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Kathy Whitworth, who joined the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour in the late 1950s when it was a blip on the national sports scene and who went on to win 88 tournaments, a record for both women and men on the United States tours, died on Saturday. She was 83.
Whitworth was at a neighborhood Christmas party in Flower Mound, Texas, where she lived, when she collapsed and died soon after, Christina Lance, an LPGA spokeswoman, said.
Whitworth, who turned pro at 19, was the LPGA Tour’s leading money winner eight times and became the first women’s pro to win more than $1 million in prize money when she finished third in the 1981 Women’s Open, the only major tournament she didn’t win. She earned more than $1.7 million lifetime in an era when purses were modest.
“I would have swapped being the first to make a million for winning the Open, but it was a consolation which took some of the sting out of not winning,” she said in a profile for the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Tiger Woods, with 82 victories on the PGA Tour, is the only active golfer anywhere near Whitworth’s total. Sam Snead, who died in 2002, is also credited with 82 PGA victories, and Mickey Wright won 82 times on the LPGA Tour.
Known especially for her outstanding putting and bunker game and a fine fade shot that kept her in the fairways, Whitworth was a seven-time LPGA Player of the Year and won the Vare Trophy for lowest stroke average in a season seven times.
The Associated Press named Whitworth the Female Athlete of the Year in 1965 and 1966 and she was inducted into the LPGA Tour and World Golf halls of fame.
She won six tournaments considered majors during her career, capturing the Women’s PGA Championship three times, the Titleholders Championship twice and the Western Open once.
“She just had to win,” her contemporary and fellow Hall of Famer Betsy Rawls told Golf Digest in 2009. “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 on Sept. 27, 1939, in the West Texas town of Monahans, but grew up in the southern New Mexico community of Jal (named for a local rancher, John A. Lynch). Jal was the headquarters of the El Paso Natural Gas Company, which drove the regional economy; Whitworth’s parents, Morris and Dama Whitworth, owned a hardware store for many years.
Whitworth, the youngest of three sisters, enjoyed tennis as a youngster, then began playing golf at 15 under the tutelage of Hardy Loudermilk, the pro at a nine-hole course in Jal.
“That was more than 10 years before open tennis tournaments were allowed,” she told The New York Times in 1981. “Golf was then the only pro sport for women so I decided to stick with golf.”
Loudermilk viewed her as possessing exceptional potential and referred her to Harvey Penick, the head pro at the Austin Country Club, who became one of golf’s most prominent teachers, best known for his 1992 instructional, “Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book” (1992), written with Bud Shrake.
“Early on, Harvey told me in a kind but firm way, ‘I think I can help you, but you have to do what I say,’” Whitworth recalled in “Kathy Whitworth’s Little Book of Golf Wisdom” (2007), written with Jay Golden. “I just said, ‘Yes sir.’ “If he told me I had to stand on my head, I would have stood on my head.”
Penick stressed the need to adopt a grip that assured a square club face, something Whitworth never forgot. “Every time I got into a slump or started hitting the ball poorly, I had Harvey Penick to go to,” she wrote.
Whitworth captured the New Mexico State Amateur title twice, briefly attended Odessa College in Texas and turned pro in December 1958.
The LPGA was struggling at the time despite featuring brilliant golfers like Wright, Rawls and Louise Suggs. Galleries were relatively sparse and touring players sought out low-budget hotels and traveled by auto.
Whitworth didn’t win a tournament until her fourth year on the tour, when she captured the Kelly Girl Open. She cited her second victory, later in 1962, at the Phoenix Thunderbird Open as giving her the confidence to withstand pressure.
Whitworth was approaching the final hole at that event, dueling for the title with Wright, who was playing behind her. She didn’t know Wright’s score at the time since there was no leader board, but, “I made a decision to go at the hole,” she told Golf Digest, although “the pin was stuck behind a trap.”
“I whipped it in there about 15 feet and made the birdie,” she recalled.
She won by four strokes and established herself as a force on the tour with eight victories in 1963.
Whitworth recorded her 88th LPGA victory in May 1985 at the United Virginia Bank tournament. She competed on the women’s senior circuit, the Legends Tour, then retired from competitive golf in 2005.
In her later years, Whitworth lived in the Dallas suburb of Flower Mound, gave golf lessons, conducted clinics and organized a junior women’s tournament in Fort Worth. A wooden case at her home course, Trophy Club Country Club in Roanoke, Texas, houses numerous trophies and 88 nickel-plated plaques engraved with details of her victories.
Whitworth is survived by her longtime partner, Bettye Odle.
Whitworth was a sturdy 5 feet 9 inches but didn’t deliver awesome drives and wasn’t viewed as a charismatic figure.
“Some people are never meant for stardom, even if they are the star type,” the Hall of Famer Judy Rankin told Sports Illustrated in 1983, reflecting on Whitworth’s unflashy persona.
“It’s not necessary for people to know you,” Whitworth told the magazine. “The record itself speaks. That’s all that really matters.”
Alex Traub contributed reporting.