PINEHURST — The odds were always against Minjee Lee of Australia winning the U.S. Women’s Open.
While Lee is ranked No. 1 in the world amateur rankings, amateurs do not win the Women’s Open.
With one exception, that is.
In 1967, Catherine Lacoste of France came to Hot Springs, Va., to compete against the likes of Mickey Wright, Kathy Whitworth, Carol Mann and Sandra Haynie. She beat them all, the LPGA’s best, winning by two shots to walk away with the Women’s Open trophy.
Lacoste sat back for a few minutes Saturday morning to reflect on that week in ’67, to talk of Lee and the experience of being an amateur in the midst of hardened professionals seeking the biggest prize in her sport.
“It’s hard,” she said. “But I don’t think the girls – the professionals – will give her a hard time. I think they’re used to playing with amateurs.
“In my time, they were so surprised to see an amateur that it was a shock for them. But now they’re used to seeing very good amateur players who have qualified. The amateurs are able to handle the pressure of winning amateur championships, so why not the U.S. Open?”
Lacoste was 22 in 1967. Not only was she the first amateur to win the Women’s Open but the first foreign player and the youngest. Much history was made on the Cascades Course at The Homestead.
Lacoste had won the U.S. Women’s Amateur and British Ladies Amateur in 1969, but her parents were much better known. Her father, Rene Lacoste, was one of the famed “Four Musketeers” of French tennis, twice winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Her mother, the former Simone Thion de la Chaume, won the British Women’s championship in golf in 1927.
Rene Lacoste also was into fashion. His company, Chemise Lacoste, put the crocodile on the front of many a tennis shirt.
Catherine was referred to as the “Crocodile Kid” in news reports from the 1967 Women’s Open – she also was called “the bouncy mademoiselle” in an Associated Press story.
Catherine said she was made to feel welcome by the LPGA pros, for the most part, but said she had a “knot in the tummy” when she played.
“I was nervous, as everyone is in the Open, but having fun,” she said. “I always had fun, even under pressure. My father used to tell me, ‘Smile at the ball’ when I putted, to take off the pressure. And I talked to people in the crowd.
“To me, that’s very important. I hope the girls here can do that rather than be so serious and have a bad time on the course.”
Playing with Margie Masters in the final round, Lacoste had a seven-shot lead after Masters double-bogeyed the first hole. But bogeys soon began to come for Lacoste – six in seven holes.
Leading by a shot after 16 holes, she birdied the 17th from 6 feet, and had a two-putt par at the 18th to finish with a 79 that was good enough to win.
Lacoste told her parents she played “like a clod” the last day, but they would have none of it. She was an amateur. She won.
Five amateurs have won the U.S. Open, the last being Johnny Goodmon in 1933. But Lacoste stands alone in the U.S. Women’s Open.
Lacoste never turned professional. Married in 1970, she had four children – and now has eight grandchildren – although she continued to play golf.
Lee, 18, said she came to Pinehurst for her first Women’s Open with no expectations, saying, “I just wanted to have fun and play good golf.” After rounds of 69 and 71, she was tied for third, four shots behind leader Michelle Wie entering play Saturday.
Lacoste said she was not able to meet Lee or any of the amateurs, and believed 11-year-old Lucy Li should “stay a kid” a little longer before playing in major events. But she said her advice for Lee was simple:
“Smile at the ball,” she said. “Attack the ball. Don’t back off.”