The Grandes Dames of the Himalayas

Age be damned: The St. Andrews Ladies’ Putting Club is still thriving
St. Andrews ladies' putting club
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IN THE SMALL CLUBHOUSE, Margaret Phillips, president of the St. Andrews Ladies’ Putting Club, bangs her gavel on the desk. She has a certain no-nonsense style. The room, full of teacups, wood paneling and women of a magnificent age, quiets as she announces the winner of the day’s competition for, the Moncrieff trophy. Ah, Maureen Gardener takes it—again! For the second year in a row.

Out on the course, it had been a scream—fiercely competitive over 18 holes, golfers paired off and checked in with great order by Judy with her clipboard. And the fashion, darling, was to die for. Pressed mint trousers, checked hats, liberty-print shirts, short-sleeved white jumpers, scorecards tucked into cardigan pockets, sensible but vigorously polished lace-ups, black gloves, a jaunty sun visor or two.

You’ll already know much of the surrounding scenery. The famous opening shots from Chariots on Fire, the Oscar-winning British film of 1981, were filmed just behind the club on West Sands: dunes stretching for 2 miles and looking out to the bleak grey-blue of the North Sea. At the north end, snow buntings and seals amble; at the south end sits the town, beautiful and towered. Stand on the Putting Club verandah and turn to the left: That’s the first tee of the Old Course, which winds away from the town and back on itself. Straight ahead lies the famous Swilcan bridge on the 18th fairway; to the right, the links clubhouse, where golfers can rest their feet. Behind the first tee of the Old Course is the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, where Martin Slumbers, the chief executive of the R&A, has an office with a view.

Visitors arrive in droves to play both the Old Course and the putting green, though there is one sizable difference: A round on the Old Course in high season costs £195 (north of $200), while 18 holes on the putting green is a paltry £3 (under $4), and it’s just £1 (about $1.50) for children.

It is mid-June 2019 and the sun is hot, punctuated by occasional cigar puffs of white cloud. In this part of Scotland, the sun won’t set until after 10 p.m., and the day stretches encouragingly. Along the path from the beach to the green, the hedge is full of red and bladder campion and marsh hawk’s-beard; farther along, wild roses are springing up big, blousy and purple.

This is the world’s oldest ladies’ golf club, and, if you’re feeling somewhat sacrilegious, the world’s first mini-golf course too, a putting green nicknamed the Himalayas because of its plains and undulating hills, all most inconveniently placed. The club was established in 1867 after the wives and daughters of the R&A borrowed the caddies’ practice holes while passing the time in St. Andrews, often during the summer holidays. This displeased some of the caddies and R&A members, who were uneasy about fraternization between the spheres. And so the idea of a women’s course sprung up. One member, a Mr. D.L. Burn, suggested a new, bumpy patch of land where the ladies, in his now oft-repeated phrase, could “play short golf without being made the cynosure of too curious and inquisitive spectators.”

Old Tom Morris, then the greenskeeper, was persuaded to design the course, on a piece of ground pocked with rabbit holes and rough with gorse that local women used for drying clothes. It opened with a competition for a gold locket, and was a roaring success as both a sports club and a potential matchmaking service between eligible lady golfers, sprigged up in pale broderie anglaise, and male associate members. There are no male associate members anymore—recent equality legislation saw to that—but the club remains a collection of the young at heart, a bastion of female friendship and competitive spirit. And the course is still fiendishly difficult: The club record is currently 34, and anything under 40 is considered impressive.

The membership waiting list closed in 2014 and will remain that way until, as one member says with a wink, “we have some natural wastage.” The course is open to the public, but today is a Wednesday, and Wednesday afternoons between noon and four are strictly for members. Course manager Kevin Mackie changes the layout every week, just in time for the competition.

With swallows darting the hills, I follow Marion, Val and Lesley, all in their 70s, the fat early afternoon shadows squatting as they line up the holes. It’s good-natured fun: “You knock me out and I’ll crown you,” says Marion.

Phillips, in her second year as president, is watching keenly. The office has been an honor, but is “quite a commitment.” She had trained to be a dentist at St. Andrews University, and she and her husband returned here for retirement, but, sadly, he died soon afterward.

“Life is what you make it,” she says. “There are lots of widows here, lots of friendships between the ladies; maybe there is the odd clique, but I’ve never paid attention. I try to be independent. It’s a difficult thing, [but] I think you learn a bit over the years: You either sink or survive.” She smooths out her jersey before continuing.

“A lot of the ladies are what people call the ‘St. Andrews incomers’—Scots who’ve worked abroad or retired here. They’re outgoing and looking for things to do. I still play golf in the winter, but our putting season runs from the beginning of April until the end of October, and there are competitions throughout. We have six medals—gold, silver and bronze, little models of the signs of the zodiac. One of the ladies picks them up from the R&A, where they are kept, signs for them, [and] then we award them before they are whisked away again. The R&A cleaned everything up for us when they exhibited the trophies to celebrate the club’s 150th anniversary.” Princess Anne opened the exhibition; you may imagine she found some kindred spirits.

“This isn’t a geriatric town, you know,” Phillips continues. “We have concerts, lectures, a cinema with three screens, lots of exercise clubs, the beaches, the university and, of course, the golf.” Then she whisks away to sort out a problem with the scorecards.

Grace Macintosh has just finished her round and is sitting on the verandah for a little afternoon sun, from where you can hear clinks and clutters as balls are hit and tipped into holes, and the scribble of the scorecard pencil. She points to her good ear and says, “This one’s deteriorating and that one is no good.” She’s in her early 90s, and the weather and the sport have her in good spirits.

“This is the nicest day for a long time,” she says, her hands around her cup. “Down here, we’re so exposed; there’s nothing between us and the sea. The wind is so strong sometimes it ruins the putting, blows the balls everywhere.

“I’m single; I’ve always been single. I came to work in St. Andrews in 1972 and have been here ever since. I was director of music. I can’t go to concerts anymore, but I still make quite a lot of music, and I go once a week to Kellie Castle, a National Trust property, 20 minutes away. I play their 200-year-old piano, really for the good of the instrument. I play for the amusement of the tourists, too—music of the period of the instrument, but also a lot of Scottish music, and if children are in, something for them too. I even had children dancing the other day in the drawing room. The tour guides say you can hear the piano all over the castle. They say they always know when I stop, as there is an awful silence.” I look at her hands—long, graceful fingers that without the piano playing would be stiff with osteoarthritis.

Hoots of laughter roll in from the course. “I’ve been a member here for 15 years,” Macintosh continues. “My best friend was a member; I used to come down as her guest and play. She died the year I joined; I couldn’t believe it. The average age of the club is pretty high. I’m not the only 90-year-old; there are three or four of us. And Helen, the youngest, is not very young….But I’ll stick with the putting as long as I can. It’s not the easiest putting green, but it’s a lot of fun.”

Anne, Christine and Cherry are studying the fifth hole. Christine is 90 and she’s been a member for 34 years; Cherry, at 76, for 15; Anne, only nine or 10 years. “I’m in the baby bulge,” she says. “I’m just 73.” They agree that the best thing about the club is the remarkable pitch, always different and good value for the money. “And the golf keeps us fit,” Cherry says.

And so we leave them as they gather ’round the noticeboard to jot down diary dates. One lady has her Filofax out; another, to much ribbing, puts the dates in her phone. Tom the photographer and I are given one final cup of tea and a biscuit each—a Tunnock’s chocolate mallow and a caramel wafer. Then the women insist we have a go on the course. Accompanied by the sound of bagpipes (yes, really) and encouragement from the verandah, we do. And we’re terrible. Labors completed, we sit on the bench and have an ice cream as the ladies of the Putting Club wash up the cups and saucers and pack away the clubs and balls. There’s another competition tomorrow.

St Andrews ladies putting club, putting green, himalayas