Letter from St. Andrews: Ladies First

Unlike in America, where the U.S. Golf Association runs the women’s national championship, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews has no official role in the British version, which is conducted by the Ladies’ Golf Union. However, virtually the moment the Old Course was announced as the 2007 venue, the R&A offered all competitors the run of its clubhouse for the week, a gesture both gallant and logical.

Inasmuch as the St. Andrews courses are all public, and therefore unattached to any single club, there is no obvious gathering point for competitors—nowhere even to change one’s shoes. The spacious R&A clubhouse, hard by the 1st tee of the Old Course, was the obvious haven for the women—except that, for the past 253 years, the R&A has been a steadfastly men-only establishment. So when word got out that R&A members had offered to step aside for a week in favor of the women, the British media responded with a flurry of mock-indignant “what-is-the-world-coming-to” articles.

Allow me to say a few words in defense, not just of the R&A but also of St. Andrews. The truth is that golf in this town has always been admirably egalitarian. Access to the Old Course has been available to both genders equally from day one, 600 or so years ago. Few of America’s venerable golf venues can make that claim, and many maintain sexist policies.

As for the R&A, they’ve been stepping aside for nearly a century. The first women’s Ladies’ British Amateur Championship on the Old Course goes back to 1908, when the club flew the Ladies’ Golf Union flag on its mast, members served as stewards and rules officials, and the Captain personally conducted tours of the clubhouse.

Oh, there was a time when women took a bit of a back seat—during the Victorian Era—but it had less to do with gender discrimination than with the social conventions of the time. Golf was widely felt to be a bit too rough an activity for the fairer sex, members of which were expected to save themselves for more important matters. In Golf: Scotland’s Game, David Hamilton cites a Dr. Henry Maudsley, whose notion of “fixed energy” posited that women had a finite amount of vim and vigor, which, when expended on any activity, limited their reproductive power. The implication was that women who played too much golf (or anything else) would produce wimpy babies.

 Photo by Graylyn Loomis

Then there were the limitations of the day’s fashions: large floppy hats secured by scarves atop big, high hairdos, tight-fitting jackets, high-collared shirts with balloon sleeves, and long-flowing skirts, to say nothing of the mysterious substructure of bustles, petticoats and corsets. One of the game’s keen observers of the time, Lord Wellwood, suggested that the farthest a woman might expect to hit a drive was only 70 or 80 yards, “not because we doubt a lady’s power to make a longer drive but because this cannot be done without raising the club above the shoulder. Now, we do not presume to dictate, but we must observe that the posture and gestures requisite for a full swing are not particularly graceful when the player is clad in female dress.”

A less charitable observation came from a cantankerous St. Andrews colonel who, having had his regular game disrupted once too often, declared, “The links is not a place for women. They talk incessantly, they never stand still, and if they do, the wind won’t allow their dresses to stand still.”

He expressed that view in 1867, a year that would prove to be important in the history of women’s golf. At the time, the St. Andrews caddies had set up a primitive four-hole putting course on the ground now occupied by Rusacks Hotel. It seems that a group of women, then relegated recreationally to archery and croquet, had taken an interest in golf. To further that interest, they began to avail themselves of the wee links, venturing on at first when the caddies were at work, then later more brazenly in full view of the lads, who could only look on in sullen disapproval.

At length a few R&A members became sensitive to the situation and suggested that some corner of St. Andrews’ linksland be set aside for women. On a hummocky plot of land on the seaward side of the 1st hole, Old Tom Morris laid out a putting course, and the world’s first women’s golf club—the St. Andrews Ladies’ Golf Club—was born.

Among its original rules:

1. No member shall be permitted to play with any club except a putter, the head of which must be made of wood or aluminum.

2. During competitions, no relative of a player may keep that player’s score. (Since the first prizes included earrings, necklaces and brooches, we can only conclude that some of the early competitors were a bit overzealous.)

The initial membership was restricted to 100 regular members and 50 associate members, the latter group being persons of the male persuasion. It turns out many of the founding members were young and unattached, so the putting course provided a sort of open-air parlor where the lassies could be courted without need of chaperones. Within five years the club was holding an annual ball at a town hotel, with dancing until dawn, and by 1887 the membership had grown to more than 500.

By the turn of the century there were more than 100 women’s clubs in Scotland, including St. Andrews’ own St. Rule Club, which still maintains an avid golf section. (In 1990 Annika Sorenstam won the St. Rule Trophy, a 54-hole amateur event staged annually over the Old and New courses.)

Inevitably the St. Andrews Ladies’ Golf Club underwent some changes, starting with its name. In 1948 it became the St. Andrews Ladies’ Putting Club. About the same time, it also opened its course to the public. Today, more than 50,000 people each year putter across its billowing two acres. For my money, the Himalayas, as it’s known, is the second-most fun course in town (after the Old), and with a green fee of just 70 pence, it’s also the best deal. (I hope at least a few of the Women’s Open competitors will give it a try.)

Meanwhile the St. Andrews Ladies’ Putting Club is still going strong at age 140. There’s even a modest clubhouse, complete with veranda, overlooking the course. The current membership is restricted to 200 regular members and 50 associates, who have the course to themselves each evening from 5 to 6 p.m., their matches often followed by cocktails at members’ homes. The club has a waiting list of three to four years, and my good wife is on that list. So am I.