For 27 years, golf was fun for Kathy Whitworth, even if she didn't act as if it was.
"Gosh dang it, Kathy, they should take your card!" she would say to herself after an errant shot. And thus would begin the masochistic mind game that Whitworth played during a round, the object of which was to browbeat herself into hitting shots that would prove she belonged on the LPGA tour. There was no letting up. Even as the ball rolled into the hole, she would shake her lacquered bouffant in disgust and mutter in her Southwest twang that she didn't deserve a good score. Carol Mann, who used to play the tour with Whitworth, called it her "dark side."
Still, it was the way Whitworth had fun, the way she took charge. "The wonderful thing about it was that I was the one who called the shots," Whitworth says. "My success was totally up to me. I didn't do it for the galleries or money. Playing well was self-gratifying."
Today, Whitworth still acts as if playing golf isn't any fun. Only now, it's no act.
Whitworth is a golfing legend, the most honored player in LPGA history. Her 88 official tour victories outstrip the records of Sam Snead, who has 81 on the PGA Tour, Jack Nicklaus (71), Arnold Palmer (60), Mickey Wright (82), Patty Berg (57) and everyone else who has played the pro game. She made the LPGA Hall of Fame 16 years ago and was the tour's top money winner eight times, Player of the Year seven times and the winner of the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average for the year seven times. During her 33-year career she has won more than $1.7 million.
But now, at 52, an age when most of her contemporaries are retired and resting comfortably on their laurels, Whitworth finds herself in the sad position of having to scramble to make a living. Because she trusted the wrong person with her savings, she doesn't have enough to retire.
Last year she announced her ."retirement" so the golfing world would know she was available for "anything they thought they could use me for." She continues to play tournaments—10 this year—though she misses more cuts than she makes. Still, it's the best way she knows to make contacts so she can play in pro-ams, exhibitions and outings—anything to make a few dollars. She's also trying to sell the three-bedroom house in Fort Worth that she helped design 10 years ago as her retirement home.
In addition to sporadic tournament appearances, she has been meeting with Japanese investors about a golf school she plans to start at Columbia Lakes Resort in West Columbia, Texas, next year, and she recently signed a deal to represent Chateau Elan Golf Club in Braselton, Ga. Aside from prize money and appearance fees, her earnings come from the endorsement contract she has had with Wilson Sporting Goods for 32 years and from the instructional column she writes for Golf for Women, a bimonthly magazine.
"Golf is the only thing that's open to me now, so I'm accepting every outing and pro-am that comes along," she says with resignation. "Gradually, I'm building up my reserves again. I figure if I work really hard during the next four years, I'll be O.K."
Whitworth's financial situation is the result of her entanglement with Technical Equities Corp., a financial management company based in San Jose, Calif., that attracted investments from doctors, lawyers and a host of professional athletes, including Don Drysdale, Rick Barry, Pete Banaszak, Chip Beck and Sally Little. In 1981, Whitworth transferred her savings—$388,000 in total—to Technical Equities. In late 1985, Technical Equities' stock started plummeting—from $17 a share in September to less than $2 in February 1986. In January 1986, the company dismissed Harry Stern, its president and founder, amid allegations of fraud and mismanagement. Then on Jan. 31, Technical Equities defaulted on loan obligations, and a week later filed for reorganization under Chapter 11 (SI, March 24, 1986). When the company sank, Whit-worth's money went with it. Stern eventually pleaded guilty to fraud in 1988 and was sentenced to five years in federal prison.
How could Whitworth and the other investors have made such an error in judgment? She has tortured herself trying to find an answer. In many ways, she is still the kindhearted, naive woman from Jal, N.Mex. (pop. 2,159), who joined the LPGA tour in 1959. No surprise then that when a friend recommended she meet with Stern in the early 1980s, she agreed. Stern told her he could make her a bundle of money, risk-free. Whitworth established a corporate pension fund and put her savings in it. She recalls that Stern, a lawyer, offered to take care of the necessary paperwork and to invest her money in various Technical Equities projects, mainly limited partnerships in real estate and oil and gas, and promised that if any of the investments started losing money, Technical Equities would buy them back from her.
"It was all in writing and I thought, How can I lose?" she says. "I can see now that it would be easy for him to get people's money that way. But I figured if my friend was involved with him, he had checked him out. The people I met from the company were so nice and helpful."
For Whitworth, the timing of the company's collapse was rotten. She was coming off five of her best money-earning seasons—between 1981 and 1985 she earned $705,134—but she was also near the end of her competitive career.
Recalling her feelings then—"gut-wrenching, devastating"—a pained expression comes across her face. "It definitely took something out of me," she says. "I felt like I'd worked so hard. I didn't know if I had the energy to start over. Also, my mother got sick with cancer in 1988. So there weren't a lot of nice things going on. My career just went downhill."
Her mood fluctuated between anger and depression before settling at grudging acceptance. Her 73-year-old mother, Dama, is better now, her cancer in remission, and her father, M.C., is in good health, so Whitworth is getting on with life. "There was lots of heartbreak and lots of tears," she says. "But self-pity doesn't do any good, so I try not to dwell on it. Getting down about it is just wasted energy."
True to form, the private, self-reliant Whitworth hasn't confided much in friends, though she has many. "We come from an age where you didn't know how much money people made and didn't talk about it," says Mickey Wright, a close pal. "I watch her hit balls and we talk about the tour. But I don't know anything about her money problems or how she's handling herself."
Too bad. Advice from Wright might have come in handy. A fellow LPGA Hall of Famer, the 56-year-old Wright retired 11 years ago because of foot ailments and skin cancer. She lives in Port St. Lucie, Fla., where every day she studies the stock markets and financial reports for four hours. Her savvy management of the $370,000 she earned over her 25-year career has allowed her to live comfortably.
Whitworth recovered about $150,000 from the Technical Equities disaster, and now a stockbroker friend manages her money, which is socked away in blue-chip and government-backed securities. "No more speculative stuff," she says.
"She's been down since this all happened, but she'll pull herself out of it," says Beth Daniel, an LPGA player, who looks forward to seeing Whitworth's lighter side again. "What people see on the golf course isn't her real personality," Daniel says, recalling a memorable bus ride at the 1985 Nichirei International team competition in Japan. The players staged an impromptu lip-synching contest and Whitworth and Amy Alcott stole the show by shimmying up and down the aisle, mouthing the words to Tina Turner's What's Love Got to Do with It?
These days, Patty Sheehan says, the Whit, as she's affectionately known, gets the most respect of any player, which explains why she was the overwhelming choice to captain the U.S.'s first Solheim Cup team last November. The team trounced a side of European golfers, 11½ to 4½. By all accounts, the Whit was a hit. She arrived a week early at Lake Nona Golf Club, in Orlando, Fla., to scout the course, and during the three-day event she roamed the sidelines in a golf cart stocked with food, offering encouragement and advice on club selection.
"She worked hard to make it fun for us," says Betsy King. "She didn't just show up the day before and be a figurehead. We all appreciated it."
Whitworth's face lights up and the sparkle returns to her hazel eyes when the subject of the Solheim Cup comes up. "I felt so honored that they wanted me," she says. "I had a grand time. I would have loved to have been a player, but since I couldn't have been competitive, being the captain was just great."
But when she talks about what's ahead for her, the twinkle fades. After seeing your world shattered, it's hard to be overly optimistic. "I don't feel secure about living off my laurels like this because I know it won't last," she says. "I don't know what direction my life is going in and it's kinda scary. I'd just like to be in charge of my own destiny again."