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  • Alistair Tait

Another St George’s suffragette moment?

The late Michael Williams was effusive in summing up the 1988 Curtis Cup at Royal St George’s Golf Club. Great Britain & Ireland won that match 11-7, and the Daily Telegraph golf correspondent wrote:

“Golf once again had set sport a shining example.”

Did golf set a shining example yesterday when Scotland’s Gemma Dryburgh won her second consecutive Rose Ladies Series tournament over the 14-time Open Championship venue? Dryburgh won by one shot over playing companions Charley Hull and Georgia Hall, and made history.

“I’m delighted to be the first-ever female professional to win a tournament at Royal St. George’s in their first ever ladies’ professional event,” Dryburgh said.

Will Dryburgh, Hull, Hall, Laura Davies and the other women who teed it up at St George’s leave more of a lasting impression than women did over 100 years ago.

Just before World War I, a group of suffragettes marched from the centre of Sandwich intent on damaging some of Royal St George’s greens. They didn’t succeed with their protest. Former club professional Fred Whiting headed them off.

It took until 1928 for women to get the vote, another 87 years before Royal St George’s elected to allow women members, and 92 years for the first women’s professional tournament to be staged at the club. This once all-male club had to be dragged screaming into the 20th century, never mind the 21st century. It was in existence for 128 years before finally admitting women.

The South of England club is famous in golf folklore because a former secretary, Major H E (Holly) Ward, once put up a sign reminding women to remove their trousers before entering the clubhouse! Major Ward was probably turning in his grave yesterday as the women took to the links.

This is the club where the great Joyce Wethered once had to leave the area of the clubhouse she was allowed to inhabit to seek warmth outside. In A Course for Heroes: A history of Royal St George’s Golf Club, E W Swanton writes:

“The limitations of the ladies’ accommodation remain clear in the recollection of Joyce Wethered (now Lady Heathcote Armory). It was so cold in the little Ladies’ Room while her brother Roger, Reggie Winn and another sat over their port before the afternoon round that she recalls waiting outside ‘and warming my hands on the radiator of a beautiful Rolls Royce.’”

Thankfully, the women didn’t need to seek solace outside the St George’s clubhouse yesterday.

Will we see the best women in the world play a Women’s British Open Championship at Royal St George’s any time soon? Let’s hope so. After all, with Royal Troon staging this year’s AIG Women’s British Open, St George’s will be one of three venues in the Open Championship pool along with Muirfield and Royal Portrush not to have staged the Women’s British.

Here’s a novel idea: the R&A should decree that after next year’s Open Championship at Royal St George’s, it – along with Muirfield and Royal Portrush – doesn’t stage the men’s Open until a Women’s Open has been staged there. After all, women clearly have a lot of catching up to do at this venue.

So, are we at a turning point in the women’s game? It feels like it. Things are happening to suggest we’ve moved on drastically since those suffragettes failed to vent their frustrations on the St George’s putting surfaces. We have an R&A chief executive in Martin Slumbers who is hell bent on getting more women and girls into the game; major winners like Justin Rose and his better half Kate, and Paul Lawrie going out of their way to cater for women professionals; mixed LET/European Tour events; mixed mini tours; a merger of the LPGA and LET that promises much for women’s golf in Europe; strong voices in Meghan MacLaren, Mel Reid and others who won’t be silenced.

Here’s hoping Dryburgh, Hull, Hall, Davies and the other women who teed it up at Royal St George’s have as lasting an impression on golf as those suffragettes had on wider society when they marched from Sandwich all those years ago.

Photograph courtesy of the Ladies European Tour

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