Kathy Whitworth, the winningest professional in golf history with 88 titles, dies suddenly at 83

Kathy Whitworth, the winningest player in professional golf history, died suddenly on Christmas Eve with family and friends. She was 83.

“Kathy left this world the way she lived her life, loving, laughing and creating memories,” said Bettye Odle, long-time partner of Whitworth, in an LPGA release.

Rhonda Glenn, author of “The Illustrated History of Women’s Golf,” wrote that Whitworth’s strength was her determination and inability to quit. She wanted to be the greatest player in the world and wasn’t afraid to admit it.

Born in Monahans, Texas, and raised in Jal, New Mexico, near the Texas border, Whitworth’s family owned a hardware store. Her father, Morris, was elected mayor three times. She took up golf at age 15 when the friends with whom she played tennis wanted to give it a try.

“I don’t remember playing tennis again,” Whitworth told Golfweek some years ago. “Once I started playing golf, I kind of put myself on a diet – mother always wanted me on a diet – but I would go out and practice so I wouldn’t be by the refrigerator.”

She quickly developed an appetite for winning, joining the LPGA at age 19.

Whitworth won 88 titles on the LPGA, six more professional titles than Mickey Wright, Sam Snead and Tiger Woods. When Annika Sorenstam announced her retirement in 2008, Whitworth’s phone lit up. Her LPGA record of 88 victories was safe; Annika wasn’t interested in chasing.

Whitworth wasn’t exactly relieved by the news that her record will stand for quite some time. She didn’t aim to set the standard for professional golf, nor did she covet the achievement.

“(While playing) I wasn’t aware there was a record of tournament wins,” Whitworth told Golfweek. “Didn’t know how many tournaments Sam (Snead) had or Mickey (Wright) had. I feel like Mickey would’ve won 100 if she hadn’t quit.”

Whitworth reached her 88th victory in 1985 at the United Virginia Bank Classic but didn’t officially retire until 20 years later.

At a celebration for her 80th birthday, Whitworth noted that records are meant to be broken, and she enjoyed the fact that Woods’ victory at the 2019 Masters reignited the conversation of whether hers will ever be matched.

At 80 years old Whitworth could recall with great detail everything from her first lesson with Harvey Penick (they spent three days on the grip) to the amount of her first check ($33).

Whitworth liked to talk about how she almost quit the game after that first year on tour in 1959. A conversation with her mom and dad at the kitchen table coupled with a quote she read from Betsy Rawls – “I always work harder for an 80 than I do a 70” – turned everything around.

She learned how to grind out the bad rounds and turn them into good. A seven-time Player of the Year and Vare Trophy winner, Whitworth finished second 95 times. Her first LPGA victory came in 1962, and her last in ’85.

She credited her “winning syndrome” to a mindset learned through years of discipline, becoming an expert at focused concentration.

“The bad rounds never became really bad,” said Whitworth, “and the good rounds became better.”

The statuesque and dignified-looking Whitworth never had a hair out of place. The seventh member of the LPGA Hall of Fame was as modest as she was kind.

Kathy Whitworth (courtesy LPGA)

Whitworth wasn’t an LPGA founder, but she was a pioneer in those early days of the tour, performing whatever task it took to ensure success. Glenn noted that near the end of her LPGA career, Whitworth agreed to serve a fourth term as tour president. One of the issues she faced was that of an all-exempt tour.

“The LPGA doesn’t owe us older players anything,” Whitworth told Glenn. “The LPGA doesn’t owe me anything. All this stuff about what we’ve done for the LPGA, why, I owe the LPGA everything.

“We’ve got to make way for these younger players. People don’t even know who we are, unless we keep our names in front of the public. You watch, when I quit, after a couple of years, people will forget who I ever was.”

That never happened, of course. Whitworth’s record and her generous spirit will never be forgotten.

Of all the Whitworth stories, however, one involving her friend Renee Powell, the second African-American to play on the LPGA after Althea Gibson, stands above the rest in revealing her character.

Fifty-plus ago, when players arrived at their hotel for the week, the desk informed Powell that they didn’t have a registration for her. It had been “lost.”

Whitworth walked in and told the hotel employees: “Either she stays, or we all go.”

The golf world will never stop celebrating the humble woman from Jal, New Mexico, who knew what it meant to win at life.