Gentlemen Only Ladies Forbidden? The history of women’s golf


Recent years have seen women’s golf – and women’s sport in general – rise to a new level of prominence in the public eye. Interest in the game shows no sign of slowing down either, with a reported 80,000 tickets sold for the recent Solheim Cup at Gleneagles (a record for a golfing event in Britain), which saw Europe beat the USA by 14½ points to 13½ in a nerve-shredding finish.


But it took a very long time – centuries, in fact – for women’s golf to earn the level of acceptance and respect that it enjoys today. Female golfers had to confront ancient prejudices at every turn and even now, a number of golf courses around the world still refuse to admit women as members. Infamously, it took until 2012 for Augusta, home of the Masters, to admit its first women to full membership.


Thankfully, times have changed quite dramatically and the future of the women’s game now looks brighter than ever. Here, we’ll take a look back at what golf stands for, its history and origin, and how some top female golfers got to where they are today.


The history of golf: the early years


While games resembling it go back much further, it’s widely accepted that recognisable forms of golf first started to emerge in 16th-century Scotland. The course at St Andrews was first constructed in 1552 during the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots – who is herself often cited as the first woman golfer. She has also been credited with coining the term ‘caddy’, which she is said to have used to refer to the cadet tasked with carrying her clubs.


However, this is subject to dispute. It was said of Mary during her trial in 1586, that nearly 20 years earlier, she’d been seen playing golf just a matter of days following the death of her husband, Lord Darnley; the implication being that this cast severe suspicion on the integrity of her character. Whether there was any truth in the matter or whether it was a malicious smear put about by her adversaries, seems not to have been settled one way or the other.

After a long struggle for acceptance, women’s golf is today bigger than ever.

After this, women’s golf went into apparent abeyance for many years. In fact, it wasn’t until the 19th century that serious momentum started to gather, as the game grew in popularity among upper-middle class women with the requisite resources and time to play. In 1811, the first recorded women’s golfing tournament was held at Musselburgh, while in 1867 a ladies’ club was formed in St Andrews.


Another important milestone was the foundation in 1893 of the Ladies’ Golf Union (LGU), which organised the first national women’s championship (the Ladies British Open Amateur Championship) in that same year.


The growth of women’s golf in the subsequent years was substantial and by 1912, around 500 clubs had affiliated. The LGU continued as the governing body of the women’s game until it merged with the Royal and Ancient in 2017.


What does golf stand for?


You’ve probably come across the old canard that golf is supposedly an acronym for ‘Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden’, but this is completely false! In fact, the word ‘golf’ is apparently derived from a late middle English or Scots term (some have hypothesised that this is possibly related to the Dutch word ‘kolf’, meaning a club or bat, though this theory is also disputed).


The ‘Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden’ myth emerged long after the observation of gender inequality in golf, with many women golfers quoting the phrase over the years too.


Top women golfers: Then and now

 Female golfers have flourished on the course over the years and have led the way for women newbies.

The most successful woman golfer in the modern era is the legendary Annika Sorenstam, who won 10 major championships and a colossal 73 LPGA championships before retiring in 2008. Sorenstam also made history in 2003 when she became the first woman to play in a PGA Tour event since 1945 and competed alongside the men in the Colonial Tournament.


Other pioneers of the women’s game include Babe Didrikson Zaharias, another 10-time major winner, and Mickey Wright, who won 13 majors (including three US Women’s Open titles) between 1958 and 1966 along with 82 LPGA tournaments.


Kathy Whitworth, who captained the US team at the inaugural Solheim Cup in 1990, also enjoyed hugely successful playing career, winning six majors from 1965-75 as well as being the first woman to earn over $1m on the LPGA Tour.


Today, women’s golf is largely dominated by players from South Korea, three of whom – Jin-Young Ko, Sung Hyun Park and Jeongeun Lee6 – occupy three of the top five ranking spots. The highest ranking British women are Bronte Law, who at the time of writing ranks 26th, and Charley Hull in 29th position.


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