As seen in the May issue of Pacific Northwest Golfer magazine.
by Bart Potter
JUDY RANKIN WAS YOUNG, a new 17-year-old pro, when the LPGA was young itself. Fifty-four years on, Rankin and the women’s professional golf tour have aged well.
Rankin sees today’s matured LPGA, its global scope and its deep well of young (and older) talent, with the eye of a seasoned television broadcaster and the perspective of a Hall of Fame athlete.
What will the Northwest behold, she was asked, when the world’s best women take over Sahalee Country Club next month for the second major of the women’s season? How will we find the women’s game?
“It’s as healthy,” Rankin says, “as it’s been in the last 15-20 years.”
Rankin, who won 26 LPGA events before her retirement as an active player in 1983, will be on the Golf Channel’s on-course broadcast team for the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship June 9-12 at Sahalee in Sammamish, Wash.
Rankin expects all of the top 50 women pros to be in the field for the Women’s PGA – “no one will pass on it that can possibly play,” she says. South Korean Inbee Park will be seeking a fourth consecutive Women’s PGA title.
Extreme youth does not rule across the board in the LPGA – Park, World No. 2, is 27; Stacy Lewis, ranked No. 4, is 31; and Cristie Kerr, twice a tournament winner in 2015 and a former champion (2010) of the Women’s PGA, is 38. Yet Rankin calls “unprecedented” the talent and golf maturity of the youngest players in the modern game.
Canadian Brooke M. Henderson, World No. 7, was 17 (now 18) when she won in the Northwest last summer at the Cambia Portland Classic at Columbia Edgewater Country Club.
Lexi Thompson, ranked No. 3 in the world, owns a raft of “youngest” distinctions (such as qualifying for the U.S. Women’s Open at 12); she was 15 when she turned pro and is now just 21.
“The teenagers don’t come out on the tour anymore to learn how to ‘sophisticate’ their game,” Rankin says. “It’s already there. It’s fun to see these young girls that are so good, and so competitively savvy.”
World No. 1 Lydia Ko, expected to be in the field at Sahalee, recently turned 19.
“Lydia Ko is a great example of somebody who is completely together, and capable of doing so many things, and when you get her in just the right setting she’s still an 18-year old kid,” Rankin says. “That’s kind of refreshing, and nice to see.”
Judy Torluemke was “a little bit of a scared kid,” out of St. Louis, Mo., when she joined the tour in 1962 after earning low amateur honors at the U.S. Women’s Open the year before.
“I was probably out there a little earlier than I should have been,” she says today. “For all practical purposes, in the professional world, I was still learning to play. I was a little bit of a phenom, but that doesn’t necessarily make you ready to get thrown in and try to play Mickey Wright.”
After two years, however, she was earning a living. By 1968, she faced an issue not known to male touring pros: motherhood. She was at home in Midland, Texas (where she lives today), with her husband, Walter “Yippy” Rankin, and an infant son, Walter Jr., known as Tuey, when the LPGA came to Midland for a tournament.
“When I got married and then found myself going to have my son, I never anticipated playing again,” she says. But she entered that Midland tournament, earned fourth place and a pretty decent paycheck, and remembers looking at Yippy and saying, “We can do this, for a while, until Tuey’s in school.”
Later that year,she won her first tournament, the Corpus Christi Civitan Open. From then on, after a winless 1969, she won at least one tournament every year until 1979, when she won her last tournament, the WUI Classic in Long Island, N.Y.
Chronic back issues limited the number of tournaments Rankin could play, and hastened her retirement from the game. But Rankin was LPGA player of the year in 1976, when she won six events, and again in 1977, when she won three times. She was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2000.
Being a teenager on tour in 1962 is a world removed from today’s environment for young players, but Rankin sees one through line to today’s game of golf: a youthful outlook, at any age.
“Once again, there’s that great age difference, part of what makes golf so much fun to watch,” she says. “The young people tend to have an old head, like Jordan Spieth, and the old people tend to have the enthusiasm of a young person, like Phil Mickelson.”
Rankin, 71, says, “Something about the people in sport, the people around sport, that have a youthful exuberance, still have a little boy or little girl in them; not a bad crazy teenager, but that childlike mentality that makes every day a new day.”
Rankin has never been to Sahalee, but she’s seen it on TV and knows it by reputation.
“It has that great Pacific Northwest look,” she says. “I know from TV it’s beautiful, very well thought of, and I think it’s a tremendous thing for the Women’s PGA to go there.”
If accuracy off the tee “is really a huge part of the deal, Lydia Ko is a wonderfully straight driver, plenty long, but wonderfully straight.
“Lexi Thompson is longer than long, and she’s kind of proven in the last year or so to be a pretty straight driver, given her length.”
But accuracy alone might not get it done, according to Rankin.
“Sometimes getting it out there a long ways just pays off,” she says
“If the women’s tour is shortchanged on anything, it’s driving of the golf ball. They don’t get enough credit for what really great drivers of the golf ball they are, the combination of length and accuracy.”
In short, to this longtime player and professional observer, these women – young and older – are good.
“That’s why I always urge people to just come see the women in person, one time,” Rankin says. “I think it will be a revelation to a lot of people, the level at which they play.”