The WBO's savior
Sir Richard George presenting the winner's trophy to Sherri Steinhauer at the 2006 Women's British Open.
When the du Maurier Classic was phased out, the victim of a Canadian law banning tobacco products from sponsoring athletic events, the LPGA was in need of a fourth major championship. That's when the white knight on the silver steed rode in and saved the day in the form of Sir Richard George, then chairman and managing director of Weetabix, the breakfast cereal company that sponsored what is now the Ricoh Women's British Open. While no one is solely responsible for a women's professional championship coming to St. Andrews, Sir Richard, a member of the R&A, is chiefly so. Without him history would not have been made last week.
The Women's British Open came into existence in 1994 with a small purse and had, for its first three years, Woburn G&CC as its home. Sir Richard single-handedly took what was at first a non-LPGA event and in 14 years quadrupled the purse and found major-championship caliber venues. If all that didn't happen, there was no way the tournament would have become a major -- and no way women would have used the locker room and clubhouse of the R&A. It was hugely important for this tournament that it have a friend inside the walls of the R&A arguing on its behalf. That friend was Sir Richard.
Now the R&A needs to take the next step and make the Old Course a regular stop for the Women's British Open. Next up are Sunningdale in 2008, Royal Lytham & St. Annes in 2009 and Royal Birkdale in 2010, the same year the men next play the British Open at St. Andrews. Assuming the R&A won't want an Open in consecutive years, the next available spot for the Women's British Open at St. Andrews is 2012. The R&A should commit to that date right now.
The Curtis Cup will be played at St. Andrews next year, and all indications were a majority of the R&A members -- some insiders say a vast majority -- were delighted to host the women this year. Those same insiders say the mood in the R&A is strongly supportive of bringing the Women's Open back in 2012.
When Sir Richard sold Weetabix, the new owners opted not to continue the investment in golf. A new tournament sponsor was needed, and it is safe to say it was easier for Ricoh to warm to the deal because St. Andrews was to be the venue.
The success of last week's Women's British Open should hasten its return to the Old Course. And the success should also make other venues not synonymous with women consider hosting LPGA events. How about having the Solheim Cup at Augusta National? If the R&A can make a statement that while it doesn't include women as members it supports them as golfers, so can Augusta National.
Sir Richard George was excluded from the closing ceremony Sunday at St. Andrews and while that is understandable, it is sad. Weetabix is gone as the title sponsor, and Sir Richard is gone as the czar of the tournament. He will always be remembered, however, as the man who made it possible for the women to play at St. Andrews.