A major boost to the women's game
LYTHAM ST. ANNES, ENGLAND - One of the smartest things the LPGA has done in the past decade is elevate the Women's British Open to major championship status. Thursday's first round at Royal Lytham and St. Annes screamed that message loudly. Take a great links course, add in a dash of weather - in this case wind in excess of 20 mph - and there is no better test of the skill and mental discipline needed to be a champion. There are also few things as entertaining as watching great players forced to think anew their approach to the game. No shot can be played by rote. What had been your target on a blind tee shot on one day will provide totally useless information the next if the direction of the wind has changed.
Among the great courses in the Open Championship rota, for both the men and the women, none surpasses Royal Lytham. With its devious and ubiquitous bunkering, Lytham is simply one of the best tests of golf anywhere. Flat spots on the fairways are as rare as sunny days have been lately in northwest England and often a ball that appears to be safely past a bunker will begin a circuitous backward route that winds up right back in the little devil.
But perhaps the most surprising thing about the Women's British is not that it only became a major in 2001, but that it only came into being in 1976. Then again, it is not all that surprising when you remember that the tradition of women's golf in Britain in on the amateur level. The first Women's British Open was played at Fulford and was won by Jenny Lee-Smith, an amateur who was a former Curtis Cup player. Vivien Saunders and Gwen Brandom, two of a handful of pros in the event, put up 200 pounds of their own money as the professional prize money.
To show how far the tournament has come, when Gwen Saunders won the second Women's British at Lindrick in 1977 it was on a match of cards with Mary Everard after they finished tied at 306. The winner's share was 210 pounds. There wasn't even an Open in 1983, but when it retuned in 1984 at Woburn with a sponsor - Hitachi - it began to produce an impressive group of winners.
Ayako Okamoto won in '84, Betsy King at Moor Park in '85 and Laura Davies at Royal Birkdale in '86. The tournament was sponsored by Weetabix, a British breakfast food, when it was elevated to major status in 2001, and is now under the domain of Ricoh, a Japan-based technology company - a long way from when players competed for their own money.
-- Ron Sirak