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Kathy Whitworth, winningest player in golf history, dies at 83

Ms. Whitworth won 88 tournaments — six more than Sam Snead and Tiger Woods — and was the first female player to earn more than $1 million in prize money

Kathy Whitworth blasts out of a sand trap and then sinks a six-foot putt to go into the lead of the Titleholders Golf Tournament at Augusta, Ga., on Nov. 25, 1966. (Horace Cort/AP)

Kathy Whitworth, who constantly berated herself on the golf course even as she piled up championships, becoming the winningest professional golfer in history and the first female player to earn more than $1 million in prize money, died Dec. 24 in Flower Mound, Tex. She was 83.

Ms. Whitworth collapsed at a neighborhood Christmas Eve party and died shortly after, said Christina Lance, a spokeswoman for the Ladies Professional Golf Association, which announced her death.

With deft putting skills and a seemingly magical touch for escaping the toughest bunkers, Ms. Whitworth won a record 88 tournament titles, including six majors, beating the 82 won by both Sam Snead, who died in 2002, and fellow LPGA great Mickey Wright, who died in 2020.

Tiger Woods, with 82 wins, is the only current player close to her record.

The LPGA Tour began in 1950, and Ms. Whitworth joined nine years later. Unlike their male counterparts, LPGA players caravanned to tournaments, sharing gas money and signaling it was time to pull over by holding up signs in car windows such as “I need to go to the bathroom.”

“At that time we played in a lot of small places: Caldwell, Idaho. Ogden, Utah. Las Cruces, New Mexico. Midland, Texas,” Ms. Whitworth told Golf Digest in 2005. “The galleries were incredible; sometimes it seemed like the whole town was out there, and they got to walk along with us because there were no ropes. The enthusiasm was remarkable.”

Ms. Whitworth, whose accent revealed her Southwestern upbringing, became known for a walking monologue of condemnation — of herself. The object of this “masochistic mind game,” as Sports Illustrated described her play in 1991, “was to browbeat herself into hitting shots that would prove she belonged on the LPGA tour.”

This was Ms. Whitworth’s “dark side,” as one competitor called it.

“There was no letting up,” Sports Illustrated said. “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.”

Whether she deserved good scores or not, Ms. Whitworth made them routine. During a remarkable stretch between 1965 and 1968, Ms. Whitworth won 35 tournaments. She was the LPGA Player of the Year seven times and the leading money winner eight times.

“She just had to win,” Betsy Rawls, a competitor on the LPGA tour, told Golf World in 2009. “It was unacceptable for her to make a mistake. She hated herself when she made a mistake. She was wonderful to play with — sweet as she could be, nice to everybody — but oh, man, she berated herself something awful. And that’s what drove her.”

Kathrynne Ann Whitworth was born Sept. 27, 1939 in Monahans, Tex., a tiny town near New Mexico. She grew up with two sisters just over the border in Jal, N.M., where her parents owned a hardware store. Ms. Whitworth’s parents were both high school basketball stars and they encouraged their children to play sports.

As a youngster, Ms. Whitworth played basketball, baseball (she was a catcher) and tennis. She wasn’t introduced to golf until her freshman year in high school, when some teammates on the tennis team invited her to a country club.

“I borrowed my granddad’s clubs,” she recalled in a 2007 interview with the Center for Regional Studies at the University of New Mexico. “I don’t remember playing tennis again. I probably did, but I can’t recall it.”

She excelled at the game, winning the attention of the club’s golf instructor, who introduced her to Harvey Penick, a renowned coach in Austin. Ms. Whitworth’s mother drove her 400 miles for intensive sessions with Penick, staying in cheap hotels and scribbling notes on brown paper bags.

“He was very careful about phrasing things in a way that wouldn’t hurt your confidence or cause you to misunderstand him,” Ms. Whitworth told Golf Digest. “He started by modifying my grip, which he thought was the foundation for everything. He emphasized placing my hands on the club as opposed to twisting them into place. He told me to practice placing my hands on the grip, and that’s pretty much all I did from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.”

Ms. Whitworth began playing in local amateur tournaments, immediately racking up wins. In 1957, she won the New Mexico State Women’s Championship. The next year, she won again, and then turned pro.

Her early days as a pro were not promising.

“I went home after being on tour three or four months, and I thought, ‘I just don’t know if I am good enough,’” Ms. Whitworth told Golf World. “I was talking to Mom and Dad around the kitchen table, which we usually did, and they said, ‘Well, you have three years. If you don’t make it, just come home and we’ll do something else.’ When they said that, it kind of took the pressure off me.”

Ms. Whitworth steadily improved, eventually winning her first event — the Kelly Girls Open — in 1962.

The key to her game was putting.

“When she has to have a putt, I mean absolutely has to have it for victory, she gets it every time,” fellow LPGA golfer Sandra Haynie told Sports Illustrated in 1969, recalling an event in which she, Ms. Whitworth and another golfer were neck and neck on the last hole.

“Kathy needed a seven-footer to beat us,” Haynie said. “I put on my bracelets and was ready to go home before she hit the ball. There wasn’t going to be a playoff.”

Ms. Whitworth surpassed the $1 million mark in winnings during the 1981 season. She won her last tournament in 1985. Though she won three LPGA championships, Ms. Whitworth never won the U.S. Women’s Open — one of two heartbreaks in her career. The other was nearly going broke after the investment company she trusted with her life savings went bankrupt.

Ms. Whitworth is survived by her longtime partner, Bettye Odle, the LPGA said in a statement.

In her 1992 book, “Golf For Women,” Ms. Whitworth recalled being asked by fans whether she regretted not starting a family.

“I didn’t give up a family,” she wrote. “I decided I didn’t want one. I freely made the decision to dedicate myself to professional golf. No one held a gun to my head; the hours that I spent on the practice tee were hours I wanted to spend on the practice tee. I wanted to be a good player, I wanted to get better, and I didn’t mind putting in the hours to get there.”

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