Super achievers have a thing for discovering their life calling early on and pursuing it with all their might. By age 15, Kathy Whitworth already knew that she didn’t wish to continue playing tennis, which she was very good at, but instead wanted to pursue a professional golfing career. In her own words, golf grabbed her by the throat, and she fell head over heels in love with the sport. Luckily for her, there is a nine-hole course in her Jal, New Mexico hometown where she nurtured her skills and soon after bagged two New Mexico State Amateur titles.
Whitworth briefly attended the nearby Odessa (Texas) College before deciding to pursue golf full-time and joining the LPGA Tour aged 19 in December 1958. As the saying goes, the rest is history because the star would experience one of the most decorated golfing careers ever. Lady luck first smiled on Kathy in July 1962 when she won the Kelly Girls Open, the first of a whopping 88 titles. Supercharged by the success, the legendary golfer set out on a mission to become the best in the sport and recorded her second win beating the then-bigwig Mickey Wright by four strokes in the Phoenix Thunderbird. The event created what turned out to be the greatest rivalry in women’s golf between Kathy Whitworth and Mickey Wright.
Kathy scooped her first major in 1965, the Titleholders event, which was the then ladies’ version of the Masters. The now fiery golfer successfully defended her title in 1966 and proceeded to bag the LPGA Championship and the Women’s Western Open in 1967, wins that she replicated in 1971 and 1975. By now, Kathy had earned a reputation for consistency, and although she didn’t have a golf swing as unique as Wright’s, she knew how to appear on the winning sheet constantly.
In the 23 years that Kathy Whitworth was active on the course between 1962 and 1985, she won a whopping 88 trophies, making her the winningest professional golfer ever on both the LPGA and PGA Tours. The only golfers to come close to breaking this record are Tiger Woods, Sam Snead, and Mickey Wright, all tied for 82 wins. Kathy was also a runner-up an impressive 93 times, totaling her top-two finishes to 181.
Whitworth made history many times in her career, and although she never realized her dream of winning the US Women’s Open, she became the first woman to reach LPGA Tour career earnings of $1 million in 1981. During her peak years between 1965 and 1973, the star was the LPGA Tour top money winner eight times, seven-time Ladies PGA player of the year, and scooped the Vare Trophy a record seven times for the best scoring average by an LPGA Tour player.
Other notable achievements in Kathy Whitworth’s career include emerging Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year in 1965 and 1967, being named Golf Magazine’s “Golfer Of The Decade” from 1968 to 1977, and scooping the 1986 William Richardson Award for her exemplary contributions to golf. Whitworth’s last win was the United Virginia Bank Classic in 1985, but that year she also teamed up with her longtime rival Mickey Wright in the Legends of Golf tournament, stunning the male pros and paving the way for the women’s Seniors Tour.
Legacy and Last Bow
With such an impressive resume, Whitworth has entered many honorary records, such as the LPGA Hall of Fame in 1975, the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1982, the Women’s Sports Foundation Hall of Fame, the New Mexico Hall of Fame, Texas Golf Hall of Fame, and Texas Sports Hall of Fame.
After retiring from competitive golf, Kathy continued to champion women’s golf, even serving as vice-president of the LPGA and co-authoring Golf for Women with Rhonda Glenn in 1990 to guide ladies on how to chart a path in professional golf. The star also published Kathy Whitworth’s Little Book of Golf Wisdom with Jay Golden in 2007, partly as a tribute to her longtime coach Harvey Penick.
Having achieved almost all there was to achieve in her golf dream, Kathy Whitworth passed on peacefully while celebrating Christmas Eve with friends and family on 24 December 2022 at the rich age of 83 years. The legendary golfer’s star will undoubtedly shine forever, and golf history books will remember her many centuries later.
Kathy Whitworth’s unique career story underlines the importance of charting one’s path early in life. It also shows that family support is critical to success. If her parents had not taken her golf talent seriously and signed her up in the local country club, we probably wouldn’t have this story of the winningest golfer in history. We await to see which golfer will rise to the occasion and break Kathy’s record of 88 professional wins.