Women in Golf History
Women golfers today are one of the few growth areas in participation according to the National Golf Foundation.
With greater financial independence and greater job flexibility, women are finding the golf course to be a pleasant diversion and a great business tool just as men have for decades. Today there are 5.4 million female golfers in the US alone.
Truth be told, women have been playing golf for as long as men and one prominent woman played a huge role in golf history. Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1587) was a colorful old girl if there ever was one. Born as the only legitimate child of King James V of Scotland, her father died six days after her birth and she ascended to the throne nine month later as Queen Mary I. At age 16 she married Francis Dauphin of France who ascended to the French throne as Francis II the next year. Her time on that throne didn’t last long as Francis II died the next year.
Mary returned to Scotland and married her cousin Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Apparently that was not a harmonious union and after a large explosion at their home in 1567 Lord Darnley was found strangled in the garden. It is at this point where the game of golf came into the picture as it was reported that Mary was playing golf the day after poor Lord Darnley met his terrible fate much to the chagrin of the locals who considered this a poor form of grieving her late husband.
Mary had learned the game during her time in France where military cadets attended her during her golf outings and Mary is credited with coining the term “caddie” as her pet name for these fellows. The idea of having an attendant assist the golfer caught on in Scotland and caddies became a huge part of the game and live on today on the professional tours and many private clubs.
While being credited with coining the term “caddie” is rather inconsequential, Mary made a profound and lasting mark on the game during her reign as Queen by commissioning the creation of the links at St Andrews which has been the actual and spiritual home of golf ever since.
It is not known how much Mary observed golf etiquette during her rounds but she was quite nefarious off it. She soon married James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, who was generally believed to be Darnley's murderer. Following an uprising against the couple, Mary was imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle and was forced to abdicate in favor of her one-year-old son, James VI.
After an unsuccessful attempt to regain the throne, Mary fled to England seeking the protection of her first cousin once removed, Queen Elizabeth I of England, whose kingdom she hoped to inherit. Mary had previously claimed Elizabeth's throne as her own and was considered the legitimate sovereign of England by many English Catholics, including participants in the Rising of the North. Perceiving her as a threat, Elizabeth had her arrested. After 19 years in custody in a number of castles and manor houses in England, she was tried and executed by beheading for treason for her involvement in three plots to assassinate Elizabeth.
It appears that Mary Queen of Scots scandalous behavior cast such a pall on any woman of decency playing golf that there are no other references of women playing for well over 200 years.
According to Robert Browning’s A History of Golf, there is some record of a women’s championship held at Musselburgh Golf Club in 1811. Musselburgh was a big fishing town at that time and the majority of the female golfers were "fisher lassies” and quite strong and athletic.
It was not until much later in the 19th century that woman golfers became to formalizing their own clubs. The earliest was St Andrews in 1867 which was quickly followed by Westward Ho! and then Devon Ladies Golf Club in 1868. Musselburgh and Wimbeldon organized in 1872 and Carnoustie in 1874. Women’s competitive golf was given rise by the formation of the Ladies Golf Union in Great Britain and the inaugural Ladies Championship in 1893.
Blanche Hulton an outspoken woman of her day wrote this in an essay she contributed to the first issue of Ladies Golf “The whole-hearted adoption by women of the Royal and Ancient Game marks an epoch in the history of the sexes, and, without unduly straining a point, it may be said that golf has been a factor of no small importance in the mental, as well as physical development of the modern girl. Before the era of golf the recreations of girlhood were practically restricted to croquet and later to lawn tennis and only a minority were permitted to go in for horse-back riding.”
The Ladies Golf Union proved to be a formidable group with a very businesslike manner of organizing their members and their events. One great accomplishment of the L. G. U. and member Miss Issette Pearson was the establishment of a workable interclub handicapping system. Though modified greatly over the years, the essential elements are the basis of the system used today throughout the amateur golf world.
Although golf had been played by both genders in one form or another in the United States for a number of years, the game became organized in 1894 with the establishment of what was to become the United States Golf Association. The first women’s championship was held the following year at Meadowbrook Golf Club in Hempstead, Long Island, New York and was won by Mrs. Charles S. Brown of Shinnecock Hills.
The Curtis Cup Matches, a competition between women golfers from the United State and Great Britain and Ireland were first played at Essex County Club in Massachusetts in 1932. They returned there to play the 2010 event.
Young Patty Berg, age 20, finally won the U. S. Amateur in 1932 after twice finishing as the runner up. She would later turn professional by accepting an endorsement contract from Wilson Sporting Goods. The “Patty Berg Defender” clubs which were the first woman’s “signature” clubs in the U. S. and became very popular sellers.
The Women’s Professional Golf Association was established in 1944 but there was no pro tour. Six years later it became known as the Ladies Professional Golf Association.
Women’s professional golf had a difficult time establishing itself until a young woman from Port Arthur, Texas roared onto the scene. Arguably the greatest female athlete ever produced in the United States, Mildred Ella “Babe” Didrikson had already established her fame by winning two gold medals (80 m hurdles and javelin) and a silver medal (high jump) in the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
Babe took up golf because there was no future for her in track and field and became proficient at the game quickly. Initially rebuffed as an amateur by the USGA because she had been a paid professional in basketball, she entered the men’s Los Angeles Open in 1938 and missed the cut but was paired with George Zaharias, a professional wrestler. They were married eleven months later.
Eventually Didrikson Zaharias would make the cut in the Los Angeles Open, the Phoenix Open and the Tucson Open making her the only woman to this day to ever make the cut in a men’s tournament. It should be noted that she gained entry into both the Phoenix and Tucson events by playing in 36 hole qualifiers and not because of sponsor’s exemptions.
She was a founding member of the LPGA in 1950 and went on to win 82 times as an amateur and a professional including the US Women’s Amateur, British Ladies Amateur, and the US Women’s Open.
Babe contracted colon cancer in 1954 and had surgery in an attempt to rid herself of the disease. She won the US Women’s Open one month after her surgery while wearing a colostomy bag. By 1955 the cancer had returned limiting her to eight events, two of which she won. Babe Didrikson Zaharias died in September, 1956 at the age of 45 the likes of which the world has not seen since.Written by Wayne Mills
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