It was one of those moments when all of life’s turning points flash before you; when all the sights, sounds, smells and feelings from seven decades wash over you like a warm wave, triggered by one simple sentence.
Judy Rankin, the 74-year-old member of the World Golf and LPGA halls of fame and a staple of golf television coverage for the past 35 years, was going through the myriad preparations that continue to occupy her life 57 years after she began her professional career. Whether it’s getting from her home in Midland, Texas, to the next event – the trip to the recent U.S. Senior Women’s Open in Southern Pines, N.C., where she was the celebrity starter, proved more challenging than she would have liked – or meandering from spot to spot on a tournament practice range, peeking into a golf bag and sharing a few words with a player, or pondering what she will say once the producer counts down “3 … 2 … 1 … ” and the red light of the camera comes on, Rankin never stops. She is the nearest the game has to perpetual motion, always pressing forward. This time she was coordinating the logistics of getting her family to suburban Columbus, Ohio, for the Memorial Tournament. Rankin, who has served on Jack Nicklaus’ Captains Club for years, is the 2019 honoree.
“My entire family is going,” she said. “I’m probably wearing poor Dan Sullivan (the Memorial Tournament’s executive director) out with rooms that I need.”
One of those family members is Rankin’s 16-year-old grandson, Tripp, who called her on Mother’s Day and said, “Grammy, I’m really looking forward to Columbus.”
That was when the highs and lows of the 74 previous years flashed before her, a life full of more honors and accolades than she could have imagined, along with moments of heartache and pain that forged and sharpened the iron woman she is today. That was the moment when the person everyone calls Judy stopped moving forward and took a moment to look back.
The thwack-pump in rapid succession echoed off the concrete walls, wafting up the stairwell and into the lounge and piano bar of St. Louis’ Chase Park Plaza Hotel. One after another – thwack-pump … thwack-pump. Businessmen sipping scotches in wool suits and narrow ties would have thrown their heads back in bullish laughs if they had seen the source. Six-year-old Judy Torluemke (pronounced tor-lum-key), thin and freckled, hit one golf ball after another into the tarps a local pro named Bob Green had erected in the hotel basement. Green, a burly man of 6 feet 4, almost twice Judy’s height, created a makeshift driving range out of Army surplus tarps – black and olive drab – and gave lessons in the winter. Judy hit balls down there tirelessly – thwack-pump – 20 buckets a day, upwards of 900 balls.
Paul Torluemke, who never got much better than a 16-handicap despite being an avid Ben Hogan fan, saw something special in his daughter from the moment she picked up a club. A former Air Force sergeant, lithographer and printing salesman, Paul owned a print shop that specialized in calendars. They weren’t members anywhere. In fact, as Judy put it, “We were as far away from country club as you could get.” But when the only child wanted to be with “Daddy,” Paul took her to a local driving range. She could hit it almost immediately.
Paul did a lot of the early teaching, which led to one of Judy’s trademark features. As she tells it, “I started with a very conventional grip. The inside of my elbow would point up to the sky. My father said one day, ‘You can’t play golf that way. That’s how girls play golf. You need to get the back of your elbow pointed at the target.’ Now understand, a lot of this was just what was in his head. But as I tried to get my elbow turned to the target, my left hand immediately got much stronger. Now I was 7 years old, so I didn’t know better. All I knew was, with (the stronger grip) I hit the ball better.”
She aimed to please, not because Paul pushed her that way. Like most young children who realize there is a problem at home, she did it instinctively.
At 7, Judy won her first event, a closest-to-the-hole contest sponsored by the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. Out of 602 entrants, the tiniest competitor, not quite 4 feet tall and weighing 42 pounds, hit three shots with her driver from 102 yards to an average distance of 14 feet 5 inches. At the time, Judy was asked if winning the event surprised her. “Not really,” she said. “Daddy told me I could win and I believed everything he said.”
“I was a pleaser,” Judy says now, recalling her early life. “I was an only child and I wanted to do everything that everyone wanted me to do. That’s how I grew up. All of those things played into the fact that I played golf.”
She aimed to please, not because Paul pushed her that way. Like most young children who realize there is a problem at home, she did it instinctively. When Judy was 5, her mother, Waneta, became ill. At first there wasn’t much talk about it. Diagnoses were vague. It wasn’t until 1952, the same year Judy won the Globe-Democrat event, that the family got an answer. Waneta Torluemke had a malignant brain tumor.
Paul stopped playing golf. He took Judy to the Triple A, a nine-hole course measuring 2,800 yards that had a total of three bunkers, where he would carry her bag and recommend drills. The summer of Waneta’s diagnosis, Paul took Judy to Triple A to see a Patty Berg exhibition. “Her clinics were so entertaining, even for little kids,” Judy said. “But that was the first and only professional golfer I saw for another seven or eight years.
“Because of my mom, our life was kind of serious,” Judy said. “We probably couldn’t afford to be hanging around golf. It was … different. That’s hard to describe.”
Paul scraped together funding wherever he could. Between medical care and Judy’s golf, ends didn’t always meet. When Judy was 8 they traveled by car to Orlando to the National Pee Wee Championship for children ages 10-12. Judy won. She won the event again at age 9, and again at age 10. When she turned 11, sponsors added a 13-15 age category. Judy played up and won that one, too. Not long afterward, they named the Pee Wee Championship trophy after her.
Waneta died the year Judy turned 11. When it comes to the subject, she reverts to her roots, strong and quiet, a stoic woman from the land of Truman and Twain.
Paul remarried when Judy was 13. The former Mrs. Betty Martens became the stepmother of one daughter, but Judy became the sister for four of Betty’s children from a previous marriage. “They later had a son together, who is my brother, Danny,” Judy said. “Well, the marriage didn’t last at all but all of us kids did. I refer to these people as my brothers and sisters. I am the oldest.”
She might also be the strongest. As Grant Boone, who sits next to Judy in the booth calling LPGA events, said, “As a fellow West Texan, she will appreciate this, but Judy is like a good country-fried steak: as sweet as she can be and as tough as needed.”
Curtis Strange agreed with that assessment. “She’s tough. She’s a competitor. I think that’s one of the reasons we’re such good friends. When you’ve been there, when you’ve competed, you just know. You have a connection. But with Judy, you know the respect everyone has for her when all the players from every tour will go up and speak to her. When she was on the ground (for ABC and ESPN) she’d have a conversation with everybody. She had that warmth about her. But don’t get me wrong, she’s tough when she needs to be.”
That toughness wasn’t born into her. In fact, she said she lacked confidence throughout much of her life. “I could have used a little more of that as a player and when I got into television,” she said.
Her grit came from all of life’s turning points: the death of her mother before Judy really got to know her; the financial challenges her father faced as he tried to expose Judy to as much competition as possible; going from being an only child to the oldest of six.
All those things developed her resilience.
“I played in the Missouri State Amateur when I was 14,” Judy said. “My dad sent me by myself for the first time and I stayed with a family. And shock of all shocks, I won.
“Now, I want to speak in generalities here because there were a number of great people who helped us along the way. But women in those days were not that supportive of young girls playing golf and beating everybody,” she said. “It was just that time in life. It’s one of the things that, when I speak now, I really congratulate women on encouraging and promoting girls golf because it wasn’t that way for a long time. I can point to a lot of women who were great to me when I was a little girl. But that wasn’t always the case back then.”
Men seemed more eager to help. Dave Douglas, the pro at St. Louis Country Club, invited Judy and Paul out for lessons when Judy was 14. “He talked to my dad at a tournament and said he thought the time might have come to change my grip,” Judy said. “So, I got to go out to St. Louis Country Club two or three times a week and hit balls with Dave Douglas trying to change my grip. After a couple of months, when I finally got to hitting the ball semi-straight, I’d lost so much distance that (Douglas) said, ‘I don’t think this is going to work.’ So I went back to my old grip and that’s where it stayed.”
Women were different, more prone to slight a kid who beat them, especially one with a less-than-polished pedigree. An 80-pound girl from a nine-hole course never seemed welcome.
That became evident to Judy in 1960 when she qualified for and played in her second U.S. Women’s Open. She was 15 and finished as low amateur, showing the kind of grinding determination that would become her trademark. A year later, as a 16-year-old amateur, Judy was on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
“I had one big disappointment,” she said. “There was some expectation that I would be on the next Curtis Cup team. But I wasn’t named. I think some of it had to do with the country club aspect of things. Never in my young life was money not an issue. Maybe (the USGA selectors) didn’t think I was mature enough or maybe they thought my father was too close to my golf game. I don’t know what it was, but they didn’t use me. Judy Bell has joked with me over time that they could have used me on that Curtis Cup team.
“But that had something to do with me turning pro when I had a chance. So, when I was 17, I turned pro. I don’t know why. It was the worst financial decision you could have made. There was no money on the LPGA Tour. People who encouraged me to turn pro and sponsored me gave me $150 a week. How that wonderful decision came about, I really don’t know.”
It’s common today for players to turn pro on or before their 18th birthday. In the early 1960s, it was almost unheard of. Judy played in nine tournaments her first year on tour. The last one was in Las Vegas, just as the Nevada enclave was earning its nickname, Sin City. A wide-eyed 17-year-old from Missouri didn’t fit in the land of Bugsy Siegel and the Desert Inn. “I didn’t like it,” Judy said. “I was smart in that I didn’t get in any trouble. But I didn’t care for the vibe of Las Vegas. When I was able to go home, I didn’t go back out on tour for six months. I was really young. When I went back out the summer when I was 18, it stuck.”
It also helped that she worked with Bob Toski at Ocean Reef in Key Largo, Fla. “Working with him, I started playing well when I was 19,” she said. “Toski instilled some confidence in me. He didn’t try to change my grip. We worked on turning the ball from right to left and controlling it.
“My true opinion now, years later, my grip was way too dramatic, too severe. But when I was 14, I weighed 80 pounds. I was this tiny little kid trying to get the last ounce of distance that I could. That was important. Now, though, I think a reasonably strong left hand with a good right hand is the most productive way to play.”
Productive is one word to describe how Judy played. She didn’t win early but she was a constant contender. In 1964 she finished fourth in the Women’s Western Open, at the time a major championship. Then, at age 22, she made the most impetuous move of her life.
She met Walter “Yippy” Rankin at a pro-am. He was a former college football and baseball player at Texas Tech who went on to coach high school football in his hometown of Midland, Texas. Then he joined Aetna Life Insurance Co. Like most men in West Texas, Yippy also dabbled in oil and gas speculation. But he never lost that gridiron mindset. He wanted to beat you at everything from golf to tiddlywinks. Judy loved him immediately. They were married three weeks later in Juarez, Mexico.
“I needed to do something daring in my life,” Judy said. “I don’t know why people get married sometimes, but I do believe in chemistry. And while it’s not always right, the chemistry is strong enough to make you take a chance. Plus, we were both stubborn as a hoot so we were never going to let this thing fail.
“He was such a competitor and there’s no doubt he helped me become that. Yippy made me more of a believer. He made me tougher. It was kind of that football mentality of: ‘You can do this and you will do this.’ I miss that today. His kind of encouragement made you a believer.
“I think my father had a lot to do with me learning the game but Yippy had a lot to do with me being a competitor. I’m not sure I was either thing on my own.”
“I saw Judy … and I thought, ‘Holy smokes, she’s gripping it the way I grip it.’ She shot 63 that day. I’ve idolized her ever since. And I never changed my grip, either.” – Paul Azinger
She became both in short order. In 1968, Judy Rankin won her first tour event, the Corpus Christi Civitan Open in a playoff against Sandra Spuzich. Then in 1970, she won three times, beating the likes of Sandra Haynie and Kathy Whitworth. From there she was off to the races, winning 26 LPGA events from 1968 through 1979. She was Player of the Year twice and won the Vare Trophy for low stroke average three times.
“I’ll tell you how good she was,” Paul Azinger said. “In 1977, I was a teenager caddying out at Bent Tree (in Sarasota, Fla.) when we had the LPGA event. I remember our head pro saying, ‘Not one of these women will break 70,’ because he thought Bent Tree was that hard. I saw Judy on the sixth hole during the first round, gripping that thing with a strong left hand and I just gravitated over there because I thought, ‘Holy smokes, she’s gripping it the way I grip it.’ She shot 63 that day. I’ve idolized her ever since. And I never changed my grip, either.”
“That story is true,” Judy said. “I think Paul caddied one year for Mickey Wright. But, yes, we talked about that later. That was a big influence on him never changing his grip.”
She also influenced tour moms, leading by example. Throughout the ’70s, Judy took the Rankins’ son, Tuey, out with her. “It was hard playing as a mom back then,” she said. “There was no day care. You were almost on your own when it came to finding a babysitter. My stepsister (Lizzy) traveled with us when she wasn’t in high school and a year or two when she was at UCLA. At one point, I think there were six kids on tour and Lizzy would take care of all of them while we played.
“One year, we were playing in Columbus (Ohio) and staying at a motel called the Scot’s Inn. Lizzy had these six kids for the day – Tuey and Kay Cornelius’ kids. Tuey was 4 or 5 years old. This one day, he kept aggravating the fire alarm in the hotel. Lizzy kept telling him, ‘Don’t touch that.’ Well, he had a little fit and pulled the fire alarm. The fire department came. Lizzy had to go to the manager and the firemen and explain what happened. Meanwhile, Tuey hid under the bed at the Scot’s Inn. He never did that again.”
“That story came up at Tuey’s 50th birthday party last year,” Grant Boone said. “It’s legendary in the family.”
Judy played incredibly well for nine years. Then, it stopped.
“I started having back trouble in 1973,” Judy said. “It would go back and forth. I’d heal up for a while. But every time I’d have another incident it became worse and more chronic. I was functional, but not great. It was my lower back and I would go into these massive back spasms. There was minimal nerve pain so I could play through it. If I’d had nerve pain, I don’t think I could have made it. But I went to chiropractors and took the horse drug Butazolidin. It didn’t do my insides any good and I have to take a pill now for my stomach every day of my life.
“It just became more and more chronic. I thought everything wrong with the way I was playing was me. In hindsight, I know my back affected my game. I think it was driving me toward a nervous breakdown.
“The way I had my first back procedure, we went out to the ballpark on Sunday afternoon and Yippy was hitting baseballs to Tuey in the outfield. Tuey would relay them back to me and I would throw them back to Yippy. Well, the next day I couldn’t walk. That’s when I knew this was about more than golf. This was a quality-of-life thing. So I scheduled a meeting with a doctor in Tucson, Ariz. He wanted me to have surgery. For various reasons, I put it off and had an enzyme injection, which did me no good. Then, in 1985 I had surgery, which was really quite successful.
“When I left the tour, I didn’t have the will to play again. Looking back, I had a little nerve damage in my left leg and foot. It doesn’t cause me any problems but it’s one of those things that if you walked and played, about the 14th or 15th hole your spikes would start catching because you don’t pick your foot up. Not pain, just that. I have taken a couple of falls and realized that it’s because I don’t pick up my left foot.
“(As for playing) my heart wasn’t in it. I’d really been burned by playing so badly there at the end. The good news was, I was home when my son was in high school. I do think my playing career ended too early. But in a way, it was a blessing. Because otherwise I would have never done television.”
On a Sunday afternoon in August 2004, Judy Rankin, the dame of golf broadcasting, a pioneer who paved the way for female commentators to walk the fairways calling both men’s and women’s golf, listened on her headset as Brandt Packer, who was producing the Women’s British Open broadcast from Sunningdale, ran through the taped shots from earlier in the round that would launch the show.
Before he started, Packer keyed Terry Gannon’s headset and said, “Terry, play along.”
Gannon didn’t know what was coming until Packer said, “Okay, Judy, here are the shots we’ll show in set up. Karen Stupples’ drive on one, holes the putt for eagle. On two, we’ll show the drive but we don’t have time to show the second shot she holed for double eagle. On three …”
Judy jumped in and said, “Whoa, hold on now. Are you sure you don’t want to show Karen’s second shot on two for double eagle?”
Packer said, “No, we don’t have time. Next hole, makes putt at four …”
“Hold on now,” Judy said. “I really think we need to show that shot for double eagle.”
Packer came back with, “Judy, we don’t have time.”
“So, we’re about five minutes to air and you could see her getting so worked up,” Gannon recalled. “And I know Brandt Packer is looking at us (in the control room) and laughing. We’re about 15 seconds to air and Judy hits the talk back and says, ‘Brandt, I think it’s absolutely disgraceful that we are not showing that double eagle from Karen.’ The whole crew cracked up and Brandt said, ‘Judy, of course we’re showing the double eagle. I’m just winding you up.’ She said, ‘Oh, OK, I’m good now. Let’s go on the air.
“That was classic Judy. Anyone else would have said, ‘That’s odd but those are the highlights.’ But the idea that we wouldn’t show that double eagle just burned her up because she cares so damn much.
“Judy cares about the game of golf and everything she does on the air and off the air reflects that,” Gannon continued. “She can’t help but care. You can see it. When something happens, like, say, with I.K. Kim (missing a 12-inch putt to ultimately lose) at the ANA a few years ago, it affects her on a level that is so far beyond just an observer. It hits her personally.”
The 1985 Judy Rankin probably wouldn’t have talked back to her producer. She might not have known how to hit the talk-back button. “To me it’s a miracle that (her television career) took because I couldn’t stand up in front of people and talk at all,” Judy said.
It took because of some old friendships and a little bit of luck. ABC Sports producer Terry Jastrow was from Midland and had known Yippy Rankin for years. Announcer Bob Rosburg was also a friend of the Rankins. When ABC was covering the 1984 U.S. Women’s Open at Salem Country Club in Massachusetts, Rosburg suggested to Jastrow that they hire Judy to be on the ground.
“They called and asked and crazy enough I said yes,” Judy said. “All I had to do was answer Jim McKay’s questions, and turned out I could do that. That’s how I got my first chance.”
The second chance came the next year when the U.S. Open was at Oakland Hills. Fuzzy Zoeller was defending champion but had an ailing back and was not supposed to play. So, ABC contracted with him to be on the telecast. At the last minute, Zoeller decided his back was healthy enough that he could play. Shorthanded, the network called the only person they had used before who had enough playing experience to be a credible voice.
“If you thought I was nervous in Salem, you should have seen me at Oakland Hills,” Judy said.
Thirty-four years later, Judy is a one-name icon in televised golf. Now a Golf Channel analyst, she’s beloved by everyone who works with her currently or has worked with her in the past.
Tiger Woods said, “I have a lot of respect for Judy. She had an outstanding playing career on the LPGA and was the first female golf broadcaster. Judy knows what she’s talking about and is smart, talented and has called some of my best shots.”
“I’ll go to the range with her before the rounds and it’s something to see,” Gannon said. “It starts with Judy picking players’ brains to see what they’re working on, what they’re thinking, how they’re feeling. Inevitably, it turns into the player asking Judy questions. And those questions start with golf and end with life. The conversation, naturally with her, turns to the life experience of being out on tour.”
Stupples, now a Golf Channel announcer, said: “It was always a special day as a player when Judy Rankin showed up on the range and started nosing around in your golf bag and asking a few questions. I wanted to stop everything and talk to her. Now, I consider myself the luckiest person around because I get to talk to her.”
She is good-natured, quick-witted, always up for whatever comes along. When the nerve damage in her foot and leg led to one of those falls, she showed up in the booth with a broken collarbone, a sling, a scarf and a good story.
“I have a lot of respect for Judy. She had an outstanding playing career on the LPGA and was the first female golf broadcaster. Judy knows what she’s talking about and is smart, talented and has called some of my best shots.” – Tiger Woods
When she needed a ride from the Kia Classic in Carlsbad, Calif., to the ANA Inspiration in Rancho Mirage, Golf Channel announcer Jerry Foltz put her in the passenger seat of a Mustang convertible and drove her over the mountains, but not without stopping at a biker bar for lunch.
“She lives modestly for a person for her stature and that’s reflected in the way she presents herself,” Foltz said. “But make no mistake, no word that she says on air is accidental. She’s kind of the E.F. Hutton of golf: When she speaks, you listen. The rest of us are trying to fill time with something that’s hopefully insightful but often times not. Anytime Judy says something, it’s telling, smart, and honest.
“And she truly, genuinely cares. (LPGA player) Angel Yin sent out a tweet of desperation not long ago and Judy took Angel out to dinner the next night just to talk; just to let her know that things are not so bad. She does things like that all the time.”
It goes on and on. Kay Cockerill, a Golf Channel commentator and former LPGA player, came to full-on tears remembering her special times with Judy.
“One of the most amazing and interesting times I had with Judy was back in 2000, we had worked a couple of USGA events,” Cockerill said. “That summer we had back-to-back events in Portland (Ore.). Yippy was going to come meet her but he couldn’t make it, so I decided to stay up there with her. We hung out together, went out to great restaurants, played golf together. It was a true bonding experience.
“I had always looked up to her and revered her both on the golf course and in my career. Just to spend that amount of time with her … ” and that’s when Cockerill had to take a moment. “I am, to this day, so appreciative of that time,” she finally said.
Judy captained U.S. Solheim Cup teams to back-to-back victories in 1996 (in Wales) and 1998 (at Muirfield Village, where she will be honored this week).
“I loved that job,” she said. “I can’t describe how great it is. I’ve always said, I’d have taken the job for life. Of course, winning helps.”
In 1998, she invited Strange and his wife, Sarah, to Muirfield Village to watch the matches. “I only got thrown out of the middle of the fairway twice,” Strange said. “I wanted to be in the front row.
“So, I’m standing there with Judy behind the sixth green (during the matches) and Yippy is calling on the radio, ‘Judy, Judy, my cart has a flat tire.’ She gets on the radio and says, ‘Well, what do you want me to do about it, honey?’ He said, ‘I don’t know but I need a cart.’ Turns out, they’re about 10 steps away from each other. He’s yelling about the flat tire. She doesn’t care about the flat tire. She’s trying to win the Solheim Cup. But he was so supportive of her.”
“Well, when I was captaining, you didn’t have six assistants,” Judy said. “I had Yippy and one other person from the LPGA and that was it. I will say that when (Yippy) got in his competitive mode, he could be a little dramatic. But it was one of the great times of his life, too. He really loved it. We treasured that time, always.”
Judy beat breast cancer in 2006. She was diagnosed that May and was back in the booth in September.
Yippy didn’t have the same luck with throat cancer. It took him in 2012.
“One of the all-time great guys, a guy you would want to be in the foxhole with you,” Gannon said. “And he was a great believer in her. When times got tough on the golf course, he would be tough and he would tell you exactly what he thought. But you knew until the end that he was on your side.”
She spends more time in Lubbock, Texas, now. Tuey and her grandkids are there. But Midland continues to be home when she’s not on the road with her second family.
Some things will always be the same. At the ANA Inspiration, you can bet the farm that an on-air reference is coming to the time Judy hit driver on the par-3 14th at Mission Hills Country Club, the longtime tournament site, and hooked it out of bounds onto Gerald Ford Drive. Last year, broadcast partner Tom Abbott asked her if any horses were injured by her golf ball. In previous iterations, Foltz asked if Gerald Ford had been president yet at the time.
You can also rest assured that Judy will never show up for a week in the booth without speaking to a player in person. That’s not her style.
“We just started doing rookie dinners at (the Kia Classic) three or four years ago where Golf Channel announcers go to dinner with all the rookies so that they get comfortable with them,” said Beth Hutter, who produces most LPGA broadcasts for Golf Channel. “We go around the room and I have all the players say something about themselves and then the announcers say something. Judy always tells great stories. But then she always says, ‘If any of you ever have any questions, please ask me.’ And you see these hands go up. All these rookies want to ask Judy what it was like when she was out here; what she went through. It’s really a cool scene. The average age of those rookies is about 20 but they all want to hear from Judy.”
No matter how many accolades and awards she receives, including the one this week from Jack Nicklaus, the monikers she cares most about are mom, grammy, sister and friend.
“The thing about Judy, and she’s one of my best friends in the world and not just on TV, is that there is not an insincere bone in her body,” Gannon said. “It has a great deal to do with why she is successful as a golf commentator but also as a real friend. I’ve never seen a moment when she had a mask on.
“When we ride in the golf cart to the booth and people stop to say hello to her, there is not that separation between that person being approached and the person approaching. She is absolutely herself. We’ll get in these long conversations with people and I have to remind her, ‘Hey, Judy, we’re on the air in 15 minutes.’ That says a lot about who she is, why she’s successful and how much she cares about the game of golf and the people who are in it.”
Strange summed it up best for all who know her. “Put it this way,” he said. “How many friends do you really have? I mean, really true friends. She’s one of mine. She’s one of my friends. I could call her day or night if I needed something and she would help. That’s all you need to say. Judy Rankin is my friend.”
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