Kathy Kahan pauses between bites of her homemade Irish soda bread and tries to remember when she beat Chris Evert. It had to be a few years before Kahan first performed with the Ice Follies, which would be a couple of decades before she qualified for the U.S. Women's Open in golf. She's sure of that.
"I must have been 12," she says, finally, picking at the bread. "And Chrissie was probably two years younger, starting out just like I was. I know it was at her father's park in Florida. I beat her in a local tournament, while I was in Fort Lauderdale visiting my uncle, but I don't remember what the scores were. It didn't mean anything until she became famous."
O.K., so maybe Kahan was virtually a teenager and Evert had only just hit the big one-oh. Still, Chris Evert. Beating her is a feat that Kahan, now a 38-year-old mother of two who lives in Longwood, Fla., a suburb of Orlando, could boast about for the rest of her life. But that's not Kalian's style. When pressed to talk about her athletic experiences—rallying with Arthur Ashe, twirling on ice with Peggy Fleming or, most recently, climbing the U.S. amateur golf rankings to No. 40—she just shrugs and says, "it happens when you're involved in sports."
Well, on Fantasy Island maybe, but such accomplishments are not among those typical of a suburban mom.
November 12, 1990
Kahan first got involved with sports while growing up in Gladwyne, Pa., on Philadelphia's Main Line. Her father, Ted Leydon, was an executive with Scott Paper Co., but he could take or leave sports. The same was true of Kahan's older sister, Tina, and her younger brother, Ted. However, Kathy's mother, Betty, played tennis, and she introduced her daughter to ice skating when Kathy was five. By the time she was 16, Kathy had toe-looped and Axeled her way into the chorus line of the Philadelphia productions of the Ice Follies, which at the time featured Fleming. Kahan's big moment came when the troupe made giant pinwheels on the ice. Of course, she shared the moment with 29 other spangled skaters.
"Still, it was the Ice Follies," says Kahan. "It was a thrill to be on the ice with Peggy Fleming in front of 10,000 people. You couldn't freeze up. You had to perform."
She also played field hockey and lacrosse at the Shipley School, in Bryn Mawr, was No. 1 or 2 for the Merion Cricket Club's junior squash team and swam breaststroke for Gladwyne's Stony Lane Swim Club. But her favorite haunt was the Gladwyne Park tennis courts. That's where she developed the forehand that helped her qualify for the 12-and-under hard-court nationals in Burlingame, Calif. Kahan's parents, who didn't particularly want their daughter traveling across the country to play tennis, agreed to let Kathy go alone (she would be staying with family friends), provided she earned the money for the trip. They never dreamed she would actually raise the money. Eleven-year-old Kathy, however, was determined to make the trip to California, and she decided that the quickest way to earn her airfare was to go into the catering business. "It was easy," says Kahan. "I just called up all my parents' friends and said, 'What can I cook for you?" "
Four-hundred dollars' worth of meat loaves, pigs in the blanket, casseroles and brownies later, Kahan was in Burlingame. She lost in the third round, but the experience wasn't a total loss. Seventeen years later Kahan would draw on her knowledge of recipes to cowrite a cookbook entitled Juicy Miss Lucy, which sold 80,000 copies. She also did all the illustrations for the book.
While she was still a teenager, her tennis skills sometimes enabled her to peer across the net at some famous faces. At 15, she was visiting her uncle who was helping to put together a celebrity tennis tournament in Fort Lauderdale. "Someone who had paid big bucks to hobnob had to cancel, so I got to play," says Kahan. "Let's see. I played with Johnny Carson, Arthur Ashe—Rod Laver was there, too. It was pretty neat."
Skidmore College, in Saratoga, N.Y., offered Kahan a partial tennis scholarship, contingent on her majoring in physical education. "I could just see all my high school coaches lined up," Kahan says. "And I thought, No way." She opted to major in fashion design and photography at Bennett, a now-defunct two-year women's college, in Millbrook, N.Y., where she played on the school's tennis team. Kahan's competitive tennis career came to an end there but she did not close her celebrity register.
After finishing at Bennett, she got a degree in commercial design from the ‚Äö√†√∂‚àö¢cole des Beaux Arts in Aix-en-Provence, France. Kahan then returned to the U.S. and worked for Bob Levy, a U.S. Tennis Association tournament sponsor. In 1976 Levy sponsored the girls' 18-and-under indoor nationals. While the players were in town, he and Kahan organized a mixed-doubles social with some of the top male players from colleges in the area. During the event she met her future husband, Jeff, then a troubleshooter for a linen company and a volunteer coach at Haverford College, when he stormed up to her to gripe about being paired in doubles with a then barely known 13-year-old in braces, pigtails and a pinafore—one Tracy Austin.
Kathy and Jeff were married two years later, and in 1980 they moved to the Orlando suburb of Maitland after Jeff, who is in the uniform-rental business, was transferred. Between writing her cookbook and raising two toddlers, Kahan found time for golf. She didn't take the game seriously until four years ago. "I got good results in a short period of time," says Kahan, who had a 12 handicap after three years and today is whittling away at a one. "Then it became a challenge to see how far I could go."
In 1988 she went all the way to the U.S. Women's Open at Five Farms in Baltimore after surviving a four-hole sudden-death playoff at a qualifier in Apopka, Fla. She missed the 36-hole cut because, in her first encounter with fast, bent-grass greens, she putted poorly. "Golf is the most difficult and most pleasurable sport I've been involved with," Kahan says. "And it's the only sport I've tried that can make me a nervous wreck. Still, I want to get to a higher level. I feel I never reached my potential in other sports; I just sort of burned out on them. In golf, I want to be the best I can be."
True to form, Kahan is already on familiar terms with some of the legendary names in her latest sport. In 1989, she made her only hole in one, on the 175-yard par-3 5th hole at Shady Oaks Country Club, in Fort Worth. That's Ben Hogan's club, and Hogan happened to be there on the day Kahan got the ace. Her scorecard with his signature is one of her most cherished possessions.
Lack of tournament experience is the only thing holding Kahan back, according to Phil Ritson, a golf instructor in Lake Mary, Fla. Ritson, 60, who says he has given well over 120,000 golf lessons, including several to J.C. Snead and Gary Player, has coached Kahan off and on for 2½ years, and he sees her making the Curtis Cup team, a group of eight woman amateurs who represent the U.S. against Great Britain every other year. "She's that good," he says. "She hits the ball as well as anyone and has the talent to be a first-rate amateur. She just hasn't been at it for very long. What's keeping Kathy from the top of amateur golf is the time she spends doing other things."
Like two or three hours a day chauffeuring sons Christopher, 9, and Devin, 7, to their athletic activities. In addition, from April to September, she teaches swimming in her backyard pool 20 hours a week. And Kahan still loves to cook, a distraction Ritson finds doubly aggravating because she regularly brings him fattening homemade goodies, and he's trying to lose weight. "Oh, yes," he says with mild regret, "she's a great cook, too."
So what's left for Kahan? The Pillsbury Bake-Off?