LGU AGM, Leeds. 20th February 2016.

Mo’s advice, when she heard I’d been asked to speak, was “Don’t do it!”  I always listen to my adviser-in-chief and usually take her advice but on this occasion I couldn’t resist temptation.  There was every possibility it would be the last chance to address the Ladies’ Golf Union, a venerable if sometimes maligned institution, in its present form and I couldn’t pass up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

It won’t be the same when the merger with the Royal and Ancient, a commercially sensible if culturally fraught option, goes ahead.  On the day, I had to rejig the intro a bit and there were a few other tweaks here and there but this is more or less what I said:-

Madam chairman, VIPs, fellow golfers We can now be more precise, after the chairman’s remarks about the merger with the R&A, about how much longer the LGU, created in 1893, will be around; how much longer the rest of us, created a little later, will be around is less precise but one thing is certain: we’ll have left our mark…..simply because there will alway be women who play golf.  It may still, AT THE MOMENT, be a male-dominated game but women have always appreciated its charms.

Mary Queen of Scots was a distinguished if ill-fated swinger of the clubs; the fishwives of Musselburgh played for silk handkerchiefs and fishing baskets; Lady Margaret Scott dominated in the 1890s decked out in gear that a big-hitting modern miss like Lexi Thompson found constricting in the extreme.  The athletic American recently did a photoshoot clad in early golfing garb and could barely swing to begin with let alone hit the ball.  No lycra or breathable waterproof fabrics in those distant days, so the early women players were real enthusiasts, overcoming physical restrictions as well as the scorn of the likes of Horace Hutchinson, a leading player in the 1890s but not one of the world’s great visionaries.

Many of you will know the gist of the letter he sent to Blanche Martin, who became the LGU’s first treasurer but it’s worth quoting it at length, not just because it is breathtaking in its condescension but as a salutary reminder that not all advice, whether asked for or not, need be heeded…….  Here’s Horace:-

Dear Miss Martin, I have read your letter about the proposed Ladies’ Golf Union with much interest. Let me give you the famous advice of Mr Punch (since you honour me by asking for my opinion). DON’T.  [in capitals.]  My reasons? Well!  [exclamation mark.]  Women never have and never can unite to push any scheme to success.  They are bound to fall out and quarrel on the smallest or no provocation; they are built that way!  [another exclamation mark.]

They will never go through one Ladies’ Championship with credit.  Tears will bedew, if wigs do not bestrew, the green. Constitutionally and physically women are unfitted for golf.  They will never last through two rounds of a long course in a day.  [Horace had obviously never heard of childbirth.]  Nor can they ever hope to defy the wind and weather encountered on our best links even in spring and summer.  Temperamentally the strain will be too great for them.

[Here he resorts to capitals again.] THE FIRST LADIES’ CHAMPIONSHIP WILL BE THE LAST, unless I and others are greatly mistaken.

The LGU seems scarcely worthwhile…..

Fortunately nobody paid a blind bit of notice, the ladies told haughty Horace that the second word was ‘off’ and carried on with their madcap scheme inspired by the drive of the LGU’s first honorary secretary Issette Pearson (later Mrs Miller then Mrs Herman), a woman for whom the word formidable might have been coined.  Born in Anglesey, she was a handy golfer, losing the first two British championships to the elegant executioner that was Lady Margaret but it was as an organiser and administrator that she excelled, unifying the handicapping system while also displaying a capacity for ruthlessness that led the press to label her “as despotic as the Tsar of Russia”.

How fascinating it would be to resurrect her in these supposedly equal, more politically correct times. I suspect that meetings would be brutal and short but never dull……..

A stickler for her rules and regulations, Issette did not marry until she was in her 50s and when her first husband Tommy Pearson, one of the founder members of Lytham St Anne’s, died, she took up with a clergyman half her age. Thomas Herman was apparently not a vicar to do things by the book, good or otherwise, having sired seven children, not one of them legitimate……. My dears, you can imagine the tittle tattle and the telling of tales……

Most golfers love a good gossip and I’m indebted to Lewine Mair, former golf correspondent of The Daily Telegraph, the first woman to hold that post, and contributor to publications too numerous to mention, for kindly unearthing a host of great stories and putting them all together in the LGU’s centenary book One Hundred Years Of Women’s Golf.

Lewine, an excellent golfer in the bit of her youth that was not misspent, remains an inveterate ferreter after facts and a devoted digger of ……..well, we don’t call her Scoop for nothing…… I’m glad to see that she’s here today, for which I take sole credit…….Having told me she’d see me at the AGM, she casually mentioned that she’d booked her flight from Edinburgh to London.  Why? I asked, baffled but aware that Lewine, who has wide-ranging family and reporting commitments, is a bit of a law unto herself when it comes to routing…….The meeting’s in Leeds, I said.  I thought it was Canary Wharf she said………

How delighted I am that she’s successfully found her way here, notebook and pen in hand, to Granary Wharf in the heart of God’s own county………

Yorkshire, with a host of wonderful courses and players to match, has always been a powerhouse of English and British golf and it was a Yorkshirewoman who produced one of the best performances in America that I have ever seen by any European golfer, male or female, amateur or professional – and I’ve been present at many wonderful wins over the years.

Think of Ballesteros, Lyle, Faldo, Langer or Olazabal at the Masters; Jacklin, McDowell, Rose and McIlroy at the US Open; or Harrington, Kaymer and that man McIlroy again at the USPGA; and not forgetting huge victories by Davies, Neumann, Alfredsson, Sorenstam and Pettersen….. This ranks right up there with any of Europe’s successes anywhere.  [Including Danny Willett’s victory at Augusta, several weeks after this speech.]

Whisper it quietly, this woman was born in Gibraltar – not her fault – but she learned her golf in Yorkshire and represented the county with distinction. She won the British Strokeplay title in her amateur days, in 1983 at Moortown, and succeeded Laura Davies as the Women’s British Open champion in 1987, a few days after Davies had stunned the golfing world, and herself by winning the US Women’s Open in an 18-hole play-off with Ayako Okamoto and JoAnne Carner.

It was to take Alison Nicholas – surely you guessed! – another ten years before she emulated Davies and won the US Women’s Open, at Pumpkin Ridge in Oregon, but it was worth waiting for.  Big Al, five foot in her spikes, gave up tennis for golf not least because opponents couldn’t use the lob against her but she had the competitive heart of a giant and, honed by a decade of top-class competition, not least in the Solheim Cup, she controlled her game and her emotions to defeat Nancy Lopez, the darling of the huge crowd, by one shot.

Not long ago I mentioned Lopez to someone and she looked at me blankly and said, “Who’s Nancy Lopez?”  I was speechless – it does happen now and again – and failed to come up with an answer, not knowing where to start.  Was I really that old?  Was Nancy?  Icon, superstar, legend, once the first lady of golf and the saviour of the US LPGA Tour.  I could go on and on.

Lopez managed a stellar career despite having three daughters in the traditional manner but one of the big blanks in her list of achievements was her national championship.  She had come close to winning several times and Pumpkin Ridge was an emotional cauldron as thousands urged her on to make the fairytale a reality.  She started the day three shots behind Nicholas, her playing partner, whom many expected to crumble in such company, especially when Lopez had three birdies in the first four holes, including one at the first.  Nicholas holed a testing little putt there for her par, matched Lopez’s birdie at the second and served notice that she would have no qualms about being the party pooper supreme, the wicked witch of the west, by holing her third shot for an eagle three at the fourth, to maintain her three-shot lead.  Game on.

As a journalist writing for a paper in the UK, the west coast of America, with its eight-hour time difference, is a pain.  This, bear in mind, was in the days before 24-hours-a-day, round the clock news and The Times had a particularly piggy edition that required the words to be sent at a time when the leaders had only played a few holes, if any and it was usually a mish-mash of preview and a bit of not very relevant golf.  Not this time.  That start was manna from heaven and I said to a colleague, “Whatever happens now, we can’t lose.  Lopez winning would be a super, heartwarming story and for us Nicholas winning would be a sensation.”  But as the day wore on, I ditched that balanced, even-handed approach.  I love Nancy, everyone does……but I realised that I really, really, really wanted Ali to win and it was a joy to see her clutching a trophy that was nearly as big as she was….

That was one of the best of many memorable moments but there’s nothing like team competition to raise the stakes and the heart rate and perhaps THE best of all – alongside the hugely unexpected and comprehensive Solheim Cup victory by the Europeans at Dalmahoy in 1992 – was an equally unexpected and comprehensive victory by Great Britain and Ireland in the Curtis Cup at Prairie Dunes in Kansas in 1986.

In temperatures of more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit – it sounds so much hotter in old money – the visitors ran the United States ragged.  I have a very happy snap of my late husband Dai, who wrote for the Guardian and the late Michael Williams, of the Telegraph, reclining, beaming, on loungers by the club’s pool – which was out of bounds for the GB and I team, an edict laid down and strictly enforced by their formidable captain.

Dai and Mike had been to numerous BBU’s (brave but unavailings) in Walker Cups, Ryder Cups and endless Curtis Cups and how they enjoyed that wonderfully one-sided contest at Prairie Dunes.  It was the first win on American soil by a visiting team and opened the floodgates, with the Ryder Cuppers winning at Muirfield Village in 1987 and the Walker Cuppers breaking through at Peachtree in 1989.

Danielle Ammaccapane, one of the American side, said to her captain, the incomparable Judy Bell, before the off: “We always win this thing don’t we?”  And who, really, could blame her?   GB and I lost every match in the 60s and the 70s and had lost the first three in the 80s.  That’s a lot of losses, thirteen in a row.  Muirfield, two years previously, had been close and could have gone either way and the captain that year, who was re-appointed, set her heart against any more of that BBU nonsense.  Her team would be on their toes from the start, not struggling to make up ground whether from nerves or whatever.

Dottie Mochrie, nee Pepper and now Pepper again, duffed the Americans’ opening drive, which perked up the visiting supporters no end and it did not get any better for the hosts.  GB and I did not lose the first hole until late on the second day; won 5 and a half points out of six in the foursomes (the match was then over two days not three as it is now); won 11 matches in total, halved four and lost only three, two singles on day one and one on day two.

Trish Johnson won four points out of four; Lillian Behan won three out of four, guided by Jill Thornhill, who won three and a half out of four; Karen Davies was unbeaten in four matches; Belle Robertson and Mary McKenna, both getting on a bit and veterans of far too many defeats – bring out your dead, was the scathing comment of Enid Wilson of the Telegraph on hearing the team announcement – played together in the foursomes, winning one and halving the other and cheered the others on in the singles.  Claire Hourihane and Vicki Thomas both won a match each, so every member of that side contributed at least a point.

It was a real team effort.  Elsie Brown, the vice captain, was a delight and the captain, not a woman to be messed with, then or now, is sitting right here, your president Diane Bailey.

Diane was captain again at Royal St George’s two years later when GB and I won again, proving that Prairie Dunes was no fluke.  Let’s wish Elaine Farquharson-Black and her team all the best for a similarly happy outcome at Dun Laoghaire in June.  If you channel the spirit of Liz Pook [a former British champion and indomitable battler of disability after a back operation went horribly wrong], you should be OK.  [A trophy in Liz’s name is now presented to the winner of the order of merit and the first recipient was Olivia Mehaffey, of Ireland.  You can read more about Liz in Lewine’s LGU book.]

It should be quite a contest and I hope you’ll all be there to enjoy golf in God’s own country!

The first rule laid down by the LGU in 1893 was, and I quote, “To promote the interests of the game of golf.”

Perhaps we could amend that very slightly now in this Olympic year of 2016 to read, “To promote interest in the game of golf” and to encourage more people, especially youngsters and more especially girls, to play the game that we all love, to persuade them that it is the game of a lifetime; that it’s fun, suitable for all the family from toddlers to teenagers to totterers, that you can play it on your own or with friends, for the exercise or for the competition, socially or seriously.

A friend told me the other day that she took up golf because, “It’s the only game with a ball that men and women can play together competitively.  I couldn’t play my husband and sons at squash or tennis or any other ball game,” she said, “but I could play them at golf.  I didn’t have to be on the sidelines watching.”

This most inclusive of games is played from sea to shining sea and all points in between; from Tahiti, where the dress code is flip-flops, singlets and shorts, to Tunbridge Wells, where a little more formality may be required – although I’m sure you’ve noticed that I’ve steered well clear of the cursed subject of dress codes……..There are courses in Scotland, where it all began, although the Dutch aren’t so sure about that; courses in Van Diemen’s Land; in the Gulf and the Himalayas; in Bhutan and Uzbekistan; Japan and Pakistan; Iran and the Caribbean; Algeria and Nigeria.

Golf is everywhere and is for everyone.

Not everybody agrees of course but one of the things I’ve always liked about golf is not its EXclusivity but its INclusivity and it’s up to us, if we want the sport to thrive, to welcome would-be golfers with open arms not pursed lips, to absorb them into the game and guide them gently and firmly but not too bossily; concentrating more on the dos than the don’ts.

Sadly, the local muni seems to be going the way of the school playing field but, as we’re always being told, “We’re all in this together” and surely it’s not beyond the wit and ingenuity of women to find a way of making sure that the game remains appealing, accessible and affordable.

Beverly Lewis, a former Essex amateur champion and the first woman to be captain of the Professional Golfers‘ Association, started at her local pitch and putt in Billericay, progressed to a 9-hole public course in Brentwood, joined Basildon when it opened and ended up representing the PGA at Augusta.

“It’s been fabulous, absolutely fabulous,” Bev said.  “The image of golf is that it’s for the rich, an elitist sport and it just is not.  You know what my husband Ken and I see all around us in golf?  We see people having fun, so much fun – and that’s what golf can be for everyone.  Fun.”