The girls made history in Texas last week. That's how folks at the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf tournament referred to Mickey Wright and Kathy Whitworth—"the girls." And in a way the 50-year-old Wright and the 45-year-old Whitworth, both members of the LPGA Hall of Fame, were just that again, but with one difference: They were playing this time against the boys in the Legends, which seven years ago spawned the now-popular senior men's tour. Who could argue with their qualifications in the legend category? Between them, Wright and Whitworth have won four U.S. Opens, seven LPGA championships and 169 tournaments.
No wonder everyone wanted to watch the team of Wright and Whitworth in the better-ball competition at Onion Creek in Austin. Although Whitworth is still a regular on the women's circuit, Wright pretty much retired from serious competition more than a decade ago and hadn't played in a tournament in five years. They were the first women to play in a men's senior event—from the back tees no less—and it may have been the last time anyone will get to see Wright play.
Wright won 82 tournaments during her 25-year career, 79 of them between 1957 and 1968, 13 of them in 1963. She was 21 when she joined the LPGA tour, and she was nigh onto unbeatable at her peak, the Ben Hogan, as it were, of women's golf. Then, because of neuromas, abnormal growths of nerve fibers, in her feet, a condition that eventually required two operations, she retired to Port St. Lucie, Fla. She still hits balls and plays a few holes every day, wearing sneakers and usually riding in a cart because of her aching feet. Carts are prohibited on both the LPGA and PGA tours, but the seniors can ride or walk. Wright had no choice: She rode.
The team of Wright and Whitworth did just fine, starting off with birdies on four of the first six holes Thursday, before they wound up with a better-ball 65-72-69-69—275, five under par. That placed them 18th in the 28-team field, 18 strokes behind the winners, Gene Littler and Don January.
After Wright-Whitworth posted that opening 65, three back of first-round leaders Billy Casper and Gay Brewer and tied for sixth place, playing companion Harvie Ward, who had a 67 with partner Al Balding, exhaled and said, "We couldn't beat them. Let someone else play with them tomorrow. They wore us out."
The boys looked upon the girls as separate but equal—and always with respect. "They're pros and we're pros," said January after he and Littler played with them in the second round.
No one expected the girls to contend for the top spot, but they did whip a few of the boys. As much as the boys were concerned about being embarrassed by a team of girls, Wright and Whitworth had to be just as determined not to embarrass themselves, which easily could have happened. Whitworth was the youngest competitor in the field—50 is the usual entry age—and her game was steady. She also was probably the only player whose parents were walking in the gallery. "I'm just followin' Mickey," Whitworth said in the first round when asked how she was doing. "Isn't Mickey great? It's like old times, almost."
Wright put a lot of energy and work into her appearance. She began practicing in December and on Feb. 14, her 50th birthday, played 18 holes, her first full round in five years, from the back tees at her home course. For the first time in 13 years, Wright was wearing golf spikes. She went to Onion Creek a week before the tournament, and Whitworth joined her a few days later.
Despite her team's more than respectable showing, Wright wasn't entirely satisfied with the way she played, especially on the first two days when she made only one birdie, while Whitworth made five on Thursday alone, including a 30-foot chip-in on the 18th. "I felt so nervous," Wright said. "Like a teenager who never held a golf club—scared to death. I don't think I've ever been that scared."
On Friday, after a 72, Wright said, "You don't recapture the magic. You don't go back 20 years. I knew that before I came here. I thought: 'I've got four months to catch up for five years.' And I know there's no way to do that." She also said, "I like the way my life is now. Quitting a sport is like quitting cigarettes. It's not easy. You don't want to start something again that's so hard quitting. That's kind of how I feel about golf. I've had some nice times, and some wonderful memories."
Still, Wright was thrilled to play once more with Littler, her childhood idol and hometown pal. As a kid she used to sit on Littler's golf bag and watch him hit practice balls at the La Jolla Country Club, outside San Diego.
In the third round, Wright drew back the curtain, and the gallery got a glimpse of how things used to be. Though she made only one birdie, hitting a seven-iron to within four feet on the par-3 17th hole, her iron shots were tight on every hole. On the 16th, her ball hit the pin from 140 yards out. "They sure outshone us," said Tom Nieporte, who, with George Bayer, could produce only a 72. "Mickey could have birdied six of seven holes coming in. I couldn't believe it."
In the final round Sunday, Wright made two birdies and Whitworth three as they shot 69. For the third time in four rounds, they beat the men they were paired with.
But winning wasn't the point. Early in the week, Harvey Penick, the teaching pro from Austin and something of a legend himself, came out to watch the ladies play. Penick, 80, suffers from a degenerative condition of the spine and his body is bent, but he was there on the first tee when Wright and Whitworth teed off. "When you or Mickey hit a good shot," Penick said to Whitworth, "I get goose bumps."
That was the point.
Whitworth's chip-in birdie at the 18th on Thursday (left) gave the team a 65, but Wright had qualms about her game (right).
Littler, Wright's childhood idol, won with partner January.
Wright cheerfully gave out autographs to go with the memories.