Kathy Whitworth, whose 88 victories on the LPGA Tour are more than any player in professional golf history, died suddenly at the age of 83 on Christmas Eve while celebrating the holiday with friends and family at her home in Flower Mound, Texas.
Whitworth, who became the first player on the women’s tour to surpass $1 million in earnings during her career from 1962 to 1985, surpassed PGA Tour victory leaders Sam Snead and Tiger Woods, who have 82.
“Kathy left this world the way she lived her life, loving, laughing and creating memories,” her longtime partner, Betty Odle, said in a statement released by the LPGA Tour.
Whitworth earned the LPGA Tour Player of the Year award seven times, won the Vare Trophy for the lowest scoring average in a season seven times and claimed and six major championships during her career.
Golfweek magazine selected Whitworth as “Golfer of the Decade” during the 1988 Centennial of Golf in America celebration, was named Associated Press Female Athlete of the year in 1965 and 1967, was inducted into LPGA Hall of Fame in 1975 and into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1982.
“The golf world and the world in general lost one of its most incredible women with the passing of Kathy Whitworth,” LPGA Commissioner Mollie Marcoux Samaan said in a statement. “Kathy was a champion in the truest sense of the word, both onthe golf course and off. In the short time I spent with Kathy, I was truly blown away by her and her approach to the game and to life. Her strength, insightfulness and vibrancy were obvious from the minute you met her! She inspired me as a young girl and now as the commissioner and I know she did the same for so many others. We all mourn with Bettye, her family and the entire golf world.”
Whitworth captured the 1957 New Mexico Women’s Amateur Championship only two years after taking up golf after playing tennis growing up, and won the tournament again the following year.
However, she nearly quit the game before claiming the first of those 88 victories after a difficult rookie season on the LPGA Tour, when she had a scoring average above 80 and earnings of only $1,217.
Midway through that first season, Whitworth returned home to Jal, N.M., where her father was mayor, and considered other occupations if golf didn’t work out. Then father and a few other local businessmen subsidized her golf career with $5,000 a year for three years.
After finishing second on the LPGA Tour five times, Whitworth broke through for her first victory in the 1962 Kelly Girls Open in July. She finished second six more times that season before winning for the second time in the 1962 Phoenix Thunderbird Open in October.
In 1963, Whitworth’s career really took off when she won eight times on the LPGA Tour, and she won eight more times in 1965, nine times in 1966, eight times in 1967 and a career-high 10 times in 1968.
Whitworth won at least twice every season through 1977 and her final victory came in the 1985 United Virginia Bank Classic at the age of 46.
“She just had to win,” said Betsy Rawls, another LPGA Tour great. “A lot like Mickey Wright and Louise Suggs. There’s just something that drives them. Kathy was a very intelligent person. 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.”
In addition, Whitworth had 10 other pro victories outside the LPGA Tour and her major titles came in the LPGA Championship (1967, 1971, 1975), the Titleholders Championship (1965 and 1966), and the Women’s Western Open (1967).
Whitworth also a member of the New Mexico Hall of Fame, the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, the Texas Golf Hall of Fame and the Women’s Sports Foundation Hall of Fame.