By Pamela Emory
From the Golf Journal Archives - The Ladies’ Putting Club
Apr 16, 2010
(Note: This article originally appeared in the September 1986 issue of Golf Journal.)
THE LADIES’ PUTTING CLUB of St. Andrews, Scotland, has a number of things going for it. Its location gives it automatic status as a part of the Home of Golf. But its setting is not just anywhere in the Royal Burgh; the Ladies’ Putting Club occupies prime real estate. Its boundaries are the Swilken Burn, the second tee of the Old Course, the new Links clubhouse and St. Andrews Bay.
The club’s members are women, although there is a second category of membership: gentlemen associate.
The club has a long and rich history. This year it celebrated its 129th season with the opening of a new clubhouse, only its third. There are other ladies’ clubs in St Andrews, most notably St. Rule and St. Regulus, but what distinguishes the Ladies’ Putting Club from these other fine institutions is that it operates The Himalayas: golf’s best, bumpiest and probably busiest 18-hole putting course.
Although the Ladies’ Putting Club is a private group, The Himalayas are open to the public most of its seven-month season from late March through October. The course provides great fun for people of all ages and ability levels. Additionally, it’s only 60 pence (about $1) for a round (30 pence for senior citizens), making it perhaps the best golf bargain in Great Britain. Last year more than 60,000 rounds were played over this wild and crazy putting course.
The Himalayas cover about three acres of rolling terrain. The course starts out relatively calmly with only a few minor rises to negotiate, but further along it begins to snake its way over and around six-foot-high hillocks and through many a dale. Holes range from about 10 to 20 yards in length, and near the Old Course’s second tee the putting course sports a section with ankle-deep rough, a water hazard and out-of-bounds. A number of golf balls go out-of-bounds and some even have gone AWOL.
Originally known as The Ladies’ Golf Club of St. Andrews, the organization was started in 1867 by members of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews who wanted to provide recreational activity for their female relatives. Any kind of strenuous, or even semi-strenuous, activity in that era was strictly taboo. In the late 1800s, when women started playing golf “on the long course,” as some described a round on a regulation course, it was considered unacceptable for them to take the club back past their shoulder. Play on a putting course was just what social norms of the day called for.
The Ladies’ Golf Club of St. Andrews opened with just seven lady members, but within one year its popularity soared. In May 1868, the members “resolved” to change Rule 1, which restricted membership to 100 ladies and 50 gentlemen associates. Around the turn of the century, in the club’s heyday, membership was 600 (400 lady members and 200 gentlemen associates). Today the membership is closed at 200 (160 ladies and the remainder gentlemen), and the club has a long waiting list.
Throughout its history, The Ladies’ Putting Club has hosted a number of keenly contested competitions. In October 1867, a Scottish newspaper reported a Miss Chambers won the Club Medal with a 45-hole score of 139. Today the club has weekly and monthly medal events. Members have exclusive use of the putting links Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 5 to 6 p.m., and for three hours Wednesday starting at 1:30. A new competition was started this year; now on Thursday mornings members gather for handicap play. Players are given putting handicaps up to plus-5 for club events.
Each September, the president of the Ladies’ Putting Club and a team selected by her compete in a match against the captain of the R&A and his team of past captains and R&A members. William C. Campbell, who has served as both president of the USGA and captain of the R&A, remembers well the match when he was captain: “The match is played precisely at 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon of the week of the medal competition during the autumn meeting of the R&A; it’s usually the third week in September. The match is locked in concrete, regardless of weather.
“The ladies can use any putter they choose and the R&A team has to use ancient equipment – hickory shafts and long-snooted putters. That’s the key. The match is two rounds of 18 holes each. One round is played alternate shot and the other is singles. After the first round we retire to the clubhouse for tea and sympathy. When the match is completed there are proper speeches and the trophy is presented. The ladies are very good, but the R&A has done pretty well, considering.”
The Ladies’ Putting Club has presented prizes over the years that should be the envy of every tourna¬ment chairman. Besides silver cups donated by various Princes (Leopold and Wales, later Edward VIII) and Dukes (York, later King George VI, and Kent), members have played for a putter and cleek brooch; a gold ring, brooch and earrings; an Abyssinian brooch and earrings; one pair of tortoise shell bracelets; leather gloves; “a handsome chatelaine bag, silver mounted;” a dagger fan and opera glasses studded with pearls.
Citizens of St. Andrews care deeply about golf, both the playing of the game as well as its history, etiquette and traditions. They know the importance of transferring their love and knowledge to younger generations. It should come as no surprise that for some time The Ladies’ Putting Club was home to a juvenile section. It, too, had its own captain and secretary and hosted competitions.
For the past 25 years, the putting course has been tended to with great devotion by Mrs. Chris Nichol. “She is under contract with the club as the greenkeeper,” Lois Underwood, the current president of The Putting Club, explained. “Mrs. Nichol oversees the running of The Himalayas part of the club. It’s really easier to say what Mrs. Nichol doesn’t do, she’s that vital to the club. Tourists come back, year after year, with their cars all packed up ready to go back home. They stop and have one last round on The Himalayas and say good-bye to Mrs. Nichol. There is a lot of affection for her from everyone. She does all the bookings and if anyone is disagreeable, she chucks them off the course.”
It takes about seven hours to mow the putting green. The hills have to be hand mown, but on the flatter portions a power mower can be used. “She’s a woman of tremendous character,” Marjorie Moncrieff, the club tournament secretary, says of Nichol. “Her job as head greenkeeper requires a touch of genius. To get 18 holes on the course that never cross is amazing. She set out at least two new courses per week with a minimum of cutting new holes.”
About half of The Himalayas course is relatively flat – to the Scots, rolling to the rest of us – and the other half is the most mind-boggling series of mounds. When first viewed, it is impossible to imagine people putting on that stretch of wildly undulating land. Players have experienced motion sickness on less severe terrains.
According to Moncrieff, “The course record for 18 holes is a 34: three 1s, one 3 and the rest 2s. It was made by a local solicitor, Mr. K. Smith. To break 40 is good and an 80 for two rounds is a very good score. I believe John Glover, past chairman of the R&A Rules Committee, has the best 36-hole score. He shot a 78 for two rounds. There have been a number of holes-in-one.”
Ben Crenshaw, Peter Jacobsen, Tom Watson, Craig Stadler and George Bush are a few of the many avid fans of The Himalayas. A trip to St. Andrews isn’t complete for them unless they have at least one go-around on the putting course. The last time Bush was in town he had to be firmly coaxed off the course, in the middle of his second round, by a Secret Service agent determined to get the President to a dinner engagement on time. Bush’s autographed photograph hangs on the wall of the new clubhouse.
In the land where golf is next to godliness, The Ladies’ Putting Club of St. Andrews gives back to the game by providing a relaxing and amusing way to experience golf – as well as insisting on proper behavior, good manners and respect for tradition. Generations of the same family have been coming back to rest and enjoy themselves in this glorious seaside resort and to have a few rounds on The Himalayas. The longest queues in St Andrews in the summer aren’t at the ice cream shop or on the first tee of the Old Course. They’re waiting to play The Himalayas.
The USGA Museum's Pynes Putting Course, which was inspired by the Himalayas putting green in St. Andrews, has opened for the 2010 season. For more information, visit http://www.usgamuseum.com/about_museum/news_events/event_information.aspx?eventid=11.
Since its inception, the putting course next to the Old Course at St. Andrews has been a popular attraction, as shown in this photo from 1887. (USGA Museum)
Today membership in the Ladies’ Putting Club in limited to 200, but the waiting list is extensive. (USGA Museum)
Parts of the layout are flat – and other sections are anything but. (USGA Museum)