This year is the 50th anniversary of Catherine Lacoste’s milestone as the only amateur to win the United States Women’s Open, and it has stirred more interest than usual in the French golfer’s decorated past.
As this week’s Evian Championship brings the world’s top players to France, some see Lacoste’s ability to place her homeland on the world stage in 1967 as proof that there are opportunities for other French golfers.
After Lacoste won the Women’s Open at age 22, she went on to win national women’s amateur championships in the United States, Britain, France and Spain in 1968 and 1969 – an unorthodox international tournament schedule at the time for European women.
She became only the second international player — behind the pro Fay Crocker of Uruguay in 1955 — to win the U.S. Women’s Open. She was also the first French player to win one of the L.P.G.A.’s major championships — followed by the pro Patricia Meunier-Lebouc, the next golfer from France, who won the 2003 Kraft Nabisco Championship.
“She had a huge impact for women of my generation,” said Anne Marie Palli, 62, who in 1983 became the first European professional to win on the L.P.G.A. Tour, and she was also the first L.P.G.A. member from France.
“If she had not done what she did, I’m not sure I would have even considered coming to play as a professional in the United States,” added Palli, a two-time L.P.G.A. Tour winner who played from 1979 to 2003.
Marie-Laure de Lorenzi, a pro from France who won 19 tournaments on the Ladies European Tour, was later compared to Lacoste. She was the top-ranked European in the late 1980s and was the first French player on the European Solheim Cup team.
Karine Icher, the current top-ranked Frenchwoman at No. 44, said Lacoste “was probably a role model at that time for all young girls,” but she also allows that it has “been such a long time” since a female French golfer has flourished in a global spotlight.
Lacoste set a still-unparalleled high standard.
Just as the American amateur Bobby Jones won the British Open, U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur (multiple times) on the men’s side, Lacoste won her own Grand Slam with far less fanfare when she added the 1969 Women’s British Amateur and U.S. Women’s Amateur titles to her U.S. Women’s Open crown.
And with the unique influence of her parents — her mother, Simone Thion de la Chaume, was the 1927 British Ladies Amateur golf champion and her father, René Lacoste, known as “le Crocodile,” won seven Grand Slam singles tennis titles and founded the Lacoste fashion brand — young Catherine prepared for competition in a way that, at the time, was unconventional.
“She prepared like a pro,” said Kristel Mourgue d’Algue, the 1995 N.C.A.A. individual golf champion from Arizona State University, whose grandparents were close friends with Lacoste’s parents in France.
“She worked out, had custom-made clubs and had a caddie,” Morgue d’Algue added. “My mum recalls Catherine would hit a 4-iron out of the rough while my mother would have to hit a 7-iron.”
Morgue d’Algue, who also helped Arizona State win the 1995 N.C.A.A. team championship, said she thought of Lacoste’s influence.
“I did think about her achievements, feeling that hopefully, I was maybe opening a path for other French players,” said Morgue d’Algue, now co-owner of St.-Emilion Golf Club in France.
Lacoste said she cherished competing alongside the amateurs Claudine Cros-Rubin and Brigitte Varangot, with whom she won the 1964 Women’s World Amateur Team Championship.
“They challenged me and helped me to get better, as they were five years older,” said Lacoste, 72, who left individual competition in 1970 at age 25 to start a family.
Lacoste married Jaime Prado and had four daughters with him. Widowed in 1998, she now lives in Spain and France, is the grandmother of eight girls, and is married to the classical guitarist Ángel Piñero.
When asked if she would have tried professional golf as a top amateur today, Lacoste said, “Probably” — but with a caveat.
“For me, to play as an amateur meant I could travel, have fun, play for my country and have a life,” said Lacoste, who still hosts 140 players from 12 countries at the Senior Ladies International Open each year in France.
She said there were no female touring professionals in Europe at the time — just very good amateurs.
“Now,” she added, “the good youngsters go to universities in the U.S., and have the opportunity to either play on the Symetra or L.P.G.A. tours or stay in Europe and play on the Ladies European Tour.”
Lacoste said that she would have loved the chance to play a professional major championship at home in France and that she could only imagine how it would feel to compete at Evian. But she is satisfied with her place in golf history and her life experiences following her golf career.
“Golfers have to find their own way to win, fight, lose and progress,” she said.
And 50 years later, French amateur and professional golfers are still using Lacoste as inspiration as they try to make their marks in the game.
“For sure, we have women’s golf history in France to be proud of,” Palli said. “But it was Catherine who showed us a French player could win in the United States.”