As a child, Donna Caponi dreamed of making the winning putt on the final hole to capture the U.S. Women’s Open, but she never imagined the scenario to win her first-ever LPGA tournament in golf’s biggest event.
Facing a four-foot putt on the 72nd hole to win the 1969 U.S. Open, Caponi lined up the crucial putt when she overheard the legendary Byron Nelson commentating on television say, “Donna Caponi has this putt to win the U.S. Women’s Open.” Caponi recalls struggling to breathe and to make matters worse she couldn’t believe Nelson when he reported, “I’ve been watching this putt all day and it’s almost dead straight. It might move slightly to her right.”
"A lot of people know my first win was the U.S. Open. That was a thrill. But winning the second U.S. Open was the biggest deal. I knew a lot more the second time around."
“I thought,” said Caponi, “how can Byron Nelson see this putt break left to right. It’s right to left.” Flustered, she backed off the putt to regain her composure. She had already weathered a 15-minute delay after hitting her tee shot on 18 when an electrical storm passed through. Now was the moment for which she had waited a lifetime and she questioned her read. Like a true champion she decided to trust the line and proceeded to coolly sink the right-to-left putt.
“Thank goodness I went with my own instincts,” she said.
At the press conference, she learned that Nelson was right after all. It turns out his monitor was showing a camera angle from the opposite direction!
That victory launched a Hall of Fame career that spanned 24 years from 1965-1988 during which she collected 24 titles and four major championships. While the first U.S. Open title was sweet, joining Mickey Wright as only the second player to defend the championship successfully was even sweeter. “A lot of people know my first win was the U.S. Open. That was a thrill. But winning the second U.S. Open was the biggest deal. I knew a lot more the second time around,” said Caponi, who also equaled Wright’s record score of 287 that week.
Sixteen years after that first major title, she captured her final one at the 1981 LPGA Championship. Again, it was a storybook ending. Caponi rolled in a 25-footer for birdie on the final hole for a one-stroke victory.
Caponi spent the final seasons of her career trying to win six more times to qualify for the Hall of Fame, and the pressure took the fun out of the game. She retired in 1992, figuring she would have to settle for two U.S. Opens and two LPGA Championships as her most prized accomplishments.
Donna Caponi had nine top-10 finishes in 13 U.S. Women’s Opens spanning from 1969 to 1981.
“I just said the Hall of Fame is not going to happen,” she said.
Caponi’s hopes for enshrinement were renewed when the LPGA overhauled its criteria for the Hall of Fame in 1999. The Veterans Committee, which was formed in 1999 as part of the new requirements, nominated Caponi in March 2001. She then received the required 75 percent of the vote from tour members. She is the second woman elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame through the LPGA Veterans Category, following Judy Rankin.
“It just caps off my career, but more than anything, what makes this so meaningful is that it’s the players voting for you-your peers voting for you-and knowing they consider you of a quality for the Hall of Fame,” said Caponi. Once she received word of her election, she held back tears talking about her parents-Harry, who died in 1971 at age 49, and Dolly, who died of breast cancer in 1981 at 56.
“I owe everything I am today to my parents,” said the winner of the Los Angeles Junior title in 1956. “I owe everything to my dad, who spent hours and hours and hours teaching me.”
Caponi started playing golf at age six and grew up picking up balls with her sister, Janet, at the driving range where her father was head professional. She recalled how her father took her to the back end of a driving range and had her practice shaping shots around a large avocado tree.
“I always felt each win was for him because he did make me what I am today,” Caponi said.