Maureen, as so often, is absolutely right: it is wonderful to be back at Woburn for the Ricoh Women’s British Open, for the 40th anniversary of a championship that has had a chequered history but is now indubitably a major championship.
There may be no fescue at Woburn but it is a very grand venue, with the Duke of Bedford able to tell an American visitor at a do in the Sculpture Gallery that he’d lived here all his life and his family had been here for several hundred years (exact dates have never been a strength of this blog). The guest was suitably impressed: “Gee, my country’s nowhere near that old….”
Also considerably younger but venerable enough were the first three winners of the championship, who had been invited to the celebrations this week: Jenny Lee Smith, Vivien Saunders and Janet Melville, three Englishwomen who deserve to be feted alongside the Karrie Webbs and Se Ri Paks of this world, not least for their pioneering spirit.
In 1984, Ayako Okamoto, revered in Japan, won the first British at Woburn by a mind-numbing 11 shots and it’s worth listing the other Woburn winners, some of them good players having their week of weeks, some of them very, very goods and some of them genuine greats: Helen Alfredsson, Penny Grice-Whittaker, Patty Sheehan, Karen Lunn, Liselotte Neumann, Webb, Emilee Klein and Sherri Steinhauer.
There are golfing ghosts and magical memories everywhere at Woburn, which played host to the British for seven successive seasons during the Weetabix era. Sir Richard George, who took over the family business and was knighted for services to the cereal industry, was also a serial golfer and when he died earlier this year, women’s golf lost one of its staunchest supporters. It’s hard not to think of him here this week, wooing the Americans in search of major status and perhaps crossing egos with Franck Riboud of Evian, whose empire was on a vaster scale altogether. Whatever their differences, they were both shrewd businessmen who loved golf and women, for which many thanks.
Woburn was also home to the Ford Ladies Classic, the tournament that used to open the season in Britain and became so popular that there were traffic jams on the M1 as people queued to get in and the car parks overflowed. Not many women’s events ever took top billing on the national travel news! Annika Sorenstam started her professional travels here, with her Dad Tom on the bag.
It was here that Laura Davies, in her considerable pomp, took a raggle-taggle of spectators yomping in her wake as she gave the ball a whack, not always in the recommended direction, found it and whacked it again. After one thrilling expedition through the trees to the wrong fairway, Laura somehow avoided the forest with her next whack, carried a yawning dip and landed the ball at the front edge of the correct green. Well worth the detour.
On the way back to the proper hole, her cousin Matthew, spectating rather than caddying, asked, “How big was the gap, Trish?”
“There wasn’t one, Matthew.”
LD, like Seve, always did see things differently.
It was here, in 1995, that Webb, the sweet-swinging Australian from Ayr, in the sugar cane country of Queensland, won the first of her three British titles and served notice that hers was an exceptional – and enduring – talent. She’s playing again this week, at the age of 41, wondering where those 20-odd years have gone.
Other former British champions are also all around in one capacity or another: Sweden’s Alfredsson and Kent’s Karen Stupples are broadcasting; Marta Figueras-Dotti, the Spaniard who won the title as an amateur at Birkdale in 1992, is multi-tasking as coach, photographer and Olympic captain; Sophie Gustafson is caddying for Beth Allen; and Mo Martin, Stacy Lewis, Jiyai Shin, Yani Tseng and Catriona Matthew are still playing.
There’s still a warm, welcoming feel to Woburn even though its airport lounge of an entrance with the automatic doors lacks charm and the club and the championship are slicker, less homely than they once were. There’s been an ongoing process of professionalisation.
It was as long ago as 1993 but seems like only yesterday that Bob Imrie, caddying for his daughter Kathryn, caused the unceremonious banning of trolleys from the championship. She was in contention, in the biggest championship in the country, on live prime-time television and the man in charge of operations was incandescent when he saw the trolley squeaking its way across the screen. It smacked of rank amateurism in a professional setting and from that day on trolleys were toast. Caddies, Dads or not, had to carry.