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U.S. WOMEN'S OPEN
Catching Up With ... Four-Time Champion Betsy Rawls
January 21, 2021
By Beth Ann Nichols
Only a global pandemic could keep 92-year-old Betsy Rawls away from the golf course. To stay in shape, she walks Rascal, her cockapoo, three times a day and hits whiffle balls in the backyard. It’s the mindset one might expect from an LPGA Hall of Famer with eight major titles. Just as the quietly determined player didn’t let bad shots fester during her prime, Rawls powers through the challenges of each passing decade with a strong mental approach.
“That positive outlook on life keeps her going,” said Janet Davis, Rawls’ close friend of nearly 40 years.
Kathy Whitworth, the winningest player in golf history with 88 LPGA titles, credits her first LPGA check to reading an article in which Rawls talked about how much harder she worked to shoot 80 than she did to shoot 70. It was a lightbulb moment for Whitworth, who often found herself giving up on rounds after a few bad swings. Whitworth made a pact with herself, and it was quickly put to the test the next day when she fought hard to salvage a round.
“I never gave up again,” said Whitworth, who cashed a $36 check and never looked back.
It’s no wonder then that Rawls won golf’s toughest championship – the U.S. Women’s Open – a record four times, sharing that benchmark with good friend Mickey Wright. The pair spoke frequently until Wright’s death last February.
“In a whole box of accomplishments that I‘m proud of,” said Rawls, “probably at the top of the list is having won four U.S. Women’s Opens.”
Whitworth describes Rawls as “an excellent thinker,” and Judy Rankin said it was always known that Rawls was one of the “smarter people playing golf.”
Rawls took up the game at age 17, following her father out to a nine-hole course in Arlington, Texas. She was immediately hooked and turned professional not long after earning a degree in physics from the University of Texas. The routine of studying, she believes, served her well on tour.
“I could concentrate and think well about what’s going on,” said Rawls. “I think players who win a lot of tournaments can block out everything except what they’re trying to accomplish with the golf swing. I think that’s what separates a lot of players.”
It helped too that, like Wright and Whitworth, Rawls had a solid foundation built by World Golf Hall of Fame instructor Harvey Penick.
Rawls’ father had asked around to find the best instructor in the area and was pointed to Penick, the head pro at Austin Country Club, who charged $3 an hour. Rawls paid $3 for her first lesson, and Penick told her to come back the next week. When she went to pay for the second lesson, Penick declined the money, saying that they had worked on the same thing.
“I must have seen Harvey a million times and never paid him another cent,” said Rawls. “I thought it was the best $3 I ever spent.”
An impressionable Rawls found herself surrounded by the greats of the game right from the start. The first tournament she ever played was the Texas Women’s Open in Fort Worth. When she walked up to the first tee at Colonial Country Club for a practice round, there stood Patty Berg and Betty Jameson waiting to tee off. Berg insisted that Rawls go ahead and hit.
“That’s the hardest shot I ever had to hit,” she said.
Rawls finished runner-up to Babe Zaharias in the 1950 U.S. Women’s Open as an amateur and promptly won her first of four Women’s Open titles in 1951, besting Louise Suggs by five strokes. She also won the Women’s Open in 1953, 1957 and 1960 as well as the Western Open (’52 and ’59) and LPGA Championship (’59, ’69). In 1959, Rawls became the first player to win 10 times in a single season. Her 55 career LPGA titles rank sixth in LPGA history, behind only Whitworth, Wright, Annika Sorenstam, Louise Suggs and Patty Berg.
“I don’t remember Betsy ever being in a lot of trouble on a golf course,” said Rankin, a 26-time winner on the LPGA who now works as a lead analyst for Golf Channel.
Whitworth credits Rawls for making her a better putter.
“That ball would just die at the hole,” said Whitworth. “I learned an awful lot by just watching.”
Whitworth thinks back fondly on how Rawls and Wright welcomed a teenage hotshot from New Mexico at tour stops and exhibitions. Whitworth recalled riding the Greyhound bus with her mother to Augusta, Ga., for the Titleholders Championship when she was still an amateur.
“I remember mother and I were both scared out of our minds,” said Whitworth. “If I had known then that she was as scared as I was, we’d have gotten right back on that bus and gone home.”
Rawls and her mother invited the Whitworths to dinner in Augusta, a gesture of kindness that has never been forgotten.
Two-time LPGA winner Heather Daly-Donofrio recalled a memorable first encounter with Rawls at the 1998 LPGA Championship (now KPMG Women’s PGA Championship), where Rawls was longtime executive director. The rookie crossed paths with the Hall of Famer in the hallway at DuPont Country Club. Rawls retired from competition in 1975 to become the LPGA’s tournament director, helping to steer the organization during a time of tremendous growth. Rawls commanded respect, Daly-Donofrio noted, in an approachable, easy-going way.
“She was a great role model for me without even knowing it,” said Daly-Donofrio, now LPGA’s chief Tour operations officer. “A world-class athlete and Hall of Fame player who showed that you can successfully transition from playing to the business side.”
Rawls said that her first U.S. Women’s Open was a “revelation” in how a championship could be run. She marveled at getting a locker assignment at registration and the use of pristine practice facilities.
She couldn’t have known then how much the championship would define her career, or that she’d one day step on the other side of the ropes and see what it takes to run a major.
Rawls keeps up with the LPGA on Golf Channel and marvels at their polished games, noting that unusual swings are a thing of the past.
“There’s nothing I can identify with,” she said of modern-day stars.
Except, of course, for that enviable mindset of winning. Few have ever, or will ever, know what it’s like to win like Rawls.
Beth Ann Nichols is a senior writer for Golfweek. You can follow her on Twitter at @golfweeknichols.