It’s a special feat to own a piece of USGA history. Even more special when it’s shared with a loved one. Kathy and Kay Cornelius are the only mother-daughter pair to win USGA championships. Kathy, 89, won the 1956 U.S. Women’s Open and Kay, 55, became the youngest to ever win the U.S. Girls’ Junior in 1981 at age 14.
Both now live in Arizona, close to Kathy’s eldest daughter Karen, who celebrated her second birthday the day mom beat Barbara McIntire in an 18-hole playoff at Northland Country Club in Duluth, Minnesota.
“We didn’t have daycare,” said Kay of life on tour. “We walked 18 holes every day and lived and breathed every stroke.”
Photo shows Kathy Cornelius holding the trophy after winning the 1956 U.S. Women’s Open Championship which was held at Northland Country Club, Duluth, Minn. Copyright Unknown/Courtesy USGA Archives.
Kathy McKinnon grew up in Lake Worth, Florida, and at age 16, drove the 180 miles north to Lakeland, Florida, to study and play golf on the men’s team at Florida Southern College, where she subbed in when they were shorthanded. While there she fell in love with Bill Cornelius, who worked as an assistant at the city-owned Cleveland Heights Golf Course. Kathy got married and turned professional in 1953, leaving school early to pursue her passion.
“I just couldn’t resist the urge to play golf,” she said, later joining the LPGA in 1956 after giving birth to Karen. She won twice that first year, including a major.
Karen celebrates her third birthday with mom as Bonnie Bell looks on. (courtesy photo)
Karen’s best friend on tour was Bonnie Bell, daughter of Peggy. Kay, 12 years younger, was pals with Judy Rankin’s son Tuey. The kids were welcome in the locker room most of the day, Kathy recalled, and on occasion, they even went inside the ropes during a practice round to hit a shot. Patty Berg’s weekly clinic was a must-see event. Karen and Bonnie watched it so many times they could recite every word.
They traveled strictly by car in those early years because the money they played for didn’t warrant traveling by plane. And besides, Kathy said, there were toys to contend with.
Kathy won seven times on the LPGA in a career spanning nearly 30 years. Bill traveled with the family most of the time, working a part-time job for Golf Pride grips while on the tour.
“I look back at my parents,” said Kay, “and for my dad, in that generation, to let mom be the centerpiece of the family and supporting what she did … that was unheard of.”
Kay and Kathy Cornelius are the only mother-daughter pair to win USGA championships. (courtesy photo)
When Kay was 4 years old her parents opened up a driving range in Litchfield Park, Arizona, and she had unlimited access to range balls every day. Kay wanted to follow in her mother’s footsteps, but it was her father who taught her the game. It’s impossible to measure what she picked up from watching the likes of Nancy Lopez, Judy Rankin, Pat Bradley, Kathy Whitworth and Sandra Palmer all those years.
“Kay hit it high and long for her age and her build,” said Kathy. “She wasn’t extremely tall, she wasn’t extremely strong, but she was a competitor, and she liked to see that ball fly.”
The family moved to Scottsdale when Kay got older for easier access to competition, and she grew up with sisters Heather and Missy Farr, and Dina and Danielle Ammaccapane.
Kay’s victory at the U.S. Girls’ Junior earned her a spot in the field at the U.S. Women’s Open at age 15.
“All those caddies and the players knew my mom and here I was on display,” recalled Kay. “I was so nervous.”
Kay played collegiate golf at Stanford and played professionally for some time in Europe in Asia but ultimately found that, like her dad, teaching the game suited her best. She keeps a packed schedule on the practice tee where she teaches at the Foothills Golf Club in Phoenix and Mesa Country Club.
“It may be true that I got in my own way playing a few times,” said Kay, who wasn’t quite as emotionally even-keeled as her mom.
“I think I’m really doing what I’m meant to be doing in my life.”
Kathy Cornelius won seven times on the LPGA.
Bill Cornelius died three years ago at age 86. The couple owned a small golf components company, Magique Golf, French for Magic, until the early 2000s.
Kathy said she no longer plays because she got out of the habit, but she carries around an old pitching wedge as her walking stick, fulfilling her doctor’s recommendation.
“I don’t know if he would take too kindly if he knew that’s what I’m using,” said Kathy, “but I think he’d understand.”
Kathy never hit the ball as far as she thought she needed to, but she kept it in the fairway. She goes upstairs in her Chandler home almost every day now to work on her putting, and believes she’d be a better putter if she were still competing.
The great-grandmother of two is prone to take a practice swing if she walks by a mirror or sees her reflection in the back door.
“I check on my backswing,” she said.