Rating the best ever women golfers
While the Bank of Montreal Canadian Women’s Open was being played in the Toronto area last month, I got to thinking about who I would rate the best female golfer ever.The jury is still out on the modern group, including Karrie Webb, Annika Sorenstam and Se Ri Pak, to name three wonderful golfers. So I looked to the past, and there I found two candidates who, I think, stand out.Joyce Wethered’s career
The first is Joyce Wethered, an Englishwoman who was born in 1902, didn’t take up golf until she was 17, then won the 1920 Women’s English Championship. She won the tournament four more times in a row, and also three British Ladies Amateurs in the same period. Yet she retired from competition in 1925, when she was only 23.
But Wethered returned to competition in 1929, only because the British Ladies’ was being held at the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland. There she defeated the five-time U.S. Women’s Amateur champion Glenna Collett Vare in the final match.
She married Sir John Heathcoat-Amory in 1937, after which her name was officially Lady Heathcoat-Amory. The couple lived at Knightshayes Court, an estate in Tiverton, Engld, where she died in the fall of 1997, at age 95. Gardening had long replaced golf as the hobby for which she felt the most passion.
Impressed Bobby Jones
How good was Wethered? Suffice it to say that she joined legendary amateur Bobby Jones, who won the Grand Slam of the United States and British Opens and Amateurs in 1930, for a round at the Old Course.
She played with her brother Roger, the 1923 British Amateur champion, Jones, and Dale Bourne, who had won three English Opens. Wethered joined the men off the back of the back tees, used hickory shafts and shot 75. She made only one putt longer than five feet.
Jones later wrote: “She did not miss one shot, she did not even half miss one shot. Her swing is rhythmic to the last degree. I have no hesitancy in saying that, accounting for the unavoidable handicap of a woman’s lesser physical strength, she is the finest golfer I have ever seen.”
The accolades continued for years. The great English golfer Henry Cotton wrote that, “Older golfing authorities, having seen them all, still give her pride of place as Queen of the Links.” Herbert Warren Wind, the king of the written golf word, who wrote beautiful essays for The New Yorker for years, said that Wethered had “the most correct and lovely swing golf has ever seen.”
Wethered the best woman who ever hit the links? Well, maybe.
We also need to consider Mickey Wright, an LPGA Hall of Famer who was born in San Diego in 1935 and resides today in Florida. She rarely plays anymore although she likes to hit balls, and when she does, anybody who is fortunate enough to watch her is seeing one of the most graceful and powerful swings ever.
Wright won the U.S. Junior Girls Championship in 1952, and the U.S. Women’s Open in 1958, 1959, 1961 and 1964.
“Mickey Wright ranks among the few really great players of women’s golf,” Donald Steel wrote in his authoritative book The Encyclopedia of Golf. He referred to her amazing 1961 season, when she won 10 tournaments, including four in a row.
Her classic book
Wright won 82 LPGA tournaments in all, and her book Golf the Wright Way is a classic. She always believed that the best way to learn the swing is to study a great one. There’s none better than hers.
Kathy Whitworth, a Hall of Famer herself, said that Wright is the best golfer ever, man or woman. Rhonda Glenn wrote in The Illustrated History of Women’s Golf that Wright “had no weakness in her game or in her swing.”
Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan, two of the best male golfers ever-right up there with Jones, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods-said she had the best swing in the game. Even the normally reticent Herbert Warren Wind, who had praised Wethered so lavishly, came to believe she was the best ever.
Gifts of nature
Like Wethered, Wright appreciated the gifts that nature offered. Perhaps both women felt this way because they had spent much of their lives on golf courses in the open air. Gretel Ehrlich once wrote a book called The Solace of Open Spaces, an apt phrase for the comforts that a golf course can offer.
Wethered took up gardening after golf while Wright liked to simply be outdoors, feeding rabbits and birds, including the sand hill cranes that showed up near her Florida home.
At one time Wright had thoughts of becoming a doctor. It can be said that she was a doctor of golf, a woman who knew everything important there was to know about the game. This is also true of Wethered.
Some twosome: Wethered and Wright. I can’t pick between them and wouldn’t want to. I only wish I could have seen them play.