Turning Points: The moments that changed Whitworth’s, Annika’s and Inkster’s careers

With so many lives on hold as the coronavirus pandemic continues to unfold, the sports world finds itself in a time of recollection and reflection.

Surfing sports channels, there is a reservoir of classic replays to view: major championships in golf, Super Bowls, the World Series and NBA Finals, and more in other sports.

We’re turning the clock back with a special series in this space, too.

We’re calling it, “Turning Points.”

In this series, we’ve asked some current and former LPGA stars to take us back to a special moment in their careers, to what they remember as important turning points in their professional lives, to shots they recall as being vital in unlocking confidence that would shape their careers.

“Big doors swing on small hinges,” W. Clement Stone once said. He was a businessman and philanthropist before dying at 100 years old in 2002. He could have been a sports psychologist, too, in his understanding of what a moment can grow into.

In this series, we’ll show you the “small hinge” moments that opened “big doors” in players’ lives …

Kathy Whitworth
With 88 LPGA tour titles in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, Whitworth has won more than any women in the history of the tour. Actually, she has won more than any man or women on any single tour. Her victory total is six more than Sam Snead and Tiger Woods boast atop the PGA Tour’s victory list.

Whitworth is 80 now, but the shot that helped take her to another level remains a vivid memory. As dominant as she would become, her career didn’t start promisingly. Whitworth didn’t win in her first three full seasons on tour. She sported an 80.30 scoring average her rookie year and considered quitting.

Even after she broke through to claim her first title at the Kelly Girls Open in 1962, Whitworth wasn’t sure if the win was a fluke. She thought she backed into that victory, posting an early score before watching the leaders fall away. She followed that up finishing second six times, before heading to the Phoenix Thunderbird Open late that fall. That’s where her career began to change.

The Shot: Without any scoreboard on the Paradise Valley Country Club course, Whitworth learned via word of mouth that she and the great Mickey Wright had separated themselves from the rest of the pack. With Wright playing behind her, Whitworth walked the 18th fairway thinking she probably needed birdie to win. Over a 7-iron, she was looking at a pin tucked left, behind a bunker.

In Her Words: “I remember making a decision, that I had to go at the hole to give myself a chance to win. I had to pull that shot off, rather than just hit the green. I was playing well, and I had a good lie, and I hit it to about 15 feet and made the putt for birdie.

“As it turned out, I didn’t need to make birdie to win, but in my mind, I was thinking I had to do this. I was proud of myself for pulling it off. I didn’t really feel like I won that first event earlier in the year, but I really felt like I won this one. It was a confidence builder, that I could close. I don’t remember the shot as being a turning point. I remember the decision behind it as being the turning point for me, no doubt about it.

“The next year, I won eight times.”

Annika Sorenstam
With 72 LPGA titles, Sorenstam is third in LPGA career victories, trailing only Whitworth (88) and Wright (82).

Sorenstam’s turning point didn’t come early in her career, though it couldn’t have come earlier in a round.

Her career-changing turning point was her opening tee shot at the Colonial in 2003.

It was historic, making Sorenstam the first woman in six decades to play in a PGA Tour event, the first since Babe Didrikson Zaharias played the Tucson Open in 1945. As if those circumstances weren’t daunting enough, Sorenstam played amid a small furor, facing a backlash among men opposed to her taking a spot in the field.

“She doesn’t belong out here,” Vijay Singh said at the time.

The Shot: A massive gallery lined the first fairway in Fort Worth, Texas, with Sorenstam trying to put her ball on the tee to start the round. Her hands were shaking. When she turned to speak to her caddie, Terry McNamara, her lips moved but no words came out. Fans climbed trees to see that first shot, and photographers swarmed inside the rope line. Sorenstam’s reputation wasn’t all that was on the line that day. Every LPGA player had a stake in how she stood up to all the scrutiny. Though Sorenstam had already won 43 LPGA titles going to Colonial, she never played under more pressure.

But Sorenstam striped her tee shot down the middle.

The gallery loved it when she playfully let herself go, pretending her knees were going to buckle as she left the tee.

Shy and almost ruthlessly cold as an LPGA competitor, Sorenstam helped golf fans warm to her that day. She opened herself up in a way she never had before, and the change stayed with her. She made appearances on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno, NBC’s “Today Show” and CBS’ “60 Minutes.” She was in People magazine.

Sorenstam, the only LPGA player to shoot 59, could have chosen a number of shots as turning points, but she ranks that tee shot at the top of her list. Yes, she missed the cut after shooting 71-74, but she inspired men, women, boys and girls alike, in the way she handled herself and the challenge.

In Her Words: “I hit a 4-wood and it was, literally, to this day, probably the best 4-wood I have ever hit, considering the situation. It sailed right down the middle and almost through the fairway, nearly 285 yards away. After that shot, I was able to settle in and hit the ball very well the rest of the day.

“From that moment moving forward, I was able to handle any pressure that came my way on the golf course. My game went to another level and my confidence was at an all-time high. I won a lot of tournaments and majors the next few years, and I truly feel that my ability to rise to the occasion in those events is due to me overcoming my nerves on the first tee at Colonial. This was a turning point in my career and a highlight for sure.”

Juli Inkster
Like Whitworth and Sorenstam, Inkster is an LPGA and World Golf Hall of Famer. She has won 31 LPGA titles, seven of them majors. Her turning point of choice, however, wasn’t a moment that launched her career. She enjoyed a lot of those, dating back to confidence won claiming three consecutive U.S. Women’s Amateurs, and back to beating veteran Pat Bradley to win her first major as a rookie at the Nabisco Dinah Shore in 1984. The turning point she remembers most fondly was a save that helped her finally break through and win the major championship that mattered most to her, the U.S. Women’s Open.

Inkster was 38 going to Old Waverly in Mississippi in 1999. She knew the window was closing on her chances to win that elusive title. There was frustration and pain losing the U.S. Women’s Open to Patty Sheehan in an 18-hole playoff at Oakmont in ’92, which was Inkster’s last best chance at the title. She juggled motherhood and golf in the years after, learning how to compete while raising two young daughters. After that Oakmont loss, she hadn’t come close to giving herself another chance in a U.S. Women’s Open. So, Inkster felt enormous pressure to close after taking a four-shot lead into the final round at Old Waverly.

The Shot: Inkster could feel momentum and confidence slipping away early in that final round, with Kelli Kuehne cutting into her lead on the front nine. At the seventh, a par 3, Inkster hit her tee shot into a greenside bunker (watch the bunker shot at the 39:17 mark in the video above). When she climbed into the bunker, she could see an awful, plugged lie. There was a real possibility her lead would shrink to two shots, or even one, if she didn’t get herself out of that mess. She knew confidence and momentum could swing wildly away from her before she even reached the back nine.

In Her Words: “I was leaking oil, and then I get this plugged lie. I wasn’t really sure how to hit it. I wasn’t sure whether to open the blade. I didn’t have a lot of green to play with. I thought about it, and I decided to open the blade a lot, and I dug down on it, and the ball just popped up and rolled about a foot away from the hole.

“I remember walking to the eighth tee and having a fiery little chat with myself, because I was playing like a wimp. I decided right there just to do what I do, to play aggressively. I ended up winning by five shots.”

Inkster went on to win the LPGA Championship two weeks after that and then two more major after that, including another U.S. Women’s Open, at Prairie Dunes in Kansas when she was 41.

Written by