Colorado Springs, Colo. – There was a time that Betsy King stood atop the golf world and no one could touch her. She was as steely as a statue and none of her contemporaries, such as Patty Sheehan and Nancy Lopez, could put a nick into her armor, as much as they tried.
From 1985 through 1990, King won a total of 20 LPGA Tour events, more wins than any other golfer in the world, male or female, during that time period. In 1989, she hauled in $654,132 with six victories. King played full-time on the LPGA Tour between 1977 and 2005, racking up 34 victories.
Of those 34 wins, eight were majors. In that duration she won player of the year honors five times and the Vare Trophy for best scoring average twice. From 1984 through 1990, she posted 115 top-10 finishes in 184 starts, a phenomenal 63 percent of the time. In 1995, the two-time U.S. Women’s Open champion entered the World Golf Hall of Fame.
However, King wasn’t a fan favorite or media darling like Lopez. That wasn’t lost on her Tuesday at The Broadmoor during a pre-U.S. Women’s Open press conference. If she could go back and do one thing over, she said she would have been nicer during her career.
You know, it’s a hard thing, said King. For some people it comes naturally that they can in between shots relax and talk to people and do all this stuff. But for me it was a challenge. So sometimes it was a little hard for me to maybe respond or open up as much while I was competing. … You can still be nice and win.
When King retired from the game in 2005, she left with little fanfare. No one really knew she had retired. It turned out her last event was on Labor Day weekend. No farewell parties, no tearful public goodbyes, no confetti parades or keys to any cities. Both her parents had become gravely ill; she decided to take care of them. Within several months, her father – with whom she was extremely close – would die of colon cancer at 85. Her mother died two years later of complications from Alzheimer’s disease, at 87.
To a lesser degree, King had also undergone shoulder surgery and struggled on the course, making the cut in only one of 10 events in 2005.
So, quietly, she moved on.
Come full circle. Here she is this week at The Broadmoor at age 55, as surprised as anyone to be in the field. She knows she’s long in the tooth, so much so that more than a dozen players competing this week weren’t even born when King last won the Women’s Open, in 1990.
A couple of weeks before her sectional qualifier, she was out hitting balls and thought, ‘Why not? Why not try to qualify for the Women’s Open?’ a championship she hadn’t played in since 2004. The last time she had to qualify was 1975. She swore, after watching other players who attempted comebacks, that she would never do it. But she went with her gut feeling and decided to try.
It’s a perfect circle for me, said King, because the first event I played as a professional was the ’77 Women’s Open. I turned professional, played the Open, and then qualified for the LPGA Tour the next week after the Women’s Open that year. So it’s the first event I played as a professional. It will be the last event I play as a professional on the tour.
And if she wins?
If I win, I can always change my mind, she added, smiling. That would be a real miracle, believe me.
To get into her 31st Women’s Open, King shot 73-71 on June 2 at LTA Mesa (Ariz.) Golf Club, earning one of three available spots. Her round started badly with a bogey, and she registered a 40 for her first nine holes. But King turned things around, shooting two under on her second nine before carding 71 the next 18 holes.
In her last Women’s Open appearance at The Broadmoor, in 1995, she shot even-par 280 to finish in a tie for third. It was also her last top-10 finish in a major, and she remembered it as if it were yesterday. She recalled that she three-putted the 72nd green to fall into that tie for third place.
She recently consulted her former instructor, Ed Oldfield, who at 76 is still teaching. She traveled to Chicago three times to work with him. She did this while maintaining humanitarian efforts in Africa. In 1980, King went to a Christian Fellowship retreat on the LPGA Tour, and she became a new person spiritually. Since then, she has devoted much of her time to charitable efforts such as Habitat for Humanity.
In 2005, she went to Romania twice with several other players from the fellowship, then went to Honduras with World Vision, where she helped build houses for a week. A year later she took a trip to Africa to witness the effects of poverty and AIDS on women and children. It has been life-altering. World Vision has built a medical clinic and 45 houses for AIDS orphans.
In 2007, King founded Golf Fore Africa after a 2006 trip to Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia, where she saw firsthand the terrible plight of AIDS orphans in sub-Saharan Africa. Her initial goal was to raise $250,000 to help AIDS orphans and vulnerable children in Mudasomwa, Rwanda, an area that has been devastated by both the AIDS pandemic and the 1994 genocide. By enlisting support of LPGA players and golfers from around the United States, $200,000 was donated to Golf Fore Africa’s project partner, World Vision, to help the community. In early 2008, the final $50,000 of the project goal was raised.
Last year Stacy Lewis, winner of this year’s Kraft Nabisco Championship and a 2008 USA Curtis Cup participant, went with King to Africa. It was an eye-opening experience.
I’d heard stories about how she’s a competitor and pretty fierce on the course, said Lewis on Tuesday. I think all this charity work has changed her quite a bit.
The fire was still there Tuesday as King offered pointers to Lewis during their practice round. King is trying to look at this week as a vacation, since friends have come along, but she feels the effects of championship stress creeping in.
I’m already starting to get the golf nightmares, said King, laughing. The one I have most often throughout my career is standing on the first tee box and you can’t get a backswing because there’s a tree in the way. … And then usually getting lost, you can’t find the golf course. That kind of thing where you’re late… you’re going to miss your tee time and you just can’t find the golf course.
It has been a long time since she played competitively. Sure, she has played in a couple of Legends events, but those are different from a national championship.
And what would make this week rewarding?
I think, to be honest, said King, if I could make the cut, that would be a pretty good week for the way I’m hitting it. I have a day and half to turn it around.
So I still have hope.
A moment later, King got teary-eyed.
It's nice to come out and have people ask you for an autograph again.
"When you're playing, sometimes you feel like you'd like to get away from that. Well, I have been away from it for four or five years, so I kind of like having that feeling again that, you know, somebody wants your autograph. That's a nice thing.
"I have to say when you’re a young 10-year-old making putts, it’s always to win the U.S. Open. That I had that happen, I’m very thankful.
With that, she got up and took her first steps toward a formal retirement. No matter how she does this week.
Ken Klavon is the USGA’s online editor. E-mail him at email@example.com.