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Some say Judy Rankin did everything a golfer could do. Except winning a major.
Oh please. Judy Rankin has done everything you can do in golf and more.
Let’s kick it all off first, but claim like a broken tee. Between 1968 and 1979, Rankin won 26 times on the LPGA Tour. (That’s a lot of wins!) She won the Dinah Shore in 1976. It was a four-day event. It was performed at Mission Hills in front of swollen crowds. Everyone and their mothers played it – if they could fit in. He was a major.
Yes, the LPGA Book of Records says Dinah Shore didn’t become an official Major until 1983. It’s hilarious. The players, together with us, the people, decide which tournaments are major. There is nothing official.
Majors are about how we feel about certain events, certain journeys, certain winners, and their paths to the finish line. Mickey Wright won it in 1973, his first year as a 72-hole event. Judy in 1976, Kathy Whitworth in 1977, Nancy Lopez in 1981. That’s a lot of greatness! Judy’s victory and how we feel about her helped make this tournament a major event. Okay, Judy’s only major, if that’s how you need to keep score. But there is much more to the life and times of Judy Rankin than that.
I became a fan the first time I saw Judy in person in 1977 when the LPGA came to Long Island. I caddyed in the pro-am and I still remember Judy’s headband, dark glasses, rhythmic swing and effortless style. She was Mrs. Rankin in the articles of the New York Times. Ms. Rankin backed up and finished fourth.
“Long Island has been good to me,” Judy told me the other day. “I won there in 1978 and I won again in 1979. It was my last victory. Judy out.
She, of course, didn’t know it at the time, just as she didn’t know that she would eventually have a second, equally remarkable and totally different career. As a presenter, Judy Rankin didn’t have to try to be insightful, efficient and (in the best possible sense of the word) appropriate. She was just.
We talked on the phone while Rankin took a drive through West Texas that she had done a thousand times, from Lubbock to Midland. Judy has lived in Midland, her late husband’s hometown, for decades. In fact, there’s a lovely nine-hole par-3 course there at Midland Country Club called The Judy.
She also has a home in Lubbock, where her only child – a son named Tuey – lives with his family. When Judy travels for work, she brings her two shelter dogs to Midland, where they sleep with family friends. Judy was beginning the long journey to Palm Springs and Mission Hills for the first major tournament of the year, the Chevron Championship.
That’s the name of the tournament these days. But for Judy Rankin – and Juli Inkster and Amy Alcott and Betsy King and others of a certain age – the tournament will always be the Dinah Shore. Or La Dinah. Or Dinah. Judy Rankin was leaving to work on her last major. She’s 77 – not that you’d ever guess. Judy was going to see Dinah one last time.
“It’s hard to believe that one woman represents the entire history of the LPGA,” Molly Solomon, a longtime executive at NBC Sports, told me recently. “When Judy went on tour [in 1962], you still had some of the founders of the LPGA playing. Patty Berg, Marlene Hagge, Louise Suggs, others. “And here we are in 2022, and she’s covering the Korda sisters.”
Louise Suggs was born in 1923. The LPGA started playing in 1950. In 1960, Judy Rankin, then Judy Torluemke of St. Louis, was the amateur bass player at the US Open – at the age of 15. In 1961, she was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. When she won at Mission Hills in 1976, she won $32,000. And there she was, back in Mission Hills in 2022, taking the lead as Jennifer Kupcho won her first major and $750,000 with it.
A lifetime, pretty much, in the public eye and she was a role model every step of the way. Ask anyone. Start with Beth Hutter.
“Judy has time for everyone,” Hutter, a longtime NBC Sports producer and Judyophile, will tell you. “Moving up and down the driving range. Every player, every caddy. If we’re out for dinner and there’s a player at another table eating alone, Judy will say, “Come join us.” Fans at tournaments, strangers lost in airports – everyone.
Even, remarkably, the young talent who coveted the swivel chair and the job of Judy, working hundreds of male and female events as a reporter, interviewer, commentator, host and analyst. Rankin started in television in 1984. She had extensive stints with ABC, ESPN and NBC. His comment was a zone without hyperbole.
“Judy could say anything in eight words,” Molly Solomon will tell you.
Judy Rankin has to be the most modest legend you could hope to meet. Before the World Golf Hall of Fame ceremonies began this year, she was in the spacious lobby of the Sawgrass Marriott, about a mile from where the induction would take place, chatting with Solomon and others. “And Judy said, ‘Oh, can I hitchhike there with you?’ She was a presenter,” Solomon says. “But I didn’t expect a car to be waiting for him.”
Rankin’s job that night was to introduce a close friend who was inducted, three-time US Open winner Susie Maxwell Berning. Susie returned the favor. “For you to win 26 times, yet you passed out at my wedding?” Berning told the glittering crowd. “I do not understand that.”
They were joined at the hip forever. When Berning won the 1972 US Open at Winged Foot, Judy finished a shot behind her. Susie told me about a season-ending event a long time ago where the two women needed a good finish to qualify for a free car – an Oldsmobile Toronado! — for the following year. Susie remembers that they were overserved on Saturday night and they both played on Sunday. Judy is less sure of cause and effect. Susie loved the car. Judy liked the car, but not the huge name tags attached to its doors. They spent the week together in Palm Springs when the LPGA traveled to Mission Hills this year for the Grand Final.
It’s hard to believe that one woman represents the entire history of the LPGA,” says an NBC Sports executive. “And here we are in 2022, and Judy is covering for the Korda sisters.”
Judy, who was also a two-time Solheim Cup captain, was in her Lincoln Navigator with her two pooches as she drove and talked through West Texas. As a gamer, she said, she was surrounded by people who had advice for her. As a broadcaster, she says, she’s figured out what works for herself. It’s not the usual pattern, she says, for a player who goes on TV. But it worked for her.
There was a recorded tribute to Judy at the end of the Chevron telecast. It was charming, appropriate and heartfelt. Judy mentioned Dinah Shore, both the person (an entertainer who loved golf) and the tournament won by herself and other legends. Jessica Korda said what millions were surely thinking: “I love listening to Judy.”
Judy’s Golf. It’s his voice, his sense of decorum, his grace under pressure, club or microphone in hand.
“It’s goodbye, but it’s also hello,” Judy told me, looking forward to the week.
Goodbye golf tournaments, and goodbye to us. (That’s hard to consider.) Hello to whatever comes next.
“My heart is full,” Judy Rankin said at the end of her last major show.
She is a leading example, for all of us. His whole life is of age.
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