Still the One: Catherine Lacoste remains the only amateur to win the U.S. Women’s Open October 13, 2020 By Mike Trostel, USGA
The following content was first published in USGA’s Golf Journal. Golf Journal is the USGA’s Members-only quarterly print and monthly digital publication.
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Catherine Lacoste came off the golf course and called her parents. It was after 11 p.m. in France, but they were expecting her call – anticipating it, even. It was the same routine she had followed the three previous days, except today was her father’s 63rd birthday, and Catherine had some news to share.
She was the U.S. Women’s Open champion.
Just moments before the call, Lacoste had become the first amateur to win the most prestigious title in the women’s game. It was 1967 and though she didn’t know it at the time, she would remain the only amateur to win the Women’s Open in the championship’s first 74 years.
“At that time, I’m not sure I appreciated the significance of the moment,” said Lacoste, now 75. “But I realized it meant I would be known for something other than being my parents’ daughter.”
You probably know the Lacoste name, or more likely, the small green crocodile that adorns shirts bearing the family name. The eponymous clothing brand was started in 1933 by Catherine’s father, Rene, who won seven Grand Slam tennis singles titles during the 1920s and was nicknamed “Le Crocodile” for his style of play.
In 1929, he married Simone Thion de la Chaume, who was a gifted athlete in her own right. She was the first foreign-born golfer to win both the British Girls Amateur Championship (1924) and the British Ladies Amateur (1927). She also won more than a dozen titles in her native France.
Catherine inherited her parents’ athletic prowess and gravitated to golf in her teens. She made Golf de Chantaco, a golf club founded by her maternal grandparents in southwestern France, her summer playground.
At age 13, her handicap was 24. By 16, she was down to a 6, and began playing on the national level. At 20, she dropped out of the Sorbonne after two years in favor of competitive golf.
It was an event one year earlier that prompted the move.
Lacoste led France to victory in the inaugural Women’s World Amateur Team Championship in 1964 while also tying for the low individual score on home soil in St. Germain. One of the event’s organizer’s, Mildred Prunaret, thought so much of Lacoste’s performance that she sought out Catherine after the competition and encouraged her to travel to America to play there.
The Lacoste family made the trip by boat the following summer and Catherine played a few tournaments, including the 1965 U.S. Women’s Open at Atlantic City Country Club, where she finished tied for 14th. Two years later, she returned to the United States with a bit more experience – and two fewer travel companions.
“Like any 21-year-old, I craved independence,” said Lacoste. “I adored my parents, but at that point in my life I wanted to take that adventure alone.”
She arrived at Virginia Hot Springs Golf and Tennis Club in Hot Springs, Va., a full week before the championship started. With the logoed shirt as her main identity, “The Crocodile Kid” – who turned 22 two days before the start of the event – opened with rounds of 71-70 to equal the 36-hole scoring record and seize a five-stroke lead.
The extraordinary start got the attention of many players, fans and media members, but not everyone was convinced Lacoste could keep it up over the final two days.
“No amateur could ever win this tournament and they know it,” said defending champion Sandra Spuzich, after opening with rounds of 77-79.
When Lacoste took 40 strokes over her first nine holes on Saturday, Spuzich’s prediction seemed likely to be borne out. But Lacoste steadied her play with an inward-nine 34 to retain her five-stroke advantage heading into the final round.
Two weeks earlier another amateur, Marty Fleckman, had led the U.S. Open at Baltusrol through 54 holes, but succumbed to the pressure on Sunday, fading with a 10-over-par 80 in the final round to finish tied for 18th, 14 strokes behind Jack Nicklaus.
If Catherine was nervous on Sunday she didn’t show it, opening up a seven-stroke lead in the early going. But after a thunderstorm interrupted play, the gravity of the moment finally hit her. Six bogeys over a seven-hole stretch reduced her lead to a single shot.
“I wouldn’t be human if I told you I wasn’t feeling pressure down the stretch.” said Lacoste. “I was watching the big leader boards around the course, so I knew exactly where I stood.”
On the 17th, a dogleg-left par 4, Lacoste’s drive skirted the trees guarding the left side and ended up in an ideal position. While other competitors were forced to hit long irons to the green, Lacoste stuck her 8-iron approach to within 8 feet. With characteristic boldness, she rammed her birdie putt so hard it hit the back of the hole and was airborne before dropping in.
“That was a huge relief,” recalled Lacoste, who had given herself a two-stroke cushion. “Making that birdie really put me at ease with one hole to play.”
Lacoste parred the closing hole to seal a two-stroke victory over Susie Maxwell and Beth Stone, who shared the first-prize money that Lacoste forfeited as an amateur. After signing her scorecard, Lacoste called her parents to tell them the news.
“There was silence on the other end for about 30 seconds,” said Lacoste. “They were so happy, so emotional, so proud that they couldn’t talk. That said it all.”
In addition to being the only amateur to win the title, at 22 years old Lacoste also became the youngest champion. It was a mark that stood for more than three decades until Se Ri Pak won in 1998 at age 20.
Writers at the time compared Lacoste to some of the game’s greats. Sports Illustrated described her victory as the biggest upset in golf since Francis Ouimet in the 1913 U.S. Open. Other publications said her fearlessness reminded them of Arnold Palmer, while her clarity of purpose was reminiscent of Nicklaus.
But it was another player whose ephemeral brilliance Lacoste’s career path would mirror: Bob Jones.
Like Jones, Lacoste had a brief but dazzling amateur run. The 1967 U.S. Women’s Open may have been her finest moment, but her greatest stretch started a year later. From the summer of 1968 to the fall of 1969, Lacoste won the Women’s Western Amateur and the national amateur championships of the United States, Great Britain, France and Spain, concurrently holding all four titles.
Then, also like Jones, Lacoste retired from competitive golf before turning 30, while still at the peak of her powers.
“The Women’s Open changed my life,” said Lacoste, “but after winning those four amateur titles, I would wake up in the morning and think, what more do I have to do?”
With no professional ladies’ tour in Europe until 1978, turning pro was not an attractive option either. It would have meant moving away from her family to the United States, something she was not willing to do.
With no golf worlds left to conquer, Lacoste turned the page to the next chapter in her life. She married Jaime Prado (now deceased) in 1970, with whom she had four children. In 2000, she married Angel Pinero, a classical guitarist and composer.
Lacoste remained involved in the game by serving as president of Golf de Chantaco from 1974 to 2009, following in her mother’s footsteps. Though she was forced to give up playing golf in 2018 after knee and shoulder surgeries, she still enjoys following the major championships – especially the U.S. Women’s Open.
Family is important to Lacoste. She has eight granddaughters, ranging in age from 4 to 22. She tells them stories about their great-grandparents, sometimes about what they accomplished, but more often about the lessons they taught her regarding hard work, treating people with respect, and independence. The last subject is perhaps most telling.
“For most of my childhood I was referred to as the daughter of Rene Lacoste. But a few months after my Women’s Open victory, he was approached by someone at U.S. Customs who asked him, ‘Are you the father of Catherine Lacoste?’
“That made us both smile.”
Catherine Lacoste may be the only amateur to have won the U.S. Women’s Open, but a few others have come agonizingly close, most of them since 1967.
Amateur Barbara McIntire, 21, eagled the 72nd hole to forge a tie with Kathy Cornelius in 1956 at Northland C.C., in Duluth, Minn., but Cornelius easily prevailed in an 18-hole playoff, 75-82.
Nancy Lopez won 48 tournaments in her Hall of Fame career, but never broke through in the Women’s Open. One of her best chances came as an 18-year-old at Atlantic City C.C. in 1975, when she led through 36 holes and finished T-2, one of her four runner-up finishes in the championship.
In 1998, Jenny Chuasiriporn sank a memorable 45-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole to force an 18-hole playoff with Se Ri Pak. Chuasiriporn led the playoff by four strokes early, but lost on the second hole of sudden death.
Before she had her driver’s license, Michelle Wie co-led the Women’s Open through 54 holes – twice. In both 2005 and 2006, Wie played in the last group on Sunday but faded. It was two other amateurs – Morgan Pressel and Brittany Lang – who nearly won at Cherry Hills in 2005 until unheralded Birdie Kim holed a bunker shot on the 72nd hole.
On the 50th anniversary of Lacoste’s victory, Hye-Jin Choi led the 2017 U.S. Women’s Open by two strokes as players made the turn on Sunday. She maintained a share of the lead until her tee shot on the par-3 70th hole found the water. The 17-year-old finished second, two strokes behind Sung Hyun Park.