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The Crocodile Kid

Fifty-four years ago, Catherine Lacoste won the U.S. Women’s Open as a young amateur golfer. That unique achievement is only part of the story of a remarkable individual and her esteemed sporting family.

The Crocodile Kid

Fifty-four years ago, Catherine Lacoste won the U.S. Women’s Open as a young amateur golfer. That unique achievement is only part of the story of a remarkable individual and her esteemed sporting family.

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aul Trow “Zoomed” in on the lady at her Madrid apartment

though the french monarchy fell in 1789, it’s not as if France has lacked for royal families exactly, ones that have had—and which continue to have—a role in guiding European fashion, politics, culture and sport. 

Among those families, certainly, there can be few throughout the Gallic Republic with a bluer bloodline than the one that produced Catherine Lacoste, the youngest child of a champion golfer and a champion tennis player who changed the game forever.

Catherine was born to René and Simone Lacoste on 27 June, 1945, the youngest of four children, and from the get-go it was clear that she was destined to be somebody.

First things first, though: René wasn’t any old René, certainly not of the “walk away” variety. He won seven Grand Slam tournaments: the French Open in 1925, 1927, and 1929; Wimbledon in 1925 and 1928; and the U.S. Open in 1926 and 1927. During that time he was celebrated across the globe as one of the Four Musketeers (along with compatriots Henri Cochet, Jean Borotra, and Jacques Brugnon). In addition to all their individual honors, their formidable alliance won the Davis Cup for France in 1927 and 1928.

Although not a natural tennis player, René’s drive, discipline and strategic intelligence more than compensated. His knack of noting the strengths and weaknesses of his opponents, and varying his play accordingly, made him a formidable opponent—and one easily identifiable, thanks to the mark singularly associated with him: the crocodile.

As René explained: “The American press nicknamed me ‘Le Crocodile’ after a bet I made with Alan Muhr, the captain of the French Davis Cup team, in 1927. At the airport in Boston, he noticed me gazing at a suitcase made from crocodile skin. There and then, he promised to buy me one if I won a match that was important for our team. The American public stuck to this nickname, which highlighted my tenacity on the tennis courts, never giving up my prey! Afterwards my friend Robert George drew me a crocodile which was embroidered on the blazer I wore when I went on court.”

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Simone Lacoste in action in 1935

The crocodile logo took on its commercial life in the early 1930s, after René’s retirement as a player, with the founding of his eponymous sports apparel brand, but Catherine tempers the praise for her father in creating this global phenomenon. 

“It was Bernard, my brother, who played the biggest part in building up the business,” she explained. “He was a wonderful man.” 

Bernard passed away in 2006, two years after Lacoste was sold to Maus Freres, which now is known as the soulless MF Brands Group. 

Catherine’s mother, Simone Thion de la Chaume, established herself as one of the leading amateur golfers of her time when she won the British Girls Championship as a 15-year-old in 1924. Her well-off family backed up their enthusiasm for the game by opening (in 1928) and owning (to this day) a beautiful parkland course designed by Harry Colt called “Chantaco,” just inland from the charming port of St Jean de Luz in the Basque southwest of France, less than three miles from the border with Spain. 

“My mother was a great champion before I was born,” Catherine said. “She married my father in Paris in 1930. I didn’t come along until 15 years later. How did they meet? My mother went to the U.S. for some reason and, while she was there, she saw him play at a tournament. Then she arranged to sail back to Europe and it happened to be on the same boat that he was on.”

Catherine’s journey into the history books began on a plane going the other direction, from Paris to the lauded Homestead Resort in Virginia, and if the trip presented some logisitical difficulties it nonetheless proved fruitful.

The Cascades course at The Homestead in Hot Springs, Virginia—now part of a luxury Omni resort (see sidebar)— opened in 1923 with a design by William S. Flynn, of Shinnecock Hills, The Country Club at Brookline, and Merion fame. Before the arrival of golf, this glorious setting in the Allegheny Mountains had long been a spa retreat for U.S. Presidents, starting with Thomas Jefferson in 1818. Sam Snead launched his professional career here in 1929 as a 17-year-old, and by the time Lacoste showed up the Cascades had established its credentials by hosting the 1928 U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship (the first of three in a row won by the iconic Glenna Collette-Vare) and the 1966 Curtis Cup, which saw the U.S. team win with what was then the event’s largest margin of victory (13 to 5).

Lacoste, who turned 22 just two days before the 1967 U.S. Women’s Open, travelled alone from Europe to The Homestead to play in the USGA event: “I flew from Paris to JFK in New York,” she said, “and then got a helicopter to La Guardia for my connecting flight to Virginia.

“When I first went there, the head professional, Herman Perry, played a practice round with me and showed me the lines off the tees and the slopes on the greens. 

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Catherine Lacoste, of the French golf team that just won the women’s golf world championship, with her parents René Lacoste and Simone Thion de la Chaume in 1964

He also fixed me up with a local caddie, Calvin Lloyd, who knew the course well. 

“My first U.S. Women’s Open was actually in 1965 at Atlantic City Country Club in New Jersey, where I finished 14th. I didn’t go in 1966 but when I went in 1967, it meant that I missed the European Ladies’ team championship, but I think the result showed it was worth it!

“I took a five-stroke lead into the final round and shot a very nervous 79, but I hung on to win the title by two shots from Susie Maxwell and Beth Stone. If I’d been a professional, my prize would have been $5,000.

“The course was very hard, as you’d expect of the U.S. Women’s Open, and the weather was rough. My winning total for four rounds was 10 over par. I think the only person who thought I might win that 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?

“I’ve only been back to The Homestead once since, on the 40th anniversary of my win in 2007.”

No amateur has since matched Lacoste’s feat, though four others have finished second—Nancy Lopez in 1975, Jenny Chuasiriporn, who lost in a playoff in 1998, and Morgan Pressel and Brittany Lang, who were joint runners-up
in 2005. 

“My title defense the following year was respectable —I tied 13th [at Moselem Springs Golf Club in Fleetwood, Pennsylvania]—but I never played again in the championship after that. It was pretty much for the same reason as my decision to stay amateur: I was about to get married and have a family.

“I didn’t really want life to change and [turning professional] would have been a big change. In fact, funnily enough, I don’t remember anyone asking me if I wanted to turn pro or ever thinking I wanted it.

“Of course, I carried on playing amateur golf throughout 1969 which was a great year for me. I won the amateur championship finals of both the U.S. [at Las Colinas Country Club in Irving, TX, where she beat Shelley Hamlin 3&2] and the British Isles [at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland, where she beat England’s Ann Irvin by one hole].”

In the case of the latter, she was following in the footsteps of her mother who won the same title at the other great Ulster course, Royal County Down, in 1927.

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The Omni Homestead Resort

By the time Catherine Lacoste won the 1967 U.S. Women’s Open here, the property’s famed Cascades Course had hosted three national championships, including the 1928 U.S. Women’s Amateur. Historic in every way, the course—which opened in 1923—is just one part of a resort that has hosted 23 U.S. presidents and more than 250 years’ worth of unforgettable moments. Founded in 1766, The Homestead has been impeccably refined by Omni as one of America’s premier resort experiences. The Cascades is joined by its elder sibling, the Old Course (1892), which features the nation’s oldest first tee in continuous use. Together they comprise  only a small portion of an amazing visit. Archery,  sporting clays, horseback riding, hiking, falconry and more join a world-class spa and luxurious accommodations and dining, while in winter The Omni Homestead is a family-friendly ski resort. The resort’s Octagon Pool, fed by two natural hot springs—the very feature that drew people to the area more than two and a half centuries ago—is now available to soothe and engage modern travelers, and when combined with the area’s beauty and The Omni Homestead’s legendary service, it’s no wonder the resort endures. To stay here is to participate in a tradition of American travel that is older than the country itself—highly recommended. 

Omnihotels.com/TheHomestead

René, whose tennis days were ended by tuberculosis at the age of 25 in 1929, when penicillin was not available as a treatment, took up golf instead and got down to a 6 handicap. “The pro at Chantaco at the time, Raymond Garaialde, was his teacher,” Catherine said. “Raymond’s son Jean, who became one of France’s best ever tournament professionals, learned his golf there and played a lot with my older brothers. He is now 86. He taught me when I was growing up and I played in many pro-ams with him. At 13 I don’t think I was any better than a 24 handicap, but I improved a bit after that.”

Indeed—and perhaps inevitable, given her parents’ sporting achievements. Still, there’s much to her family beyond fashion and sport. René was a prolific inventor, for example, who registered more than 20 patents. He created the first tennis-ball delivery machine, a hand-cranked device that launched tennis balls skyward for him to return overhead smashes during extended practice sessions. He also invented the tubular steel-framed tennis racket while working as a consultant for Wilson during the 1960s—around the time Arnold Palmer was contracted to Wilson. Catherine said: “I think my father got to know Mr. Palmer quite well through Wilson, also Billie Jean King. In the 1970s and ’80s he was designing Wilson rackets for Jimmy Connors who would often call him up personally.”

René Lacoste in 1927 with the tennis ball launcher he invented

Among Catherine’s many abilities is her fluency in Spanish and English. She studied languages for two years at the Sorbonne, “but I dropped out because taking exams clashed with the time I needed to play in tournaments.” Afterwards, she says she worked as an interpreter in her early 20s before family life beckoned. 

In 1970, she married a Spaniard with a substantial name—Jaime Prado y Colón de Carvajal—and the couple had four children: three daughters and a son. (They now have eight granddaughters.) Three of her four children had college educations in the U.S., with her youngest daughter, Veronique Smondack, attending Palmer’s alma mater, Wake Forest, on a golf scholarship in the late 1990s. She has gone on to play a leading part in the management of French junior teams while her older sister, Caroline Devaux, also took up the game but did not pursue it to the same degree or seriousness as Catherine.

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René receiving the Championship Cup for winning that year’s US Open, in Forest Hills, NY

“I was raised in Paris, and on our vacations growing up we would always stay in St. Jean de Luz,” Catherine said.  “Naturally, we would play golf at Chantaco because it was owned by my mother’s family. It is very much a parkland course even though it is only a mile from the sea—pretty yet not too long. My mother was president for 40 years, then me for 35 years, then Veronique for five years. The current president is my nephew Jean-Marie Lacoste, so the family tradition is still going strong.

“To this day, I always go there in the summer, from July to September, and sometimes for Christmas. Two of my children still live close by and one is married to Miguel Prada who runs a renowned equestrian centre and teaches many of the local children to ride horses.

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Catherine Lacoste as a putt lips the cup on the 7th hole during the final round in the 1967 U.S. Women's Open at The Homestead

Unfortunately, various injuries over time have prevented Catherine from keeping up with her golf game, and she never really took to her father’s sport.

“I did play socially in the winter, when I couldn’t play golf so much,” she explained. “It was very good physical training—good for my feet but not my movement. I had a tendency to draw not slice in golf, but tennis at the time required you to play the other way round.”

After her first marriage, she became friends with the classical Spanish guitarist Angel Pinero: “I met him in the 1980s—at the time I wanted my children to learn music and he was a very good teacher,” she said. “He specializes in flamenco, and we eventually got married. I help him organize his performances. We live together most of our time in an apartment in Madrid.”

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Catherine Lacoste with Arnold Palmer during the Canada Cup Pro-Am, 1963

Once known as the “Crocodile Kid” in recognition of her family’s clothing brand, today Catherine is part of a sporting legacy that, if not exactly born of a monarchy, still comprises a sort of royalty. For the world of sport, for France, and for the timeless amateur game in particular, hers is a legacy well worth celebrating—in any language.

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Masters that changed golf

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