- George J. Tanber
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Most golf fans know that Sam Snead leads the PGA Tour in career wins, with 82. His counterpart on the LPGA Tour is Kathy Whitworth, who has 88.
Whitworth, who joined the tour in 1959 and notched her last win in 1985, was not one of the LPGA's glamour names. But few players were tougher on Sunday's back nine.
Whitworth, who was a student of legendary instructor Harvey Penick, was around when the tour stops included Waco and Las Cruces, N.M., and a $5,000 pot was considered a rich tournament. In her early years on tour, she went toe-to-toe with Mickey Wright, whom she and many others consider the best.
Whitworth won $28,658 when she captured the first of her eight money titles in 1965. Annika Sorenstam, who is 19 wins behind Whitworth, earned $2.5 million when she won her last money title in 2005. Still, Whitworth loves Sorenstam's game and has few regrets about playing in a less lucrative era.
Whitworth earned player of the year honors seven times and was named to the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1975. She twice captained the U.S. Solheim Cup team.
Whitworth used copious amounts of hair spray, and no matter how hot, she declined to wear hats or visors. That led Dottie Pepper to joke, "If Whit's hair moved, we knew it was a two-club wind."
Whitworth, 67, lives in suburban Dallas. She continues to appear at golf schools, clinics and corporate outings, many of them charity events. A prestigious, annual junior girls' tournament is named for her. She plays infrequently but on a good day from the men's tees can still score in the mid-70s. Whitworth remains involved in the LPGA Tour as a member of the commissioner's advisory committee.
In an interview with ESPN.com, Whitworth talks about the tour then and now, Michelle Wie, the rise of women's sports and issues with LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens.
How do you feel about Annika Sorenstam approaching your wins record?
We talk about it a lot. If I'm her motivation, that's just fine. My last tournament win I was 45, so she has a long time to go.
What do you like about Annika's game?
She's just so consistent. She just hardly ever hits it in trouble. She's almost always right down the middle. She's a great competitor. And she has great control over her emotions and how she handles adversity, although there isn't much of it.
Should Michelle Wie play in men's tournaments?
I was like everyone else when she first came out. She's just a kid, but in the interviews it seemed like this is what she really wants to do. The men's sponsors seem to be OK with that. She was well-received. And, gosh, no matter where she plays she brings a lot of attention to the game. I don't think in the long run it's going to be good for her. I feel like at some point, for her sake, she needs to place herself in a competition where she is expected to win. There's a different mind-set. She will tell you, 'Well, I don't feel any pressure,' because she doesn't expect to win. There's a big difference when you are expecting yourself to win and you feel like you should win. That's where you learn about yourself and how you handle pressure. As far as I can see, she hasn't put herself there. I wish her well, and I hope it works out for her. I think she'd be great for the LPGA. I hope she decides to play over there more, because she certainly brings a lot of attention and excitement to the game.
Do you see Wie, or any woman, ever playing in a men's major?
I don't think so. Laura Davies tried. They talk about Babe [Didrikson Zaharias]. The reason she played the men's events was because those were the only events we had. This was pre-LPGA, in the 40s. I'm not saying it couldn't happen, but I don't see it.
What role has equipment played in improving the women's game?
There is no question technology has made it an easier game. I think it's made a big difference. But the biggest difference to me is the agronomy. I look at those greens and I think, 'Man, I would have loved to have some of those greens.' It's just a different game today. But that's OK. If we didn't have equipment changes, we'd still be playing with wooden shafts.
Has it changed your game?
I don't get penalized near as bad for a bad shot because the fairways are nice and you don't get a bad lie. The greens receive the ball from just about anywhere.
What's are women's sports like today compared to when you were active?
We were the only professional sport for a long time. Then, tennis came along. And then the WNBA. And soccer has been great. I think it's wonderful. Not every woman is going to be a professional athlete. But they have this opportunity now. I don't know if it's helped golf so much, because a lot of [the athletes] are playing different sports instead of playing golf.
A long-running debate on the tour is whether to promote players' sex appeal. In your day there were the Bauer sisters [Marlene Bauer Hagge and Alice Bauer] and later Jan Stephenson. Today Natalie Gulbis has yet to win a title but has more endorsements than some better players. What are your thoughts?
I think you have to make a choice. Laura Baugh was in that era, too. She was a beauty and still is a very attractive girl. When she was starting to come out on the tour, she had signed with IMG and they were running her all over the world. I told her, 'Well, Laura, I just think you're going to have to make a choice. You're going to make a lot of money. There's no doubt about that. But I don't think you're strong enough to do all this other stuff and go play the tour. I just don't think it's going to work for you.' She ended up making a lot of money, but she spent too much time doing the other stuff. It has to take its toll on you. I know Natalie is a good player and wants to win and will always keep trying and maybe will break through. But when you have all this other stuff going on, the tour doesn't take on as much intensity for you as it might have otherwise. Jan was wonderful. She made a lot of money as a pinup or whatever. She was a good player, and she worked harder than anybody. But I don't think she's going to be remembered for winning the U.S. Open and some other tournaments. Her claim to fame is just going to be a sex symbol.
You lost much of your savings in 1985 after the company managing your retirement account went under. You returned to the tour and eventually recouped much of what you lost. What was that like?
That was one of the biggest downers in the world for me. I got some of it back, but it took almost 10 years because of all the litigation. The only good thing about it was that I young enough that I could recoup some of it. I had bills to pay. I had to make a living. The tour then became where I had to play for money. I had to do a lot of outings rather than playing golf. My game had started to deteriorate anyway. So it wasn't that great. I became more focused on whether I was making the cut and how much money I was going to make. I never had to do that before. It was not a fun time. But you go on. You suck it up, because you don't have any choice.
What would you change with the women's professional game?
I do wish the telecasts would be more exciting. There's just not enough excitement in how they present it. This sounds like sour grapes, but I think the PGA does a better job presenting its history. It's always fun to know where you came from. And I don't think the story of the LPGA has been told. We had some great characters, some great players. If there was a better way to make the telecasts more exciting plus maybe some vignettes or flashbacks to yesteryear, that would really help.
Carol Bivens is the first woman to head the LPGA. How is she doing?
I have to say, I haven't been a big fan. I didn't think she got off to a very good start, but I don't know whose fault that was. I think she was listening to the wrong people. I have been on the commissioner's advisory council, so I've gotten to know Carolyn a little better. Now, I think it pretty much has to be her call. There is a lot she didn't know, that she's admitted she didn't know. She's learning. I think she's trying. But, like I said, I think she got off on bad footing and I think she has to take some responsibility for that. It's a tough job for her because she is the first woman. So you want to give her a little latitude. But, by the same token, the people who hired her should have known that her background was not in golf and that she didn't know much about the LPGA. Consequently, she didn't know the inner workings of certain things, so she stepped on a lot of toes. But I did get a little better feel at the last meeting I attended that she's getting some good people around her. So I'm more encouraged. The players are telling me they really like her, so if the players like her that's a big thing. The tour will always survive. We've survived a lot of commissioners.
What female athlete do you admire -- past or present -- and why?
I really admired Patty Berg and respected her a lot because she did so much. She was our first president. She did everything. She did the clinics. She did numerous public appearances on behalf of the LPGA. And she certainly didn't make any money for any of this stuff. She was a great influence on my life. How lucky I was to have her be there.
How did you get into the game?
It was sort of by accident. I grew up in southeastern New Mexico in a little oil and gas town. There wasn't anything for girls in high school, athletics-wise. But I did play tennis. They had a little nine-hole golf course [in the town]. My friends invited me out to play there one time. I really wasn't thrilled about it, but I went. I borrowed my grandad's clubs. And I don't remember playing tennis again. I just got hooked. I was 15. I remember it was in May. I played all that summer. And, eventually, after about a year my Mom and Dad realized I was serious about it and they joined the club as associate members, which allowed me to play all the time.
How did Harvey Penick become your teacher?
[My first teacher], Hardy Loudermilk, knew Harvey. He said he thought I should go see Harvey. How lucky is that? After I went to see Harvey, Hardy and Harvey would talk on the phone. Hardy became my surrogate teacher. He oversaw what Harvey was trying to get me to do. Fate really was involved here. I didn't have anything to do with it. I didn't know who Harvey was. But I loved Hardy, and I knew I wanted to play golf.
How did you join the LPGA tour?
The problem with growing up in New Mexico was that all the major amateur events were all back East. And I couldn't afford to go back East to play. I didn't have any place competitively to play. I had played in some exhibitions with Mickey and Betsy Rawls who did these [clinics] for Wilson all over the country. Anyway, they were out in the west Texas area and they called me to come play nine holes with them [in October 1958]. I remember talking to Mickey about [turning pro] in Amarillo. She recommended that I work another year with Harvey to get a little more experience. I agreed. But after the meeting we decided that if I was going to do it I might as well do it now. My Dad, Hardy, and two other businessmen got together and said they would finance the bulk of the deal for three years. I sent in my $25 in December, they voted on me, and off I went [at 19.] It's just hysterical if you think about it. But [the LPGA] had only been in existence for nine years.
Your greatest regret?
I did not get to know Babe [Didrikson Zaharias]. She passed away before I turned pro. She was such an outstanding athlete and one of our great personalities.
When you look at the tour today, with the large fields and the international players, would you say it's tougher to win than when you were playing?
We all thought it was tough to win. There always is going to be a handful that you are going to look to. [Today], there are just so many more good players. We talked about finishing second. Sometimes, you could finish second and be two or three shots back. You can't do that today. If you finish two or three shots off the lead, you're lucky if you're in the top 30. You may finish second but you may be tied with 10 other people. [Still], it's hard to compare. And I don't know that it's important. It was what it was. I do think there will always be another Tiger. Another Annika. For years they didn't think there would be anyone close to Jack [Nicklaus]. But there is always going to be somebody.
Your favorite moment as a pro.
There are so many moments, but your first win is always important. I just really enjoyed my career. I enjoyed the traveling, I enjoyed the camaraderie, and I enjoyed the competition. I was just very fortunate to know what I wanted to do at any early age.
George J. Tanber contributes to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.