Catherine Lacoste opens the door of her daughter’s home in Menlo Park, Calif. She is smaller than we remember, more compact than when she was a giant in the world of golf.
Forty-five years ago, Lacoste towered over the greatest women golfers in the world. She snatched the 1967 U.S. Women’s Open title out of the grasp of professionals and two years later ended the long reign of Americans in the U.S. Women’s Amateur. In 1969, she swept four national titles. Tour de force!
Like her late mother, Simone Thione de la Chaume, Lacoste, 67, sounds more British than French. Limping slightly due to bad knees, her smile is generous and her demeanor warm. She leads the way through sunlit rooms to a spacious kitchen.
Wearing a Lacoste shirt embossed with the familiar crocodile, the first logo in sportswear history, she brings coffee to the table. The name Lacoste and the crocodile emblem are as inseparable in France as Coco and Chanel. The shirt is the brainchild of her father, the late Rene Lacoste – esteemed tennis player, prominent industrialist and inventor. Rene, two-time Wimbledon and U.S. Open singles champion, was uncomfortable in the stiff-collared and cuffed tennis shirts of the 1920s and borrowed the concept of a soft cotton shirt from polo players, added a collar and a small crocodile logo and voila! The brand now includes stemware, soccer balls and cologne, among other products.
“We were very sad when my family sold Lacoste last year, but my brother Michel has been president of the company for the last four years,” Catherine says.
The logoed shirt was her only identity in 1967 when Lacoste arrived in Hot Springs, Va., to compete in the Women’s Open. A few officials and top amateurs knew that she had tied as low individual in the 1964 Women’s World Amateur Team Championship, but everyone knew about the shirts.
Lacoste led the Women’s Open in Round 2 by as many as eight strokes and suddenly everyone knew who she was. The sturdy Lacoste, cavalier and outspoken, stepped on a few professional toes that week and the professionals reacted in kind. In a she-said/she-said drama, professionals thought Catherine about as diplomatic as Charles De Gaulle, but she was good copy and the New York Daily News called her, “the greatest thing to come out of France since Brigitte Bardot.” Golfers took sides.
Lacoste, like the others, has since mellowed and now exchanges emails with a few early rivals.
Her skirmishes with the professionals are softened by time and Lacoste is pensive about the relationship. “Some of them were nice, like Carol Mann, Kathy Whitworth and Patty Berg. I think I can understand their point of view because there was a time in which it wasn’t very easy for them. They didn’t have many sponsors.”
With three older brothers, Lacoste grew up in Paris and at Golf de Chantaco, a spectacularly beautiful private course near Biarritz that was founded by her grandfather in 1928. About the time her father was winning the 1927 U.S. Open singles title, her mother became the first French golfer to win the British Ladies Open Amateur.
Catherine had a joyful childhood in Paris, where her family spent quiet evenings reading, painting, sewing, knitting, wood carving and doing tapestry work.
“I didn’t watch television until I was 13,” she said. “My parents didn’t go out much. I don’t think they liked going to parties or to the cinema. They weren’t that type.”
In summers at Chantaco, the Lacoste children played golf and tennis in the morning and swam during the long, sleepy afternoons. In winter, gymnastics strengthened Catherine’s legs. At age 13, her handicap was 24. At 16, she was a six and began playing on the national level. At 20, she dropped out of the Sorbonne after two years in favor of competitive golf.
Her golf swing was Catherine’s own, a powerful pass where she was on her toes at impact on her tee shots. She was proficient with a 1-iron and a 2-wood, clubs most women left in the garage.
After Lacoste began winning European tournaments, Mildred Prunaret, a member of the USGA Women’s Committee, convinced her parents to send her to the United States, where she could learn more about competition. So in 1965, the family sailed to the USA for Catherine to play in the U.S. Women’s Open in Atlantic City, N.J., where she finished 14th.
She returned alone in 1967 to win the greatest championship of her life.
At The Homestead in Hot Springs, Va., Catherine led the Women’s Open by five strokes after the third round and telephoned her parents.
“They couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I think the only person who thought that I may be able to win it was my father.”
Bad weather marred the final round. “The scores were very, very bad because of the storm. I tried to hang on and do the best I could.”
After a great start, her early seven-stroke lead nearly evaporated when veteran Louise Suggs began a charge. Suggs trailed by one stroke until she dumped her approach on the 16th into a water hazard. The 16th also caused fits for Lacoste, who shanked an iron shot, but on the 17th tee she clung to a one-stroke lead.
It was a boomerang par 4, curving left around a mountainside and from the tee a daunting shot.
“I don’t know whether it was my character, my swing or my background but I managed to hit a very good drive on 17,” Lacoste remembers. “If you caught those trees on the left, you were dead. I hit a 2-wood and I pulled it a bit, but it cut the corner and I was very close to the green.”
From the fairway’s right side players faced long-iron shots over a pond, but Catherine’s tee shot left her with an 8-iron to the green. She fired at the flag and her ball settled 5 feet from the hole. Her birdie putt was so firm that her ball hit the back of the hole and was airborne before popping in.
When she cruised home with a par at the last to win by two strokes over Beth Stone and Susie Maxwell Berning, she became the first amateur and youngest Women’s Open champion in history.
“One of the biggest golf upsets since Ouimet unglued Vardon and Ray,” Mark Mulvoy wrote in Sports Illustrated.
Lacoste called home. “Mummy was so British she would never show her emotions, but there was probably 15 seconds when she couldn’t say a word. She had won enough tournaments and knew what this was.
“The next morning, when I woke up I thought, ‘Now, I’ve done something for myself. I won’t be the-daughter-of. I’ll be myself.’”
The Women’s Open may be her greatest victory, but 1969 may have been her best year. From October 1968 through October 1969, no one beat Catherine Lacoste and she became the first to concurrently hold the United States, British, French and Spanish national women’s amateur championships. The U.S. Women’s Amateur victory in August at Las Colinas Country Club in Irving, Texas, she remembers as “sort of a closing page.”
With no golf worlds left to conquer, she married Jamie Prado (now deceased), with whom she had four children. In 2000, she married Angel Pinero, a classical guitarist who composes and performs in concerts.
Pinero joined her on a 2007 pilgrimage to honor the 40th anniversary of her Women’s Open win. On their way to Hot Springs, they stopped by the U.S. Women’s Open in Southern Pines, N.C. When it was announced that the only amateur to win the Women’s Open was in the media room, she received a warm welcome and beamed when reporters gave her a standing ovation.
Lacoste has six grandchildren, is involved in her foundation and a land development project, and conducts the Senior Ladies International Open at Chantaco, the trophy for which is named in her mother’s honor. She frequently travels to her homes in Paris and Madrid, but her heart is in Chantaco.
“I want to keep it going as it is, which is as a lovely place,” she says. “It’s a place where a lot of families have four generations, so it’s a very nice atmosphere, so open to everybody. That’s very much in my heart.”
We waited for a taxi in the driveway of her daughter’s house. “No, no. I will wait with you until it comes,” she insisted.
Looking off into the distance, she said, “You know, I stopped competing because it was so much pressure to win. The Women’s Open changed my life, but I had won the four amateur titles in one year and I would wake up in the morning and think, what more do I have to do?”
Her border collie nosed around us in the driveway. Lacoste picked up a mangy tennis ball, tossed it with a smooth motion and the dog scampered away, chasing.
Rhonda Glenn, who recently retired as a manager of communications for the USGA, is currently working with Nancy Lopez on Lopez’s autobiography, which will be published by HarperCollins in May 2014.