Every British Open golf course has its own atmosphere, made up of equal parts antiquated custom, salt-heavy air and local varieties of ankle-clutching grasses, the quaintly named harebell and petalwort that color the gray dunes. In the case of Royal Birkdale, you find this peculiarly odd element in the club’s aura and history: skirts.
Birkdale has been admitting female members since 1890, earlier than its brethren clubs by, oh, more than a century and a quarter. This is more than a passing curiosity that deserves investigating.
It’s impossible to overstate just how sexist golf has been through the centuries. The Society of St. Andrews Golfers, founded in 1754, started admitting women in 2015. Muirfield’s hard-line members flatly refused to mingle with women until the spring of 2017, arguing that their presence would slow play and upset their “luncheon arrangements,” and capitulated only when it was threatened with removal from the British Open rotation. Susan Reed, former editor of Golf For Women magazine, jokes, “In golf, it’s 1956.”
But at Birkdale, women in bonnets and long hems have played over the shifting sands of time, gouging brassie shots through the yellow rattle and black knapweed and bog cotton, while overhead the ruddy darters and meadow pippits circled the Lancashire coastline.
To put in context just how remarkable an aberration this is, here is a poem attributed to George Fullerton Carnegie, the so-called poet laureate of St Andrews, in 1833:
“The game is ancient, manly, and employs
“In its department women, men and boys
“Men play the game, the boys the clubs convey
“And lovely woman gives the prize away.”
In 1893, amateur British champion Horace Hutchinson delivered this sharp reply to Miss Blanche Martin when she asked his advice on starting a Ladies Golf Union, the first competitive organization for women golfers:
“Dear Miss Martin,
“I have read your letter about the proposed Ladies’ Golf Union with much interest. Let me give you the famous advice of Mr. Punch (since you honour me by asking for my opinion). DON’T. My reasons? Well?
“1. Women never have and never can unite to push any scheme to success. They are bound to fall out and quarrel on the smallest or no provocation; they are built that way!
“2. They will never go through one Ladies’ Championship with credit. Tears will bedew, if wigs do not bestrew the green.”
But at Birkdale, free-swinging women were accepted from the first. The club was opened in October 1889 by a handful of Lancashire gentry, who voted unanimously in favor of allowing women to play three days out of the week. Within months they had approved the admission of 14 lady members. Why? Why were female golfers as endemic to Birkdale as the grey herons and natterjacks, the dog rose and comfrey, the sneezewort, white nettle and restharrow growing in the rough? According to Birkdale’s club historian and memorabilia chairman, John Rostron, the reason was, as ever, economic. The women of Birkdale had money and standing.
Birkdale sits in Southport, Merseyside, a handsome old spa-town that became popular in the 1790s as a destination for saltwater cures among the wealthy merchants of Liverpool, then the largest trading port in England. When the opening of a railroad route made it an easy commute, the merchants began moving to Southport to live full time, bringing their families and staffs with them. It was a small, socially secluded place with nothing to do but bathe and play golf, ladies accompanying their fathers and brothers on leisurely strolls across the links.
The men commuted to Liverpool each day by rail. Left behind in Birkdale, with nothing to do, were the women. So they would have their maids pack picnics, and go play golf, trying to swing despite the fitted sleeves of their blouses and catching their hems with the club face, ambling through the sea radish and common fleabane, the pincushion gall and the branched bur-reed.
As the town prospered, the population of wealthy women grew, inheriting estates and handsome incomes from their fathers and husbands. Picture a place that for most of every day of the week was stripped bare of men, populated instead by ladies of standing and independence, some of them property owners in their own right.
In Southport, the percentage of female taxpayers was double that in the rest of England. It became so female-dominated that a secondary school for ladies opened 17 years before one for boys. It was perhaps no accident, then, that Southport was home to an influential suffragette. May Lee, treasurer of a branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, had a diploma from Southport Physical Training College and listed her chief recreation as, wait for it, “golf.”
By 1897, Birkdale had 44 lady members alongside 112 men, and eventually their numbers would grow to 150. They fanned out across the course climbing the steep mounds in their corsets, thrashing through the Baltic rush and Marram grass, the bittersweet and the sea buckthorn. “In those skirts!” Rostron says.
Would it surprise you to learn that the first important tournament hosted by Birkdale was not a men’s event? In 1909, Birkdale hosted the Ladies British Open match-play championship, won by Miss Dorothy Iona Campbell, while the stroke-play medal was claimed by a 16-year-old named Cecil Leitch who would become one of Britain’s greatest female golfers. When the club captain (whose daughter had competed) presented the medal and trophy, he remarked that the ladies’ exhibition of golf had “made the members miserable at the thought of their own shortcomings.” As for himself, he was “prepared to sell his clubs and play marbles.”
So when the British Open begins Thursday, the men’s field will tread over ground where the roots of the game are as ancient for women as for them. As they traipse through the “slacks” and the “scrapes” between the dunes, they will occasionally step over a dense bed of wildflowers, with vivid yellow petals, that grow particularly rampant.
It’s called Lady’s Bedstraw.