In the years to come it is to be hoped that all the men’s Open Championship courses open their doors to women members.  In September, over 200 years after their forming, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews will urge its 2,500 members to abolish its men-only membership policy.

Royal Birkdale, thankfully, caught on a little earlier. It was founded in July 1889 with nine holes on land in the east of Birkdale now occupied by Bedford Park. Ladies were allowed to play on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday for six months from January 1, 1890, on being introduced by an active member.

They rented a room in the house of the greenkeeper, Barrett, for six months and paid a small sum to have their clubs cleaned and oiled.

On October 14 1890, at the first Annual General Meeting, it was carried unanimously that ‘ladies may be elected active members of the club – but shall not be entitled to play on the links on Saturdays, Bank Holidays, competition day or any other days reserved by the committee.’ A subscription was paid but no entrance fee.

At the next council meeting 14 ladies were elected members and, in November, approval was given to a new ladies’ course to consist of holes 3, 1, 7, 2, 4 along with a new hole near the greenkeeper’s house.

I sat down with four current members who proudly boast over 160 years of membership of the club (and this includes one who only joined three years ago). The star of the show is Jean Hunton, a member since 1950, lady captain in 1963 as well as being a brilliant storyteller with a quick sense of humour.

For well over an hour Jean would hold court with her memories of the past 60-odd years at the club – she still plays ‘but with a buggy that slows me down’ – before she has to dash off to have her hair done.
Modesty prevents Jean from singing her own praises – she played off three and was a county player in her own right – but she springs to life when talking about an old friend and the club’s greatest female player, Frances ‘Bunty’ Smith (nee Stephens).

Smith was the daughter of Fred Stephens, the pro at Bootle. Through commitment and practice she built up exceptional strength in her hands and became a force in the amateur game.

“She had the most extraordinary swing that nobody could ever copy. She would go back and stop, go little bit further back and then swing. We played a lot, two to three times a week, and she was a very good friend. She was consistent and straight down the middle, she might have often been outgunned for length but her short game was her saviour.”

Smith’s husband, Roy, was killed in a plane crash in Libya when their daughter, Caroline, was nine months old.

“She was quiet and unassuming but wasn’t a dull person in the slightest and she was very strong-minded and determined when needed but without any dominance or swagger. Her grit got her through a lot of matches.”

This was never more apparent than in her Curtis Cup matches. In five singles outings she never lost and, twice, the destination of the cup was dependent on the outcome of her matches. She came through both times.

the selectors were reluctant to pick the daughter of a club professional Herbert Warren Wind, the US writer who coined the phrase ‘Amen Corner’ at Augusta, said of the Birkdale star:
“She holds on to her timing in the most nerve-wracking situations because she has superb concentration. She holds on to her concentration because she has a purposefulness that never wavers and a wondrous heart.”

The club hosted the Curtis Cup in 1948 but Smith, then 24, was overlooked. The suggestion was that the selectors were reluctant to pick the daughter of a club professional.

When it came to the 1950 matches in New York the then 70-year-old Gladys Ravenscroft, winner of both the British and American Amateur titles, took it upon herself to organise a petition on behalf of Smith. She was duly given a place in the team (and wasn’t beaten).

Smith went on to captain the Curtis Cup side twice and was also awarded the OBE, an honour that was almost unheard of back then.

To give you some idea of quite how special a player she was, Smith played the front nine of Woodhall Spa in the first round of the final of the English Women’s Championship in just 30 strokes. The par was 39 and her scores included a one at the 5th.

On a club level Smith held the scratch prize for 19 years – she is also the only lady to be become an Honoray Life Member of the club – and she might have won the men’s knockout competition but for an out-of-character display in the quarter-finals. The suspicion was that she didn’t feel the need to win a men’s event.

Smith was only 53 when she died of breast cancer and still played at the club in her last days with her oncologist.

The Frances Smith Memory Trophy was inaugurated at Birkdale in 1980 and this annual competition is now held at different courses. All clubs in the county are invited to send a representative. There isn’t space here to do justice to the feats of the lady members, some of them internationals.

One, Janet Melville, was playing with the captain in a mixed foursomes and they received 18 shots of which the captain provided 19!

Rather, instead, to try and paint a brief picture of how the club and course have evolved over the years.
John Rostron MBE is the club’s chairman of memorabilia and a Birkdale member for 50 years.

“When I first joined the ladies were not allowed to walk in front of the men’s lounge. But we were quite revolutionary in that a special meeting in 2000 took approximately 90 seconds for the ladies to become members on an equal footing. It was the best thing that we ever did.”

The course has also moved on with each passing year. The biggest change in recent years is the riveting of the bunkers, more sloping than straight faced which has gone down well with the members, while the club has not responded to length increases but made the course more difficult for both the men’s and women’s Opens.

Today we have a par 5 at the 17th,  a hole which tends to play a crucial role in the playing of these Majors, but it used to be a short hole up until 1965.

The R&A said they would like a longer finish so they put in the short 12th and made the penultimate hole a par 5. 

Jean Hunton’s face cracks another smile as she recalls how the hole used to play.

“The 17th was a short hole which could kill any card stone dead, it was a little flick but was surrounded by bunkers.”

Jean’s face descends into giggles at the thought of some of the scenes of yesteryear. Birkdale might be preceded by its Royal stamp but this is a members’ club. A clubhouse where friends can meet several times a week and, in the second week of July, where the best players in the world will gather.

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