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Cougars pioneering legend Jo Ann Washam dies at age 69

UPDATED: Mon., Dec. 9, 2019

Jo Ann Washam became the first Washington State athlete to compete in national championships in two sports, golf in 1971 and basketball in 1972. Washam died Friday, Dec. 6, 2019, at age 69. (The Spokesman-Review)
Jo Ann Washam became the first Washington State athlete to compete in national championships in two sports, golf in 1971 and basketball in 1972. Washam died Friday, Dec. 6, 2019, at age 69. (The Spokesman-Review)

Jo Ann Washam was a pioneer in the world of women’s athletics in the state of Washington.

She started playing golf at age 8 and at 13 won the club championship at Auburn Golf Course in her hometown that foretold of fulfilling a childhood dream.

Seven years later, in 1970, she won the first of two straight Pacific Northwest Golf Association Women’s Amateur Championships.

At Washington State University, which she was attending on an Evans Caddie Scholarship as the first female from the Pacific Northwest to receive the coveted full-ride, Washam became the first WSU athlete to participate in national championships in two sports, golf in 1971 and basketball in ’72.

Washam died Friday night in Auburn, Washington, at the age of 69. Posts to her Facebook page said she had recently been ill.

“It really shocked the LPGA community,” Cathy Mant, a friend since their teen years and former LPGA colleague, said of Washam’s death.

Golf was clearly Washam’s calling, but she left her mark in basketball, too. She was a 5-foot-3 guard and a member of the first women’s basketball team at WSU in 1971, and in ’72 helped the Cougars advance to the first Association of Intercollegiate Athletes for Women’s national championship tournament. She was the first female inducted into the WSU Athletic Hall of Fame in 1982, for basketball and golf.

In 2011, she was inducted into the Pacific Northwest Golf Hall of Fame.

A 1972 graduate of WSU, Washam started a 17-year career on the LPGA Tour in 1973 and went on to win five championships, three as an individual and two team events (pairing with close friend Nancy Lopez for one and with ChiChi Rodriguez for the other) before retiring in 1989.

In 1975, a year in which she won back-to-back tournaments, she was named the tour’s Most Improved Player. At the 1979 Women’s Kemper Open, she became the only player in LPGA history to score two holes-in-one at the same event.

Her best season was 1980, when she posted 12 top-10 finishes on her way to winning $107,063 and finishing ninth on the money list in the pre-big-money era, while compiling an outstanding 73.01 stroke average in 28 tournaments. Her career earnings were $634,055.

After leaving the tour, Washam taught golf in Florida before heading toward home and working as an LPGA teaching professional at The Home Course in Dupont, Washington, for a spell.

She battled health issues most of her life, primarily diabetes, noted Mant. “I know that she had to really watch what she ate,” she said. “I don’t know if that was the problem, but I know she had been in the hospital recently. I saw her in April and she was walking with a cane.”

At one point after she had left the tour, Washam had three surgeries just days apart, one to correct a neck issue and two for heart bypasses.

“That Evans Scholarship, that’s huge,” said Jill Briles-Hinton, who played briefly on the tour with Washam and is now the women’s golf coach at Randolph-Macon University. “There are not a lot of female caddies. That (had to be an incentive) for girls; ‘if Jo Ann can do it, I can do it,’ they’re saying.”

Briles-Hinton posted to Washam’s Facebook page: “Thank you for your help in paving the way for women to compete in golf at the highest level.”

“She wasn’t one of the (LPGA) founders, but she did a lot to promote the game,” Briles-Hinton said from Ashland, Virginia. “She was a great gal; funny. Everyone loved her.”

“I’ve known Jo Ann since we were about 15,” said Mant. “She was from Auburn and I was from Eugene. We played against each other in junior golf and in college (Mant went to Arizona State) and on the LPGA Tour. We had some fun times.

“ ‘Washy’ was very energetic, feisty and enjoyed having a good time,” Mant added. “She was a talented player and very competitive.

“I remember in junior golf,” Mant said, alluding to Washman’s diminutive stature, “when she’d hit a drive, she’d have both feet off the ground. There are some classic pictures of that. She ripped it!

“She’ll be missed.”

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