Sports legends don’t always plan their ascension through the ranks in a certain sport, or in some cases the sport itself.

Former American professional golfer and LPGA Tour legend Kathy Whitworth actually fell in love with tennis before picking up a golf club. However, once she was left without other options, she picked up her grandfather’s clubs and her promising young career began.

“It was by accident basically,” Whitworth said. “I was 15, and I grew up in a small town, Jal, New Mexico, and it was an oil and gas town. I wasn’t really interested in golf. I didn’t know much about it, as I was more of a tennis player.”

But once the sport took hold of her, it became a passion, and now she is a big part of sharing that love with aspiring female golfers in Paris. Whitworth agreed to have her name as a part of the first-ever Kathy Whitworth Paris Tournament going on this week at the Paris Golf & Country Club so other up-and-coming golfers can enjoy the same opportunities she received at the same point in their careers.

Whitworth said once she made the switch from tennis to golf, her career gained traction quickly.

“I played tennis in school, played with the kids there, but you had to have a partner to play,” Whitworth said. “There was a family there that had a 9-hole golf course, so I decided to play there since I was by myself. I didn’t like it, but I eventually became so caught up in this game for a lot of reasons. One because of the challenge. It’s just so hard; you think you can hit this little white ball, but it’s harder than it looks.

“One thing led to another. It wasn’t expensive to play back in the day, and I borrowed my grandad’s clubs. I would be out there all summer or as much as I could afford to be. … There were so many things that happened for me, to me, and I didn’t really initiate any of these things.”

One thing was getting the opportunity to learn from arguably the sharpest mind of all golf coaches, Harvey Penick, who was a long-time golf coach at the University of Texas at Austin.

“One time, a gentleman came to the club and he knew Harvey Penick, who was a great teacher of golf and player at the time,” Whitworth said. “The gentleman asked Harvey if he could look at me if I was sent to Austin. He is recognized as the premiere teacher of the world, and we drove to Austin, saw him there and he was just the best and greatest man — my only teacher I’ve had my whole life.”

Looking back, Whitworth can remember several career-defining moments, but the ones that shaped her most were those earlier in her life. At that stage in her golfing career, she learned how to not only refine and hone her game, but also to win under pressure against elite competition.

“Back then there weren’t really any cuts because there weren’t many of us until we got more players,” Whitworth said. “There are defining moments like when I first started to play, which was a big deal to me. Another moment was not the first win, which was certainly very important, and had watched other players begin to fall back — so I won that tournament sitting in the clubhouse.

“The second moment was significant as I was in contention against Mickey Wright, but you get a feel from the galley or your caddy that you’re in the hunt. I hit a good drive at the Paradise Clubhouse in Scottsdale, Arizona. I hit a good drive and I wasn’t sure that I needed to birdie that hole. I made a conscious effort to go at the pin — it turned out to be a good decision — but I made the putt, which gave me more confidence in my ability to win under pressure and play to it. Not that I always won for sure, but not something I was afraid of.”

Whitworth has seen a lot of golf in her time, but doesn’t think the game has changed too much. She mentioned how everyone these days seems to drive a ball well, but one key difference between then and now are the courses themselves and advances in equipment.

“The game itself hasn’t really changed — it’s still the same,” Whitworth said. “But equipment has always changed, and one of the biggest changes that not a lot of people realize is the agronomy — with how the courses are maintained. The greens were very, very hard with maybe three or four different types of grass on the field, but now it’s much softer and better to play on. The guys and girls really can hit the ball well, but it’s all about how they manage their emotions. Teaching through video has also been instrumental in teaching golfers to play.”

Golf has improved across the board, and so has the LPGA Tour. However, Whitworth noted it’s never a bad idea to help the sport continue to grow, and she believes a larger presence in America coupled with golfers on our home soil learning from those abroad could benefit the sport even more.

“There’s always room for improvement, but I would really like to see them play more events here in the United States — just my personal preference,” Whitworth said. “The money is more in Asian countries, which is great as I’ve played there, but having it here in the States gives them more of a chance to make it so to speak. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing on a state of the art golf course, as long as you have a course — you can play.”

Whitworth has proven to be not only a historically great golfer, but also a wealth of knowledge and an inspiration to others. Spreading her wisdom and supporting young golfers has always been a priority as she cares more about developing and investing in future golfers than her own personal accolades.

“There’s a few names in golf that everyone knows and recognizes,” said Kathy Harbin, Paris Golf & Country Club general manager and friend of Whitworth. “There’s some that are recognized for their talent, but Kathy uses it for good. She has 88 wins — most of any male or female — and 95 times she finished second. She brought a lot of attention to women’s golf in a positive light. She also gives back with a big junior tournament in the Dallas area for years. She’s helped give a lot of players their start, who are on the tour — she’s just done so much for golf.

“She’s a great patriot – red, white and blue all the way — she supports those who protect us and is great role model and a great person of integrity for younger girls to look up to. It just means the world to those who look up to her to shake her hand to know what she’s done for the game of golf. Kathy Whitworth is our pro and has been adopted by us in Paris.”

Even though the humble Whitworth has never looked for attention or recognition, she was happy to help the cause here in Paris with the championship.

“When Kathy (Harbin) invited me, I was iffy putting my name on it,” Whitworth said. “But I’m very happy to do what I can to help or inspire these young players while the community comes out to support this event. Golf has been very good to me.”

She ended up helping the event kick off in a big way, and her investment had a great return as the turnout and the future of the event both seem to be on an incredible upward trend.

“We’ve had a great week and the members have gotten really involved at the Paris Golf & Country Club,” Harbin said. “We had a little get-together at one of the members’ homes. I know the members have really embraced the girls being here, have let them stay in their homes — some even for a few extra days — and Paris has fallen in love with the event. Then you go out and watch them play, and they’re really good and makes life-long friendships.”

The tournament wraps up today at the Paris Golf & Country Club.

Geoff Heppes is sports editor for The Paris News. He can be reached at 903-785-6967 or at geoff.heppes@theparisnews.com.

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