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Old Course is new thrill for women

Women's British Open is being played at St. Andrews for the first time. Some say the milestone could have happened years ago.

August 02, 2007|Chuck Culpepper | Special to The Times

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- The 19th century would be so scandalized.

In that exponentially bygone time, Scottish women couldn't own property until 1871. By law, their husbands could hit them so long as they used canes that did not exceed their thumbs in width.

Women certainly couldn't play golf, but starting in 1867 they could try the so-dubbed "Himalayas," a pitch-and-putt near the first two holes at the St. Andrews Old Course. As St. Andrews historian Keith Mackie pointed out, "Those were the days when it was considered unseemly for women to lift the club over the shoulder."

"No one then could have foreseen this," said W.W. Knox, a historian at the University of St. Andrews. "In the middle of the 19th century, this would seem almost impossible."

This would be the week at hand.

A garden on a little hill welcomes you to the gumdrop village of St. Andrews, and in red flowers they've grown into it the words "Women's British Open."

Some professional female golfers have stopped by Auchterlonies, the predominant golf shop on the first corner. "We've had them in looking for one-irons and two-irons," said owner Bob Miller, a St. Andrews fixture for 45 years. "They want to be able to punch the ball down the fairway kind of like Tiger does with his two-iron."

And the women's British Open, a major tournament only since 2001, will play the St. Andrews Old Course beginning today, the first women's professional event at the birthplace of golf after 104 years of various amateur events.

"A big, big, big deal," said Annika Sorenstam, the queen of the field, and a past winner in the St. Rule amateur event on the Old Course.

"A dream come true," said Lorena Ochoa, the world's No. 1-ranked player. "The most special week for us.

Sherri Steinhauer, the defending champion who also won at Lytham in England in 2006 and is from Madison, Wis., has grand plans for the famed Swilcan Bridge. She'll have her picture taken.

Catriona Matthew, a Scottish pro with six top-five finishes in majors, who twice won the St. Rule Trophy, characterized the Old Course as that rare course that in person lives up to how it appears on television.

Said Laura Davies, the foremost British golfer with four major titles and 66 wins: "Now that it's become a major, I think it deserves the attention of the bigger courses. Since it's become a major, we've gone to the bigger courses and it's good that St. Andrews has fallen in line. You're playing at the home of golf; it can't get much bigger than that."

Then the doyenne of British women's golf said, "I've never been there, so I'll be looking forward to the week."

I've . . . never . . . been . . . there . . .

Still, the 20th and 21st centuries would not be so scandalized.

Observed under a more recent lens, the first women's British Open at St. Andrews marks a milestone, but mostly a symbolic milestone, a natural mini-step after decades of openness.

"In a way it's not really a step at all," Mackie said. "The golf courses at St. Andrews are all public courses."

Fifty years ago, 30 years ago, 10 years ago, he said, a women's British Open could've played St. Andrews upon request.

He has found some comments about the milestone "kind of annoying," he said, seeing as how the LPGA recognized the women's British Open only in 1994 and as a major only in 2001. "The whole women's professional game is new when you consider that golf's been around here for 600 years," he said.

Given that various amateur women's events began at St. Andrews with the Scottish Ladies Championship in 1903 -- a "Miss A. Glover" won that -- and the St. Rule Trophy event began in 1984, and the Curtis Cup will come in 2008, the most-discussed change this week seems slight.

It's that the Royal & Ancient Golf Club has opened its male-only clubhouse to the competitors, even while the course's other clubhouses already do cater to women.

"Well, of course, it's very old," Sylvia Robertson said of the R&A clubhouse. "Super locker rooms, I can tell you. You can look straight down the links, straight down the first hole."

She knows because she heads the golf contingent of the St. Rule club, a women's social club and one of two women's clubs that overlook the Old Course. St. Rule has 500 members, 291 in its golf sector, and its tasks this momentous week include showing the golfers to their stations within the R&A clubhouse.

Robertson's club, for instance, plays the various men's clubs around St. Andrews several times during the year. "It's not a big deal with us. We all intermingle. We don't have any arguments about getting on the course, because we all have equal rights," she said.

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