The English have always been good at sorting things out. Charles Darwin and Sir Isaac Newton come to mind, and when you see a museum advertising "The Salt Shaker: Seven Centuries of Progress," you can be sure the curator is a Brit. It should surprise no one, then, that the intractable problems of golf and gender have been resolved at Formby, a little town 13 miles northwest of Liverpool on England's Lancashire coast. Formby is home to two 18-hole courses on one generous piece of oceanfront property-one course belonging to the Formby Golf Club (est. 1884) and the other belonging to the Formby Ladies Golf Club (est. 1896). There are two clubhouses as well, a bouquet's throw from each other. "It's a very happy arrangement," says David Eccles, a retired major in the British army and a 41-year member of Formby. "We have the best of both worlds," agrees his wife, Beryl, who belongs to Formby Ladies.
Formby, we hasten to say, isn't a haven for misogynists and manhaters. Women play the men's course and vice versa, and the two clubs will cohost the 2004 Curtis Cup, the biennial competition between teams of women amateurs from the U.S. and from Great Britain and Ireland. The clubs also hold mixed tournaments and join in social functions. "It's all very friendly," says Trish Foggin, a 20-year member and current captain of Formby Ladies.
The source of the comity isn't segregation but self-determination. Formby Ladies is the only women's golf club in the United Kingdom that owns and operates its own 18-hole course. Its 300 members don't have to negotiate with men for tee times or tournament dates, and the course, at 5,374 yards and par 71, is designed for women golfers. "This isn't a country club," says Daphne Johnson, a former Formby Ladies captain and chairwoman of its Centenary Committee. "This is purely golf."
These are Englishwomen, of course, so when asked about some wild orchids growing near the 7th tee, Johnson fetches a large album cataloging the dozens of wildflowers and grasses that cover the linksland: bird's-foot trefoil and tufted vetch, scarlet pimpernel and common toadfly. "The purple loosestrife is just coming out," says Johnson—a comment that in another setting would have a gentleman checking his sweater for loose threads. The album is the work of another Daphne, former green chairman Daphne Thomas, who spent two years identifying and photographing the flowers for the club's centenary in 1996. The original idea was to press each flower in a book, but Thomas discovered that not all flowers are attractive when crushed.
"A pressed bluebell," she says, "does not look very nice." When an American visitor praises the album and says he has never seen its like at a golf club, Thomas says, "Well, I think girls are more interested in flowers than men are."
Having disarmed the male guest with disingenuous talk, Thomas can smile when he goes out on the course and spends the better part of three hours trying to recover from lies that could only be improved with three applications of Roundup. "The fairways are wondrous narrow, the rough most resolutely fiendish," wrote a competitor in the 1978 British Men's Seniors Championship, part of which was held at Formby Ladies. "You can be hacking desperately, only inches off a fairway-edge, in heather, blueberry, gorse, bramble, creeping willow, grass tussocks and some of the lushest and toughest and thickest rough-grass I ever remember finding on any golf course."
The greens are small and guarded by sand bunkers just big enough, as British golf writer Bernard Darwin used to say, "for an angry man with a niblick." The signature holes are two short but difficult par-3s, the 122-yard 5th and the 158-yard 12th, but the long-hitting male golfer is best tested by the four holes that play from 412 to 428 yards. "I used to spend more time on the ladies' course than I did on the men's," says David Lloyd, a former assistant pro at Formby Golf Club who's now the head pro at nearby Formby Hall Golf Club. "It taught me to be straight."
Formby Ladies has no men's tees—only one set for all players. Men deduct six strokes from their handicaps to compensate for their ability to hit the ball farther. (There are ladies' tees at Formby Golf Club.) "On some holes the carry to the fairway can be difficult for high handicappers of either sex," says David Eccles. Among the more interesting man-made hazards is a crater near the 12th green, designed by a Luftwaffe bombardier during the May Blitz saturation bombing of Liverpool.
The clubhouse at Formby Ladies is much smaller than the one at Formsby, but it has a recently remodeled locker room and all the appurtenances of British golf, including a wall-mounted barometer, shields listing past captains and a framed portrait of the queen. Three public rooms—an enclosed veranda, a lounge and a dining room-ascend like stairs from the course, with a big bay window in the lounge providing a cushioned seat and an unimpeded view of the 1st tee of the men's course. (The second-floor club room of the Formby Golf Club overlooks the 1st tee of the ladies' course.) The veranda is called the Monkey House. "From chattering women, I imagine," says Beryl Eccles, a vivacious woman with eyes that register astonishment easily. "It's like an old-fashioned conservatory, tin roof, glass sides. We like to go in there after a round, take our coffee, have a natter." Looking down from a corner perch is a small ceramic monkey, evidence that the ladies enjoy a joke on themselves as well as a witty counterpoint to Formby, where the lounge is decorated with a stuffed hippopotamus head.
While on the subject of heads, it was a member of Formby Ladies, three-time British Women's Open semifinalist Beryl Brown, who popularized woolly headcovers. During the third round of the 1931 English Ladies Championship at Ganton, Brown, according to a newspaper account, "appeared on the 1st tee for her match...with the heads of her clubs capped in little Tarn o' Shanters made of wool and each, according to true Scottish taste, bearing a tassel."