four holes, then birdied the second hole of a playoff to win the tournament. It was victory No. 81, and the thrill was the same as it always had been. That week she received a letter from Wright, who had 82 career victories. It said, "Don't settle for just 81." Nos. 82 and 83 came last year. No. 84 she won this March.

For 15 years Whitworth has lived in Dallas, where reading and housework—"therapy," she calls it—are her only hobbies, and where she has a closet full of long gowns, which she wears when she goes out to dinner or appears at a charity affair. "I look pretty good all spiffed up," Whitworth says with a smile. She has made only a couple of concessions to the times and her lofty stature in golf. She has incorporated herself, and she's thinking seriously of buying a Mercedes.

There's no question that Whitworth loves the tour life. The other players kid her: about playing an orange ball, about her age and about her hair, a semi-bouffant style that would stand up well in a New Mexico sandstorm. "No strand ever moves," says Debbie Massey incredulously. Whitworth thinks back to her high school days when she played the bass drum in the band. During practice each musician would perform singly. "Alone we sounded terrible, but put us all together and it was just great," she says. The tour is like that. It has a sense of community that Whitworth would have a hard time finding elsewhere.

Recently, she was asked why she doesn't want to be an LPGA officer anymore. It's better that way, she said, because it gives the reins of leadership to the younger women. "It's not my tour anymore," she added. Of course, she was wrong about that, but she was right about something else. Someone asked her what she would choose as an epitaph. "I held my age well," she replied with no hesitation at all.

PHOTOTournament triumph No. 85 would extend Whitworth membership in a club all her own.PHOTOKathy hasn't been the only Mom and Pop concern home in Jal.PHOTOAt 78, teacher Penick still has plenty on the ball.PHOTOSnead, 71, shares with Whitworth the record for most tournament wins.