History for the Taking

By Ron Sirak Photos by Getty Images
July 22, 2007

Women's events (such as the 1928 Ladies Scottish Foursomes) have been played at the Old Course, but nothing on the order of next week's Women's British Open.

History says the first woman to play the Old Course at St. Andrews was Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, sometime in the mid-1500s. But likely the real first female on the Home of Golf was Sheena the shepherd's daughter who most probably sneaked on during one of those endless summer evenings in Scotland when a full moon can illuminate the landscape in a dull brilliance bright enough to follow the flight of the ball.

What's not known is if Her Royal Highness was allowed to have a pint in what passed for a clubhouse back then or if the forebears of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, the governing body for the game outside the United States, already had posted their "No Dogs, No Women" sign. Sheena likely was content with a nip from a hip flask while sitting on the edge of a pot bunker. What is indisputable is that when the Ricoh Women's British Open commences Aug. 2, it will be the first time women pros tee it up on the Old Course in competition. It will also be a rare time when women will be allowed in the R&A clubhouse, although they still will not be allowed to bring their dogs. Also known is this: Whoever hoists the champion's trophy will be able to say -- unlike anyone else for as long as the game is played -- they won the first Women's British Open Championship played at St. Andrews. Take that Mary, Queen of Scots.

The men who defend the exclusionary policies of the R&A point out that this is not the first women's event played on the Old Course. They also point out that there are multiple clubhouses at St. Andrews, all of which, except the fittingly fortress-like R&A building, allow women and one that is even exclusively women. But it's also true that although the men have contested their Open Championship at St. Andrews 27 times, this is the first for the women. The Women's British Open came of age when it became an LPGA major in 2001 and is now being contested on layouts that have hosted the men, such as Royal Lytham & St. Annes and Royal Birkdale.

"Professional women's golf is going from strength to strength, and we are delighted the top professionals are coming to the home of golf," says Alan McGregor, general manager of St. Andrews Links Trust, which manages the six courses at St. Andrews. "This is a milestone in the history of women's golf in St. Andrews, which started with the formation of the Ladies Putting Club in the late 19th century. The Trust has always supported women's golf and welcomes the increase in the number of women taking up the game." The R&A, on the other hand, would rather women have their pint somewhere other than its clubhouse.

Tournaments for amateur women have been played at St. Andrews since 1903, when "Miss A. Glover" won the Scottish Ladies Championship. That event has been played on the Old Course nine times, most recently in 2003. Since 1984, the St. Rule Trophy, an amateur event, has been contested on both the Old and New courses, with a list of winners that includes Annika Sorenstam, Catriona Matthew and Maria Hjorth -- all of whom will be playing in this year's Women's British Open.

If there is symmetry, the winner of the first woman's professional event at St. Andrews will be Sorenstam, providing fitting bookends for a career in which the first of her 69 LPGA victories was the 1995 U.S. Women's Open. If continuity rules, one of the emerging stars such as Lorena Ochoa, the top player on the Rolex Ranking, or Paula Creamer, who turns 21 on Aug. 5, the day the tournament ends, will get her first major at St. Andrews. If sentiment triumphs, Laura Davies, the irrepressible Englishwoman who has never played the Old Course and says she will change her shoes in the car park, will win and earn the final two points she needs to gain entry to the LPGA Hall of Fame.

"I think it's a big, big, big deal," Sorenstam said at the HSBC Women's World Match Play Championship last week where she was one of the nine top seeds ousted in the first two rounds (see sidebar). "I'm really excited about it. I think it's a huge step for women's golf to go there. [Considering] the history that St. Andrews has with the men playing the Open there, I think it's wonderful. I think it's an amazing place. So I'm going to enjoy every minute."

Sherri Steinhauer, who won last year at Lytham and captured two previous British Open titles before it became a major, has the kind of low ball flight that works well on fast-running, windblown links and has to be considered a contender. Karrie Webb, winner at Woburn (1995), Sunningdale (1997) and Turnberry (2002), and Se Ri Pak, who also triumphed at Sunningdale (2001), are on the short list of favorites as well, along with Sorenstam, who completed the career Grand Slam at Lytham in 2003. Creamer is one of the few LPGA players who went over early to scout the Old Course, playing four rounds there in April. Ochoa enters with the most pressure, needing to prove she has what it takes to win a major.

"It's a dream come true [to play the Old Course], and it's going to be the most special week [of] my five years on tour," says Ochoa, who has never been to St. Andrews. "My caddie, Dave [Brooker], is from England. He's been over there a few times and caddied a few times. So it's going to be a week where I am going to really pay attention to what he says and really follow his instructions."

The Old Course will play 6,638 yards for the women, with a par of 73 (as opposed to 72 for the men), with the famous Road Hole, No. 17, being converted to a 453-yard par 5. The course also features seven double greens and pot bunkers in places that make absolutely no sense, virtually guaranteeing that happenstance alone will beach more than a few balls.

"I played it last week, and I think for the ladies the bunkers are going to come into play more," says Matthew, who won the St. Rule Trophy in 1993 and '94. "The men hit it over the bunkers. If you lay up, you are going to leave yourself too far in, so obviously it is going to favor someone who drives it well. Lag putting is also important there with the double greens. I had one putt last week that was 50 yards. You can hit 18 greens there and three-putt every time. But the main thing is to avoid the bunkers. You go in and you are just chipping out."

The theme of the year in the majors has been first-time winners. Morgan Pressel got her first -- and first LPGA victory -- at the Kraft Nabisco Championship. Suzann Pettersen and Cristie Kerr picked up their first majors at the McDonald's LPGA Championship and the U.S. Women's Open respectively. In fact, the first three men's majors played this year have also had first-time winners.

One player desperately looking for a good finish -- or even just to finish -- is Michelle Wie, who was last at the McDonald's, 35 strokes off the lead, and withdrew at the U.S. Women's Open when she was 17 over par after 27 holes. Her stretch of poor play started at last year's Women's British when she finished T-26, beginning a year-long stretch in which she has failed to break par on tour. She is among the young players LPGA veterans will be watching to see if they grasp the historical significance of the occasion.

"I don't think all of them will," former player and current TV commentator Mary Bryan said when asked if the players will appreciate the meaning of this tournament. "The R&A museum will be dedicated to women's golf that week," Bryan says. "I hope a lot of the younger players go over there. They need to appreciate the history of the game and the history of women's golf."

Bryan first played St. Andrews in 1978 and shared her round with a member of the R&A. "Every hole was like a history lesson," she says. "It would be like, 'This is where Bobby Jones did this' or 'This is where Lee Trevino did that.' I happen to think it's a huge coup for the LPGA to be playing there. It's a statement that the LPGA has truly arrived."

The European players have a special appreciation for St. Andrews. "If I win I might just take my shoes off on the 18th green and retire right there," says Sophie Gustafson, the long-hitting Swede who has finished second in the last two Women's British Opens. The laugh with which she punctuated the sentence made you think she just might not be kidding.

"Everyone over there is very excited about it," says Matthew, who grew up in North Berwick, an easy drive from the Old Course. "There is a real buzz about. When you drive in [to St. Andrews] there is a flowerbed that says 'Women's British Open.' To win the British at St. Andrews would be the pinnacle of your career."

And, for a year at least, it would make her the Queen of Scots.