Catherine Lacoste can remember attending the Evian Championship in Evian-les-Bains, France, recently and speaking with some of the players there practicing. She asked if any of them wanted to try hitting the 1-iron that she often used when she was competing.
Needless to say, they had some difficulty with it.
Lacoste, the 1967 U.S. Women’s Open champion, was well-known for her deft use of long irons. They produced a shot that was “very low, like a shotgun,” she chuckled, perfect for the amateur competitions in Europe — particularly Northern Ireland — that she grew up playing.
In her Women’s Open win, Lacoste said she used her 2-wood more than her driver and pulled the 1-iron some, too. Her style of play was one of many notable things about that win, but she’ll be remembered most for being an amateur. In fact, Lacoste, 74, remains the only amateur ever to win the Women’s Open in the event’s 75-year history. She was 22 years old.
How times have changed since. Despite that win, Lacoste never turned professional. She returned instead to France, where she had grown up learning the game and relishing summers spent at Golf de Chantaco, the family course in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, France.
Lacoste came by the athletic ability honestly as the daughter of Rene Lacoste and Simone Thione de la Chaume, who won the 1927 British Ladies Amateur. She recalls being a 24-handicap as a 13-year-old, but her improvement after that was marked.
“I didn’t really want life to change,” she said of never wanting to turn professional. “It would have been a big change. In fact, funny enough, I don’t remember someone asking me if I wanted to turn pro or thinking I wanted it. Also, something that was very clear to me was I wanted a family life, I wanted to have children sometime.”
Lacoste met her husband shortly after and had four children, including three daughters. Two took up the game, including her youngest daughter Veronique Smondack, now 40, who played collegiately at Wake Forest.
Lacoste’s desire to remain an amateur and start a family illustrates how different the opportunities were for female players then. There was no Ladies European Tour, and far less prize money on the LPGA.
She played the game differently then, too. Lacoste largely relied on feel. She could see shots and distances.
“She never had a GPS or a range-finder. She’s like, I never needed any of that. I just had to look at the size, look at the flag and feel the difference,” said Caroline Devaux, her second-oldest daughter who lives in Atherton, California, and plays regularly.
But Lacoste also pointed to her short game, and the attention she paid it. She had a tendency to chip only with her pitching wedge, moving her hands around depending on the shot. She used the same Golden Goose blade putter all her life.
Devaux remembers once playing a round with Amy Alcott, who won five majors in her LPGA career. The experience was very similar to playing with her mother.
“She had the same mimics, the same ways of doing things,” Devaux said. “Forget about the range finder, look at where the ball is going to go. It was a different generation, they feel differently.”
Like it was yesterday
Lacoste first appeared at the 1965 U.S. Women’s Open at Atlantic City Country Club in Northfield, New Jersey, accompanied by her parents. She was 20 years old and had played for the winning French team in the 1964 Espirito Santo Trophy. The captain of the U.S. Team, Mildred Prunaret, had suggested she try to enter the Women’s Open.
It was a fantastic week — Lacoste finished 14th — and she remembers that it included meeting Kathy Whitworth, among other female professionals playing the early LPGA circuit.
Lacoste came back for the tournament again in 1967, but this time alone. She flew into New York and took a bumpy ride on a small plane to Hot Springs, Virginia. It was an adventure to play the Cascades Course at The Homestead. She “never thought in any way” that she would win the tournament that week, but someone else did.
“I think the only person who thought I might win the U.S. Open was my father because he’d won the U.S. Open in tennis and obviously he had the spirit to think, ‘Why can’t she do it in golf?”
The weather was erratic the final two days, but Lacoste had a five-shot lead by the time the final round started. She was seven ahead after she parred the first hole and Margee Masters, her closest pursuer, double-bogeyed.
Late in the front nine — Lacoste can’t remember at exactly which hole — the field was called in for a 30-minute weather delay. The final holes, Lacoste remembers in striking detail.
Interestingly, Lacoste shanked her third shot on the 16th hole, something she “practically never did.”
“I shanked it to the right, in the middle of the ropes and TV, and I didn’t go into the water which was really some luck,” she said.
From there, she managed a sort of “runny” chip shot, stayed on the green and two putted for bogey to avoid disaster. She left it inside 10 feet for birdie on the par-4 17th and took a two-shot advantage to the final hole. It was a par 3 that dipped down in front of the tee with water in front of the green. She worried briefly about topping the ball, pulled a long iron, hit the green and won by making a foot-long putt for par that felt three times as long as it really was.
Lacoste remembers it all clearly, right down to the phone call she placed to her parents immediately after the round.
“I saw the film afterwards also and I’ve talked a lot about it,” she said. “It’s one of those things that is very clear in my mind.”
Lacoste returned to the U.S. in 1968 to defend her Women’s Open title but finished 13th, 13 shots back. More impressive over the following year was her sheer dominance in women’s amateur golf. She was focused on getting better at match play by then, and from October 1968 to October 1969, she never lost a single match. Victories piled up, including at the Women’s Western Amateur, U.S. Women’s Amateur and British Ladies Amateur.
The Lacoste legacy
Veronique Smondack, Lacoste’s youngest daughter who remains in France, isn’t sure she truly realized her mother’s legacy until she joined the Wake Forest women’s golf team in 1998. That’s where she learned how much more revered Lacoste’s resume is in the U.S. than in France.
“The image of my mom in the States is completely different,” she said. “People here (in France) have not given her the same credit as in the States. It’s really a completely different approach to her career. And I noticed it once I got to college because Coach (Dianne) Dailey (at Wake Forest), her eyes when she spoke of my mom. I was like oh, you realize it when you see other people speaking of her.”
Lacoste wasn’t playing many tournaments by the time Veronique was growing up. In fact, when she was young, she thought her father, an 11 handicap, was the best player in the family simply because he played every weekend.
Devaux, six years older, said she always knew her mother had done something special.
“You couldn’t go to the Spanish Open without her being recognized,” she said.
Knee and shoulder surgeries forced Lacoste to put her clubs away a decade ago, but she remains busy with hobbies ranging from photography to web design.
“To me she is such a surprising woman,” Smondack said. “She’s 74 years old and she never stops, but it doesn’t only involve golf. There’s always golf involved but she keeps learning, she’s always taking courses.”
Lacoste feels she has much to keep her occupied, to the point that she doesn’t really miss playing the sport. The woman once known as the Crocodile Kid in recognition of her family’s Lacoste clothing brand now has a different moniker. She signed on Skype to speak about her golf life with the screen name “Mama Croc.”
Often on the topic of the Women’s Open, Lacoste says, reporters will ask if she ever watches the tournament anymore. She chuckles at that. Of course she does. It’s part of her history.
“A late night that night,” she said, “but it’s always fun.”