From feminist pioneers to putting pros, the historic course of the St. Andrews Ladies Putting Club
Who would you support to sink a putt and save your life? Tiger Woods? Jack Nicklaus? Ben Crenshaw?
There are a plethora of questionable options, but many are unlikely to turn to a group of women in Fife, Scotland with no professional golf experience, many of whom are far more mature than the average Tour player.
Yet perhaps they should, because anyone who puts their life in the hands of the St. Andrews Ladies Putting Club would be placing it in the care of an organization with over 150 years of short game experience.
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Founded in 1867, the group is the oldest women’s golf club in the world, a title owed to persevering women with a passion for golf – and disgruntled men.
When the daughters of members of the St. Andrews Royal & Ancient (R&A) Club – widely considered the historic home of the game – decided to play golf, it was not a conventional activity for women. Croquet and archery were the traditional choices among the limited options available.
When the women ventured onto the caddy’s putting course, which was used by those who held the members’ golf bags between rounds, the caddies wanted them to leave almost immediately.
“They didn’t like it at all, and I don’t think the members liked it very much either,” club archivist Eve Soulsby told CNN’s The Jazzy Golfer.
But the caddies had a problem: as club employees, they couldn’t complain to the members. A compromise soon emerged – giving the women land next to the iconic Swilcan Bridge that they could use as a nine-hole putting course.
It was a difficult area, filled with rabbit holes, clods and sand, but it was a start. A month later, 22 women competed in the inaugural St. Andrews Ladies Golf Club tournament.
The word quickly spread. By the late 1880s membership had grown to 600, including male associate members. Today, there is an ever-growing waiting list to join the 140 members, a number kept low to ensure the tournaments run smoothly.
Shortly after, Old Tom Morris, the course’s resident player and greenkeeper, often called the “founding father of golf”, decided it would be a good idea for the ladies to visit the nearby Himalayan section of the course, so named because of its hilly topography.
Morris prepared the area for the club before retiring in 1895, when he was made an honorary member.
Soulsby believes the club’s early members played a pivotal role in achieving greater independence for St. Andrews women at the turn of the century, citing the creation of the women’s course, which – alongside the putting course of the Himalayas – remains playable to this day.
Revenue generated from visitors to the putting course is donated to local charities, with the exception of last year donating funds to Ukrainian organizations.
Officially named The Jubilee Course and opened in 1897, the fact that the women’s designated 18-hole course was coined ‘The Duffers Course’ reflected prevailing attitudes towards women during this period. “We claim that didn’t happen,” Soulsby added.
Among those who carry the torch of those early pioneers today is Sylvia Dunne, the club’s current president.
A member since 2011, Dunne helps run the group’s weekly tournaments; a two-round headline event on Wednesday afternoon and a one-round competition on Thursday morning for so-called “oldies” who may struggle to manage multiple rounds.
“It’s the camaraderie and also because if you get older and you can’t play golf you might be stuck at home doing nothing all day, and it really is a very social club” , she said.
“The best part is the suite because they have coffee and cookies and a blither.”
Members who won tournaments in the early 20th century may have been lucky enough to win a royal prize. The club’s first royal gift came from Prince Leopold, Queen Victoria’s youngest son, and further trophies followed later from Edward VIII and King George VI.
At one time, the R&A captains also donated trophies, but now they take on the Ladies Putting Club in an annual 18-on-18 putting competition.
Dunne is one of the club’s most prolific putters, winning six trophies in a single season in his best year. However, she admits that the green can be a cruel mistress, even for her.
“One day recently, I was so exasperated,” she said. “We have a prize at the end of the season for the most holes in one – so I suggested, isn’t it time we had a prize for the closest miss?
“There is a lot of talent involved, but there is also a lot of luck. Some days the ball rolls for you and other days it won’t fall in the hole.