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Sunday, July 21, 2013

Women Golfers Can Never Equal Men?

Women golfers can never equal men?  So declared Harold Hilton in an article published in 1915 not by Fox News or Penthouse, rags better known for a lunatic fringe bias than for informed reporting of All The News That's Fit to Print, but by the scion of even-handed reportage, The New York Times.  Click the link and read the article for yourself.

Let's dig deeper  What women were penetrating the sacred links when Harold spewed out his vitriol?  Lots of them, it seems.

The Women's Oklahoma Golf Association was established in 1915, when Oklahoma had been a state for 8 years and Oklahomans were still trying to figure out where to site the state capitol.  But the Oklahoma women were latecomers to the game of golf in general and women's competitive golf specifically.  Surely Harold wasn't referring to a few women knocking golf balls around on the prairie in the middle of the American Heartland when he declared "women golfers will never be as good as men."  

Vera Ford, n.d.
Perhaps Harold was reflecting on events closer to home?  Vera Ramsey Hutchings Ford won the Massachusetts Women's Amateur Championship in 1915, defeating three-time US Women's Amateur champ Margaret Curtis.   Ford's career as an amateur golfer spans 20 years and her victories are impressive.  So was her form.  Look at that cocked club.  Follow the line of her body down to the hips, the left knee, perfectly positioned for the weight shift she needs to come around and through and send her ball flying down the fairway.  And she's managing this physical maneuver bound up from neck to toe in garb that binds her body.

But I suspect Harold's observations were not directed at Vera Fort or Margaret Curtis but fueled instead by a match with Cecil Leitch.  As is often the case, the personal becomes the political.

Like Vera Ramsey Hutchings Ford, Hall of Famer Hilton accumulated a long string of victories during his amateur golf career, including the British Open at Muirfield in 1892.  But Harold Hilton went too far when he publicly proclaimed that the difference between a male and a female golf champion was about 9 strokes per round, when played from the men's tees.

Charlotte Cecilia (Cecil) Pitcairn Leitch called Harold's bluff on October 1910.  The pair played 36 holes at Walton Heath and then 36 holes at Sunningdale before a crowd of about 4,000 fans, most of them "ignorant and unruly" according to the Golf Illustrated reporter who witnessed the event.

Leitch played a hard, fast game of golf using a wide, manly stance.  The Times reporter who covered the match marveled at her ability to strike the ball with "a splendid, firm snap . . . and make the ball bite, with a fizz, and stop."

Cecil Leitch, 1914
The weather worsened when Leitch and Hilton moved from Walton Heath to Sunningdale, with typically British wind and rain creating challenging conditions for the match.  Leitch was down 5 with 15 holes remaining, and then rallied, winning 7 or the next 9 holes.  This was match play.  Hilton knew he'd been defeated on the 35th green.  The pair ended their match with a handshake.

Hilton, the loser by 2 and 1, admitted I was beaten fair and square.

Cecil Leitch went on to win 12 national titles, The French Ladies Amateur and the Canadian Women's Amateur tournaments.  Leitch also wrote 2 books, Golf (Philadelphia, 1922) and Golf Simplified (London, 1924).

Harold Hilton took some time to reflect on his humiliation and then excoriated women golfers in his NY Times piece 5 years after his fair and square defeat on the British links by a woman who refused to be bullied.

These are events we can all ponder, and some of us can savor, while we watch the men slug it out at Muirfield and wait for the women to tee it up at St Andrews.