I always regard this time of year as “foursomes season”. That’s because when I was a young amateur this week signalled the opening of the new competitive year with the wonderful Avia Foursomes. This 72-hole foursomes strokeplay tournament (arguably the most difficult format in the game) was played each year at the Berkshire golf club over the Blue and the Red courses and it catered for every calibre of player from Curtis Cup players to those in higher handicap brackets. More than three hundred women would descend on the Berkshire club anxious to rid themselves of the inertia of winter and keen to get swinging again.
I first played in the Avia in 1980 when it was already almost two decades into its existence. The woman at the helm was the redoubtable Joan Rothschild, wife of Colonel D D Rothschild, managing director of the sponsors Louis Newmark Ltd, importers of Swiss watches. It would have been a logistical nightmare for many but Joan worked tirelessly to ensure the popularity and success of the event. Leafing through old editions of that wonderful publication Fairway and Hazard (from which these pictures come), kindly lent to me by former LGU chairman Jill Edwards, I came across this paragraph about Joan where the sponsoring company is singing her praises.
Joan….”thought of the idea, started the ball rolling and from that moment until the last prize had been handed out, never stopped working. All the bright ideas were hers, and it is no exaggeration to say that she was in touch with our office almost every day for nearly six months. All her ideas were first class and she has already formulated new ones for next year.”
Joan’s right hand man at the event was Douglas Caird, golf writer of note, founder of Fairway and Hazard and a huge supporter of women’s golf. Between them they ran a tournament that thought of everything. There were welcome gifts for the players, heaters on the first tees, soup kitchens at the half way point on each course and the most magnificent prize table imaginable. Combine that with superb catering at the club and a wonderfully stocked shop by the club pro Keith McDonald and his wife Ivy and it was impossible not to have a great week, no matter the weather or how well you played. One highlight for all the Irish players was the magnificent St Patrick’s Day window Ivy organised each year, innovative, imaginative and with wonderful clothes and gifts on display.
The Avia heralded the end of winter and a new season of golf to look forward to, so in that regard it was our Masters. With creaking bodies after the long winter lay-off many of us packed up our clubs post the Avia and went the few miles down the road to Sunningdale – for more foursomes, this time of the matchplay variety. I have written of the Sunningdale Foursomes before in the blog. This unique tournament, born in 1934, allows men, women, pros and amateurs to compete against each other, in any combination, over the Old and New courses at the Surrey club. The freedom of matchplay after the rigours of 72 holes of medal play allowed for some more risk-taking which resulted in good and bad outcomes in equal measure but it was exhilarating – and what a wonderful fortnight of competitive play to kick start our seasons.
Nowadays, of course, things are very different and aspiring players, male and female, are not hampered to the same extent by a lengthy off season. Indeed, many of our home-grown stars are in the US full time, playing on the collegiate circuits with the odd invitation to a professional event. One such player is Ireland’s Olivia Mehaffey who is currently finishing off a Masters degree at Arizona State uni. Olivia’s home club is Royal County Down Ladies and her already impressive amateur career includes two Curtis Cup appearances as well as an invitation a couple of years ago to the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur Invitational tournament where she finished tied 23rd.
Last week Olivia beat the ASU programme record by shooting a ten-under-par 62 at Longbow Golf Club in Mesa, Arizona. By her own admission she has been struggling of late, having switched coaches to work with Jorge Parada, mentor to LPGA luminaries Carlota Ciganda and Mel Reid. It’s taken a little bit of time for things to fall into place for her but her patience was rewarded with that bogey-free, ten-birdie romp in the Clover Cup.And the neat thing is Olivia gets to tee it up there again on the same course this week in a Symetra Tour event. For a player whose LPGA plans have been delayed because of COVID-19 this will be a welcome opportunity to test herself against professional opposition but it’s distressing to learn today’s players have so much more to contend with than the quality of their backswing.
Olivia was quite open about her recent loss of form but admitted to being more affected by negative instagram messages than she envisioned. This is a player who received abusive messages on twitter last summer about her appearance and now she’s had this heaped on her for the last couple of months. What is wrong with people? How dare they play fast and loose with the mental state of others? If it’s not possible to be supportive and kind – say nothing and concentrate on your own life. More power to Olivia, for surrounding herself with supportive people and for coming through this. I hope she knows there are so many, many folk in her corner, full of admiration for her, her golf and her ability to rise above these sad, vile people. These are certainly not issues that we had to concern ourselves with in our 20s, living and competing as we did in more carefree, social-media-free times. It just goes to show the resilience needed to compete in sport in the modern era.
On a happier note, here in England we have only nine more days to wait until we can burst on to the fairways again, fresh out of lockdown and with a head full of self-instruction as regards our golf games. And by the time that happens this particular head will have had its first haircut in five months. Only one of the many benefits of living on the Welsh border and having a hairdresser in Wales!
And, finally, a teaser for our older readers – can you name the Avia partnership in the picture at the top of the blog? If you can name the year as well you are a great golf historian……and probably also very old indeed! Good luck.