Kathy Whitworth established a standard in golf that no one has ever surpassed, whether it was Sam Snead or Tiger Woods, Mickey Wright or Annika Sorenstam. Her 88 victories are the most by any player on a single professional tour.
Whitworth, whose LPGA Tour victories spanned nearly a quarter-century and who became the first woman to earn $1 million for her career on the LPGA, died on Christmas Eve, according to her longtime partner. She was 83.
Bettye Odle, Whitworth’s partner, said she died suddenly Saturday night while celebrating with family and friends.
“Kathy left this world the way she lived her life — loving, laughing, and making memories,” Odle said in a statement released by the LPGA Tour.
Whitworth won the first of her 88 titles in the Kelly Girls Opens in July 1962. She won six majors during her career and broke Mickey Wright’s record of 82 career wins when she won the Lady Michelob in the summer of 1982.
Her final victory came in 1985 at the United Virginia Bank Classic.
“Winning never got old,” Whitworth once said.
The only thing missing from her career was the U.S. Women’s Open, the biggest of the women’s majors. “I would have swapped being the first woman to make a million for winning the Open,” she said after becoming the first woman to earn more than $1 million in her career in 1981.
Sorenstam described herself on Twitter as the LPGA’s all-time victory leader and a “total class act” who will be greatly missed.
“Thank you for raising the bar so high, Kathy,” she wrote.
Whitworth was named AP Female Athlete of the Year in 1965 and 1967, easily defeating Wimbledon singles champion Billie Jean King. Whitworth was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1982.
In an eight-year period, she was named LPGA player of the year seven times (1966 through 1973). She won the Vare Trophy for the lowest scoring average seven times and was the leading money winner in eight seasons.
But she was identified by a single number — 88.
Snead set a PGA Tour record with 82 victories, which Woods has since surpassed. Wright won 82 times on the LPGA Tour, while Sorenstam had 72 wins when she retired after the 2006 season at the age of 36.
“I think Mickey had the best swing and was probably the greatest golfer,” Betsy Rawls once told Golf Digest. “However, Kathy was the best player in the game that I have ever seen.”
Whitworth was born in Monahans, Texas, and learned to play golf in New Mexico. She began at the age of 15 in Jal, New Mexico, on a nine-hole course built for El Paso Natural Gas employees.
She quickly became a two-time winner of the New Mexico State Amateur. After briefly attending Odessa (Texas) College, she turned pro at the age of 19 and joined the LPGA Tour in December 1958.
“I was really fortunate in that I knew what I wanted to do,” Whitworth once told Golf Digest. “Golf just grabbed me by the throat. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed it. I used to believe that everyone knew what they wanted to do when they were 15 years old.”
Wright had the more aesthetically pleasing swing. Whitworth was all about hard work and winning.
Whitworth won eight times in 1963 and 1965, and 11 times in 1968. In none of those years did she earn more than $50,000. After all these years, the LPGA Tour total prize fund for 2023 will exceed $100 million.
Whitworth continued to run junior clinics and stay involved in the game.
“I don’t think about the legacy of 88 tournaments,” she once said. “I did it because I wanted to win, not to set a record or a goal that no one else could surpass. I’m not a freak. I was simply fortunate to be so successful. Being a better player does not make me a better person.
“When asked how I want to be remembered, I believe that if people remember me at all, that will suffice.”