At 8:20 a.m. on Aug. 8 Jan Ferraris of San Francisco struck one of the most significant shots of the 1974 British golf season. The ball Miss Ferraris hit from the first tee of Sunningdale's Old Course marked the beginning of the first women's professional golf tournament to be played in England.
The Colgate-Palmolive Company, fresh from its Palm Springs production in April, had shipped the whole caravan to the Surrey Course to give the British a close-up view of the LPGA tour. If you were interested in golf and lived in Britain, there was no way you could avoid knowing about the Colgate European Women's Open Championship as the media were awash with publicity.
Forty-three American women and sundry representatives from other countries were invited to compete, and when the prize-money list was announced, people really began to take notice. In a British PGA men's tournament, �4,000 (nearly $10,000) is an extremely handsome first-place check. When a similar amount is offered to a woman, then even the astringencies of Britain's economics are pushed into the background.
So the British, fed exclusively on a diet of the male game, came to watch—some out of sheer curiosity but many from a genuine desire to observe the best women golfers in the world. At first one got the impression that the fans were a little disturbed at seeing women playing for that kind of money. It was somehow alien to their notion that a woman's place is in the home, not crouching over a three-foot putt for big money. Of course, women have played golf in Britain for nearly a century, but it was strictly fun stuff and a subject for jocularity in the "men only" bars of British clubs. Last week changed all that because suddenly there were women around who not only played the game well but looked splendid doing so.
This was the first visit to Britain for most of the Americans, and their first experience of the "bump and bumble" that makes British courses unique. Fresh from the watered greens and fairways of U.S. country clubs, they found that at Sunningdale the high-flying wedge kept on flying right through the greens. It was time for them to go back to the days when they were serving their apprenticeships, the days when they practiced pitch and run or the punched six-iron or the half eight-iron.
The course, set in the heart of stockbroker country, is a club where tradition is as rich as many of the members. It has achieved a certain celebrity for staging big-money matches among its members, and its professional, Arthur Lees, a onetime Ryder Cup player, will take on anybody around for any kind of stake. There are two courses for the members to play on, but the more famous is the Old Course, where Bobby Jones in qualifying for the 1927 British Open played a nearly perfect 18 holes of golf—66 shots and only once in a bunker and once off the fairway. It is a natural course laid out among the silver birch trees and heather that dominate that part of England.
The Americans had never seen anything like it. "If we had to play a course like this every week back home," said Carol Mann, LPGA president, "then we'd be much better. This course is a real test, it's a challenge, and we all love a challenge." Sandra Haynie: "I have to hit shots here that I haven't hit in 10 years. You have to learn to work the ball, especially around the greens; you have to create shots instead of just hitting in a wedge." Susie Berning: "We play a lot of courses in the States that are immature, about one to two years old. The ground hasn't really settled and we get free drops out of practically anything. Now this course has character, it's established, it's part of the tradition of the game. Everything was put here for a purpose, it's natural."
Maybe the course was a little fiery, even by British standards, and the prolonged lack of rain had left the front areas of the greens very hard, but there was no doubt that the women loved its quirks. What they were not so fond of was the heather, a particularly knotty brand of Calluna vulgaris, that lay some 10 feet off each side of every fairway. It looks pretty, with its purple flowers coloring the sides of holes, but it is distinctly bad news for a golfer, especially a woman golfer. Men, although not over-fond of it, can at least achieve some sort of distance out of it by virtue of their greater strength, but for a woman it's fractured-wrist country. The Colgate contestants sedulously avoided it but there were a few casualties, not the least being Sandra Haynie, who ran up an 8 in her first-round 80 after losing an argument with the heather.
One lady who kept her visits to the heather to the minimum was Judy Rankin. Using a carbonite-shafted driver for only the second time, she drove the smaller British ball straight and true around the 6,227 yards, par 72 of Sunningdale and wound up the winner by five shots over Mary Mills and Sue Roberts. Rankin's steady rounds of 72-73-73 represented outstandingly skillful golf, and while her rivals, in particular Mary Mills, made a brief run at her, the former Miss Torluemke kept hitting it up the middle, onto the greens and into the hole. After collecting the $9,600 first prize, Rankin said that her driving was the foundation of her victory. She had decided, on seeing the course, that the penalties for errant tee shots were heavy enough to crush her, and so resolved to keep the ball in play at all costs. She also stated that because of these penalties she concentrated on one shot at a time instead of thinking ahead four holes or more. She played the last round in a cocoon of poker-faced concentration which underlined to the enthusiastic British gallery just how dedicated the American women were. Coming to the last of the 54 holes, a tough 400-yarder with a row of menacing bunkers about 100 yards from the green. Rankin hit one of her few poor shots, a drive into heavy rough. She chopped out onto the fairway and then flourished a six-iron four feet from the pin. Par. It was a shot that put final confirmation on the ability of women professionals to play this most maddening and lovable of games.
Although Rankin collected the big prize, former wig-doffing heroine Pam Barnett collected a major goodie in the shape of a brand-new MGB sports car for putting her tee shot closest to the pin on 13. For this par-3 178-yarder, Barnett pulled out a seven-iron and practically holed out on the fly, the ball crunching up against the pin and stopping 9?" away, not 9�" or 9�" but 9?"—they're very precise about these things in Britain. Barnett and car will shortly be making an appearance in Florida.