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.
To women professional golfers of a certain era that single word has the power instantly to transport us back to our touring days. We seemed almost to live at Woburn. More than a decade of the wonderful season-opener, the Ford Classic, and umpty-ump Weetabix Women’s British Opens, spearheaded by the hugely supportive Sir Richard George, who died in March, far too young, made us all feel as if Woburn were our second home. And our second family included Alex Hay, the first professional to become a general manager of a golf facility and his lovely wife Ann. They not only knew every single player in the field, they also knew their friends and family supporters as well.
Eddie Bullock, the professional, was the go-to man for everything and Glenna Bonallack, in the clubhouse, knew everything that everyone else didn’t. Her family golfing pedigree didn’t hurt either.
Sometimes the Ford Classic was played on the Duke’s course, sometimes the Duchess, which requires a fair degree of accuracy, being rather narrow. The year we celebrated 25 years of Ford sponsorship in golf we were due to tackle the intricacies of the Duchess course, which opened with a par 5, followed by a really testing short hole. That year I was off on the Thursday morning at 9.20 with Laura Davies and Dennise Hutton, a close friend and colleague from Australia. The three of us birdied the first and when I popped a five iron into the hole at the 2nd, Laura turned to me and said, “Well, I think we can safely assume you’re leading the tournament, Mo!”
As we walked towards the green and took in the proliferation of banners she turned to me for a second time and said, “There’s a car on offer for a hole-in-one – do you know which hole it is?” Rather unusually, none of us did. I can only put that down to it being the first tournament of the season and a relatively early first day start. By the time we got to the 8th hole the photographers were out in full force. It was from the snappers that we learned I had, indeed, won a car.
This seemed to me to be heaven sent. I was starting the season carelessly carless and hadn’t got the funds to buy myself one. I had been relying on a good cheque from this very tournament. I played the rest of the round in a bit of a happy daze. As I sailed up the 18th I looked across to the 1st, which ran parallel, and saw wild, happy waving from my close pal Gillian Stewart. I knew word had spread and she’d be thrilled for me…….but, oh no, wait a minute!
For the first time it crossed my mind that in previous seasons we’d always agreed to be on a share of hole-in-one prizes, a fairly common occurrence amongst players. We hadn’t actually had the conversation for the new season but I knew that was simply because this was the first tournament of the year. We would definitely have agreed to carry on with the arrangement. Gill’s wild happy waving was because it was OUR car!
The outcome was more than happy, however, because later that week I signed a deal for a sponsored car and Gill and I split the proceeds of the hole-in-one prize. What a start to the season!
The tournaments at Woburn always attracted high class fields and huge crowds. On one occasion the colourful American player Muffin Spencer Devlin was one of the main draws. Always popular with the fans Muffin provided one of my favourite memories from my time on tour. We had all played in the pro-am and were at a sumptuous dinner in the Long Room in Woburn Abbey. At almost six feet tall Muffin was resplendent in a white tuxedo and, anxious to meet with the Marquis and Marchioness of Tavistock she took herself off to the top table a couple of times to engage them in chat. When this looked like happening yet again, David Parkin, the tournament director, was dispatched to our table to speak to Muffin.
He was on a hiding to nothing. Our whole table fell silent as we heard David tell Muffin she wasn’t to go to the top table again. We could see Muffin taking huge exception to being told what to do. In a voice that was steadily rising she demanded,
“What is it you want me to do?”
“Stay here and look after your pro-am team,” David said. By this stage the raised voices had silenced the diners and Muffin’s unforgettable response echoed through the Long Room.
“I’ve spent five f…ing hours with them on the golf course and that’s enough for anyone!”
And with that she marched the length of the room and left a stunned audience in her wake. We all naturally turned to see how the abused pro-am team were going to react to this. One of their number, Tim Glover of The Independent, just shook his head and said, “Well, it’s hard to argue with that.”
Muffin, who suffered from manic depression (bipolar disorder) and had not been taking her medication, didn’t play in the tournament that week but valiantly returned the following year to apologise and make amends.
Ah, Woburn – it’s SO good to be back!