'Back in the groove' golfer Whitworth still plays to win
Making a million dollars on the men's pro golf tour isn't that big a deal anymore. Jerry Pate, age 27, became the youngest and 29th member of the Millionaires Club when he won the recent Memphis tournament, a milestone he immediately celebrated by jumping into the nearest lake.
On the women's tour it's a different story, or will be when the first millionaire female golfer asserts herself.
Kathy Whitworth, age 41, is the sentimental favorite to shatter the barrier. She also is the logical one, since her $994,969 is the closest (JoAnne Carner, Donna Caponi -- the LPGA champion -- and Jane Blalock also are over $900,000).
"It would be nice to be the first to reach a million," says the 22-year veteran of the LPGA tour, "but it would be just as nice if one of the others gets there first and I make it later. Money's never been much of a motivator for me."
How's that again, Kathy?
"When money is your motivation, you start to be happy with seventh place. You make enough to keep living well and you're satisfied. You can't tell me Jack Nicklaus ever was out there just for a check. I've always played to win, and this is no time to change."
Withworth, whose 81 career victories trail only Mickey Wright's 82 in women's pro golf and Sam Snead's 84 overall, did not capture a tournament in 1979 or '80 . She was not sure she ever would again.
Then in mid-May this year at the Coca- Cola Classic in New Jersey she made up a six- stroke deficit in the last five holes to prevail once more and move within hailing distance of the magic million and Wright's record.
"It was hard to believe," he says. "I'd thought maybe I was too old or had played myself out. I'd had a lot of doubts for two years. But I got my game straightened out, and if I play well I'll win now and then. I'm back in the groove."
The money, she emphasizes, has nothing to do with it.
"I didn't take up golf to make money, because back then there wasn't that much to be made.I took it up because I enjoyed the game.
"In those days you had to win to make ends meet. Even then you had to pack up your car with a couple of other players and head for the next tournament with a hamburger to keep you going. We didn't fly, and we weren't met by courtesy car drivers.
"Today you can finish 10th and make a nice living, especially with all the side benefits like representing equipment and clothing companies."
Whitworth does not lament like big money coming the way of today's young stars, four of whom earned more than $200,000 each last season.
"I wouldn't change a thing. Those of us who were pioneers in the early days of the LPGA have memories we wouldn't trade for money. In those days we did everything -- arranged the schedule, booked the courses, set the pin positions. Then we went out and played."
Whitworth is not in warm accord with her association's sleek new marketing strategies, which include an emphasis on sex appeal. She even skipped the recent LPGA Championship, ostensibly because she doesn't like the course.
"We're being sold in such an impersonal way, as a group," she says. "It's as though I were a bar of soap. It's successful, I know, and I have to respect that. But some of the sport has gone out of it in favor of business, and it isn't as much fun. I miss the closer spirit of the old days."
The Whitworth record in the old days and more recently deserves a brief recitation. The slim Texan has been leading money winner eight times, has won the Vare Trophy for low scoring average seven times, has won Golf Digest's Performance Average Award -- recently named for her -- six times.
She has done all this with a game more effective than esthetic. She is not a picture swinger, but hers is a repeatable, consistent action.
Unlike many other leading pros, she is proud to be known as a great scrambler. Says an admiring Nancy Lopez-Melton, "She can get the ball up and down for par out of a garbage can."
Asked to submit one piece of full-swing advice for average women golfers, Whitworth suggests that they let the left heel come off the ground a couple of inches on the backswing. Then, she maintains, they can turn more fully and generate more clubhead speed and power.
Even if it doesn't mean a whit to her own sense of personal worth, her fellow players hope Kathy Whitworth hits a million first. They appreciate that she's done a lot to make it possible for them to enjoy the lush life.