I have seen many great golf clashes between American and British heroines and feel I am entitled to a reasonably privileged judgment of the ones I remember best. The judgment is limited, not to say biased, by the fact that I have never watched the important matches in America. There is, too, a sad gap that can never be filled: I was not at Gullane in 1947 and never saw Mrs. Zaharias play.
My first view of illustrious ladies in action was at Turnberry, Scotland in 1921, in the very first round of the Ladies' Championship, between Miss Cecil Leitch, then the British champion, and Miss Alexa Stirling, who was the American champion in 1916, 1919 and 1920. It was by unkind fortune that they met so early and doubly hard on Miss Stirling that she should face such unconscionable weather. Miss Leitch was that day a dominating figure who seemed to ride in the whirlwind and direct the storm. There have been one or two players who reveled in rough weather. J. H. Taylor, with chin stuck out and cap pulled well down, was one of them, and now Miss Leitch, facing the rainstorm as though she could drive it away with a golf club, seemed another. Miss Stirling was a beautiful golfer, but the weather and her adversary were alike overpowering.
In the final of that 1921 Ladies' Championship Miss Leitch beat Miss Joyce Wethered. The next year Miss Wethered had an ample revenge and, until she retired, she was the outstanding figure in women's golf. Miss Leitch challenged her bravely at Troon in 1925 in a match that ought to have been declared a tie—a 37th hole was a mockery. And with Troon, I come to Miss Wethered's great American rival, Miss Glenna Collett. They met in the third or fourth round and Miss Wethered drew away after being pressed, and won almost comfortably, but Miss Collett's quality was plain to see. She had a free, round swing and a rapid movement—I can only call it a flicker—of her left foot.
It was four years before the two met again. They played at St. Andrews, and the draw arranged that the two should fight out the final. All Britain believed their heroine invincible, and she did win, and that greatly, but what a shock we had! On the day of that final, a non-golfer—there are such even in St. Andrews—met a postman on his rounds who, without a word of preface, exclaimed in a tone of utter gloom, "She's 5 doon." And so she was, for Miss Collett, faultless up to the greens and diabolical on them, ran right away going out. Soon afterward she had to putt to be 6 up. People still argue as to what would have happened had she holed it. She missed it—and by lunchtime Miss Wethered was hard on her enemy's heels. By the turn in the afternoon it looked like Miss Wethered's match. But then Miss Collett spurted most gloriously and anything might have happened but for a gallant putt by Miss Wethered on the 15th green. As it was she won by 3 and 1, a match of efforts as brave, and fluctuations as palpitating, as were ever seen.
Best of the ladies
Miss Wethered was incomparably the best woman golfer I ever saw. Making due allowance for the handicap of sex, I put her with the Joneses and the Vardons and Hogans, in the highest class of all. I have played a good deal with her both as partner and opponent; indeed I was one of the seven different partners with whom she won the classic Worplesdon Mixed Foursomes—eight times in 15 years. Only on the green, where the greatest are human, was a partner likely to be aware of her limitations. But nobody could want a more helpful ally, cheerful and yet serious. She once said that she found it an antidote to golfing "nerves" to see the humor of it all, and she lived up to it.
It is hard to picture a player's style for those who have not seen her. Perhaps I can do so by a little story, which may or may not have happened. When she was engaged to Sir John Heathcoat-Amory she went to Devon to stay with his people and played golf at Tiverton. The ladies of Tiverton came out to see her and concluded that she did not pivot, and set out to reform what they were pleased to call their swings. Of course, it was a delusion; the champion had a fine, free body turn, but it was managed so quietly and smoothly as nearly to escape notice. At one time she used to keep her left foot firmly on the ground, though later she allowed it a little orthodox movement. She is seldom seen on a course today—she is almost the same age as Bobby Jones—but now and again there is a glimpse of her at Blairgowrie in Pertshire. The swing may be just a little shorter and quieter, but the genius, they tell me, is still there.
The only time I ever saw Miss Wethered play almost badly was in the first Curtis Cup match at Wentworth, Surrey in 1932. She and Miss Wanda Morgan met Mrs. Vare ( Miss Collett that was) and Mrs. Opal Hill. They made the saddest mess of the last hole and lost by 1. America won the other two foursomes as well, and it is interesting that in international matches Americans, who play no foursomes, beat Britons, who do, more severely than in singles. It confirms my opinion that much nonsense is talked by those who make a mystery of foursome play. When all is said the ball "maun be hit." In the afternoon our leader was herself again and beat Mrs. Vare by 6 and 4. We had some good young players that year, notably Miss Enid Wilson, later a triple champion, and Miss Diana Fishwick, who at 19 had stood up to Miss Collett at Formby in the 1930 Championship and saved her country.
But the player remembered best from that first cup match was Miss Virginia Van Wie. I never saw her again, but she remains in my memory as having one of the two or three most perfectly graceful swings I ever saw. She won three American championships and in one of them outrageously beat Mrs. Vare by 10 and 8, but I doubt if anybody could have been as good as she looked.
Four years passed, and in 1936 the Curtis Cup was played at Gleneagles. I was not there but, of necessity, at St. Andrews, where we only heard the news at intervals—mostly dismal news. Hope had apparently fled, but then word came by telephone that Wee Jessie Anderson had holed a huge putt right across the home green to halve the match. That was the first appearance in the Curtis Cup of Miss Anderson, later Mrs. Valentine. Not very large but with a great heart, she is a resilient competitor, and in the 1956 Curtis Cup match, 20 years after her first cup appearance, won the No. 1 singles match at Sandwich from Pat Lesser of the U.S.