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Wrong Image But The Right Touch
Barry McDermott
July 25, 1983
Kathy Whitworth may not be an LPGA cutie, but she could soon become the biggest tournament winner in golf history
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July 25, 1983

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

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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.

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.

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