From Sibley to the LPGA Tour – Barb Thomas Whitehead Fulfills Her Dream
Growing up on one of Iowa’s venerable 9-hole golf courses, Barb Thomas Whitehead dreamed of one day playing the LPGA Tour. Years later, the Sibley native proved that thanks to hard work, determination, a great short game, faith and natural ability, the dreams of a small-town Iowa girl can come true.
Now 62 years of age, Whitehead recently reflected on a golf career that included distinguished achievement at the prep, collegiate and professional levels during an interview with Up and Down the Iowa Golf Scene.
“We lived two blocks away from the Sibley Golf Course,” Whitehead recalled about her early days of golf, when her parents introduced her to the game at age eight. “I’d strap clubs on my shoulder, ride my bike to the club and play until noon. In those days, the course had a rule that youngsters were required to play with an adult after 12 o’clock. I’d work on chipping and putting until an adult would show up for me to join up with.”
The Sibley course featured three par 3’s, two par 5’s, one sand trap and no driving range. An open field adjacent to the course served as the driving range where Whitehead would sharpen her ball striking skills while shagging her own practice balls.
“I played other sports, including the old six-on-six basketball format for Iowa girls, but golf was my true love,” said Whitehead. “I’d play from sunup to sundown. And after watching and being inspired by the Colgate-Dinah Shore tournament in junior high, I set my sights to play the LPGA Tour.”
Big dreams for a youngster coming from a small town and from a state that is not well known for producing touring professionals. Only a handful of native Iowans have competed on the LPGA Tour. They include Judy Kimball Simon of Sioux City, who captured three tournament victories highlighted by the 1962 LPGA Championship; Beth Bader, a Davenport native who played to the tour for ten years and amassed over a million dollars in winnings; and Waterloo’s Andy Cohn, who played the tour in the early to mid-1960’s before becoming a teaching professional. In addition, Dot Germain, who moved from Atlantic to Owensboro, KY at the age of 14, played the tour for 15 years.
Fast forward to the fall of 1983, following standout prep and collegiate careers, Whitehead’s dream of playing on the LPGA Tour suddenly came down to the final hole in the qualifying school at Sweetwater Country Club in Sugarland, TX, then home of the LPGA prior to its move to Daytona Beach. Once safely inside the cut line in the middle of her final round, the high stakes pressure mounted down the stretch.
“I started making bogies, and then a double bogey and all of a sudden the wheels are off,” recalled Whitehead. “I got to the last hole knowing I needed to make something happen. Go figure, I holed a bunker shot for a closing birdie, and qualified for the Tour on the number. Not bad for a kid who grew up on a course with one sand trap.”
Whitehead’s dramatic entry on the LPGA Tour was a springboard for an 18-year career that was highlighting with her victory at the 1995 Cup Noodles Hawaiian Ladies Open. That year, she also recorded her top finish in a major, a tie for sixth at the LPGA Championship and finished 31st on the money list. In 1996, Whitehead lost in a playoff at the State Farm Rail Classic and recorded six other top 10 finishes for her best-ever 24th ranking on the money list.
She noted the many contrasts in life on the Tour decades ago compared to today.
“The girls are playing for so much more money now, so much more exposure and pressure,” Whitehead said. “With progress comes a few negatives. It likely takes $100,000 in expenses to break even, and most players now come to the tour with ‘teams’ behind them, such as trainers, psychologists, and managers. I started my LPGA career with about $15,000 in local sponsorships.”
What a time to be alive Whitehead recalled.
“We had a special brand of camaraderie back then resembled a traveling band of gypsies” she said. “In many events, we stayed in private housing or doubled up with other players in hotels to save on expenses. During rain delays, we would gather together in the clubhouse for hours. On off days we would go to the movies or play tennis together. We played in many cities with the population ranging from 25,000 to 50,000 where we were the biggest ticket in town. There were great crowds and signs all over welcoming the LPGA and its players.”
Whitehead knew there was something special in the making during her formative years when her game advanced quickly and she started to shoot par in her early teens on the Sibley course. She went on to capture the 1978 and 1979 Iowa Girls Junior and Iowa High School Girls High School golf championships and qualified for the 1979 U.S. Women’s Open, won by Luverne, MN, native Jerilyn Britz. She added the Iowa Women’s Amateur titles in 1979, 1981 and 1982. Despite a notable prep career, Whitehead flew mostly below the collegiate recruiting radar with just a handful of offers. She joined the Iowa State University Women’s Golf Team, coached by Hawarden native Joan Gearhart, and made an instant impact.
“I had a great experience at Iowa State,” said Whitehead, who was named All-American in 1980. “My decision to leave was based on wanting to give myself the best opportunity to play professionally and work on my game year-round.”
Enter The University of Tulsa, a perennial power in AIAW and NCAA women’s golf circles. She joined legendary coach Dale McNamara’s squad, a team populated with many future LPGA players. The Golden Hurricane captured the 1982 NCAA championship with Thomas finishing third in the medalist standings, as well as the AIAW title. Her teammates were the likes of future LPGA professionals Kathy Baker, Dee Dee Lasker, LuLong Hartley and Jody Rosenthal.
“Our team was so deep that we had to requalify for the next tournament if you finished outside of the top three and all five of our squad members played the tour,” she said.
While in college, Whitehead’s life would also take a dramatic turn spiritually. It was teammate Baker, who would later go on to capture the 1985 U.S. Women’s Open, who helped open a door that would change Whitehead’s life.
“Kathy came back from a Bible study and posed a question to me that I’d never heard before,” she said. “She asked if I died today, where would I spend eternity. I became a follower of Christ, and it changed the trajectory of my life.”
Her personal faith became the guidepost for many life choices, including service to others. For many years, Whitehead spearheaded pro-amateur fundraising golf events for two special charities, the Osceola Regional Health Center in Sibley (where her father was a physician) and Camp Foster at Lake Okoboji, an organization close to her heart. About a dozen LPGA professionals would join her for those events which raised tens of thousands of dollars.
Today, Whitehead resides in Phoenix, AZ area with her husband Trent and daughters Sarah and Emma. She credits the Iowa Women’s Golf Association for providing opportunities to play tournament golf and spark her competitive spirit.
She also offers younger players the following advice.
“Work hard on your short game, especially shots around the green to save strokes – a missed putt counts the same as a three-hundred-yard drive. Enjoy and respect the game and have fun.”
“Up and Down” the Iowa Golf Scene
A regular feature column written by IGA Foundation board member Mark Gambaiana, Up and Down the Iowa Golf Scene is designed to take the reader beyond the headlines and scoreboards to share stories of those who help make Iowa golf so rich and rewarding. Profiles will spotlight those who advance the game through volunteerism, service, extraordinary achievement, competition, human interest and the many other dimensions of golf in Iowa.
Click the links below to read previous Up and Down features
– IGA Rules Official Sean Flanders
– R&A, USGA Champion Gene Elliott
– Nervig Reflects on Decades of Service to The Iowa Masters
– Arseneault Finds Fulfillment in Life’s Next Chapter After Competitive Golf
– Ivan Miller remembers the days of the Minnows
– Kinney adjusts to life on tour
– Standard Golf’s roots run deep
– Pettersen sets sights high
– McCoy, Norton Put Iowa Stamp on Florida Senior Golf
– Moreland Reflects on his Extraordinary Club Pro, Playing Career