The English have always been good at sorting things out. Charles
Darwin and Sir Isaac Newton come to mind, and when you see a
museum advertising "The Salt Shaker: Seven Centuries of
Progress," you can be sure the curator is a Brit. It should
surprise no one, then, that the intractable problems of golf and
gender have been resolved at Formby, a little town 13 miles
northwest of Liverpool on England's Lancashire coast. Formby is
home to two 18-hole courses on one generous piece of oceanfront
property--one course belonging to the Formby Golf Club (est.
1884) and the other belonging to the Formby Ladies Golf Club
(est. 1896). There are two clubhouses as well, a bouquet's throw
from each other. "It's a very happy arrangement," says David
Eccles, a retired major in the British army and a 41-year member
of Formby. "We have the best of both worlds," agrees his wife,
Beryl, who belongs to Formby Ladies.
Formby, we hasten to say, isn't a haven for misogynists and
manhaters. Women play the men's course and vice versa, and the
two clubs will cohost the 2004 Curtis Cup, the biennial
competition between teams of women amateurs from the U.S. and
from Great Britain and Ireland. The clubs also hold mixed
tournaments and join in social functions. "It's all very
friendly," says Trish Foggin, a 20-year member and current
captain of Formby Ladies.
The source of the comity isn't segregation but
self-determination. Formby Ladies is the only women's golf club
in the United Kingdom that owns and operates its own 18-hole
course. Its 300 members don't have to negotiate with men for tee
times or tournament dates, and the course, at 5,374 yards and
par 71, is designed for women golfers. "This isn't a country
club," says Daphne Johnson, a former Formby Ladies captain and
chairwoman of its Centenary Committee. "This is purely golf."
These are Englishwomen, of course, so when asked about some wild
orchids growing near the 7th tee, Johnson fetches a large album
cataloging the dozens of wildflowers and grasses that cover the
linksland: bird's-foot trefoil and tufted vetch, scarlet
pimpernel and common toadfly. "The purple loosestrife is just
coming out," says Johnson--a comment that in another setting would
have a gentleman checking his sweater for loose threads. The
album is the work of another Daphne, former green chairman Daphne
Thomas, who spent two years identifying and photographing the
flowers for the club's centenary in 1996. The original idea was
to press each flower in a book, but Thomas discovered that not
all flowers are attractive when crushed.
August 12, 2001
"A pressed bluebell," she says, "does not look very nice." When
an American visitor praises the album and says he has never seen
its like at a golf club, Thomas says, "Well, I think girls are
more interested in flowers than men are."
Having disarmed the male guest with disingenuous talk, Thomas can
smile when he goes out on the course and spends the better part
of three hours trying to recover from lies that could only be
improved with three applications of Roundup. "The fairways are
wondrous narrow, the rough most resolutely fiendish," wrote a
competitor in the 1978 British Men's Seniors Championship, part
of which was held at Formby Ladies. "You can be hacking
desperately, only inches off a fairway-edge, in heather,
blueberry, gorse, bramble, creeping willow, grass tussocks and
some of the lushest and toughest and thickest rough-grass I ever
remember finding on any golf course."
The greens are small and guarded by sand bunkers just big enough,
as British golf writer Bernard Darwin used to say, "for an angry
man with a niblick." The signature holes are two short but
difficult par-3s, the 122-yard 5th and the 158-yard 12th, but the
long-hitting male golfer is best tested by the four holes that
play from 412 to 428 yards. "I used to spend more time on the
ladies' course than I did on the men's," says David Lloyd, a
former assistant pro at Formby Golf Club who's now the head pro
at nearby Formby Hall Golf Club. "It taught me to be straight."
Formby Ladies has no men's tees--only one set for all players. Men
deduct six strokes from their handicaps to compensate for their
ability to hit the ball farther. (There are ladies' tees at
Formby Golf Club.) "On some holes the carry to the fairway can be
difficult for high handicappers of either sex," says David
Eccles. Among the more interesting man-made hazards is a crater
near the 12th green, designed by a Luftwaffe bombardier during
the May Blitz saturation bombing of Liverpool.
The clubhouse at Formby Ladies is much smaller than the one at
Formsby, but it has a recently remodeled locker room and all the
appurtenances of British golf, including a wall-mounted
barometer, shields listing past captains and a framed portrait of
the queen. Three public rooms--an enclosed veranda, a lounge and a
dining room--ascend like stairs from the course, with a big bay
window in the lounge providing a cushioned seat and an unimpeded
view of the 1st tee of the men's course. (The second-floor club
room of the Formby Golf Club overlooks the 1st tee of the ladies'
course.) The veranda is called the Monkey House. "From chattering
women, I imagine," says Beryl Eccles, a vivacious woman with eyes
that register astonishment easily. "It's like an old-fashioned
conservatory, tin roof, glass sides. We like to go in there after
a round, take our coffee, have a natter." Looking down from a
corner perch is a small ceramic monkey, evidence that the ladies
enjoy a joke on themselves as well as a witty counterpoint to
Formby, where the lounge is decorated with a stuffed hippopotamus
While on the subject of heads, it was a member of Formby Ladies,
three-time British Women's Open semifinalist Beryl Brown, who
popularized woolly headcovers. During the third round of the 1931
English Ladies Championship at Ganton, Brown, according to a
newspaper account, "appeared on the 1st tee for her match ...
with the heads of her clubs capped in little Tam o' Shanters made
of wool and each, according to true Scottish taste, bearing a
Two American women have been captain at this most English of
clubs: Audrey Calder (1959) and Heidi Dawson ('98). Dawson, a
graduate of San Francisco's Lowell High and Sacramento State,
married an Englishman when she was 23 and has lived in the U.K.
for 32 years. "I still consider myself American through and
through," she says, but she says it in a veddy British accent.
"Some people pick up accents, I guess. Audrey has been here even
longer, but she still sounds totally American."
Dawson's best memory of Formby golf? Probably the '98 Junior Open
Championship at Formby and Formby Ladies, which was attended by
Tom Watson and Greg Norman, who were following their sons,
Michael and Gregory. "There was lots of press, and they used our
clubhouse as a base," says Dawson, "and I had lunch with Tom
The one area where Formby Ladies has struggled of late is in
competition, the club's last member of national stature having
been Geraldine Costello, who was Leinster champion in 1975 and
captain of Ireland in 1984-85. "I'd like to see Formby Ladies
take a more active role in leading girls into the game," says
Patricia Davies, golf correspondent for the Times and author of
the club's centenary history. "It would be nice to look at a list
of the best English girls and see 'Formby Ladies' several times."
That quibble aside, Davies praises the club for resisting the
trend toward consolidation with men's clubs that has cost most
women golfers their independence. "It hasn't been easy for Formby
Ladies," she says. "It must be tempting to give up and
There seems to be little immediate danger of that happening. The
Formby Ladies has its own five-man greenkeeping crew and its own
maintenance equipment. The club employs two cooks and even does a
bit of catering, selling its popular cakes at a small bar in the
clubhouse. Male visitors, who are welcomed as associate members,
can play Formby Ladies at designated times for a greens fee of
$50 on weekdays and $57 on weekends. A ladies' package is
$43/$50, including tea, sandwiches and cake. "Ring the
secretary," says Foggin.
"On the whole, I think the system works well," says Sands
Johnson, husband of Daphne and unofficial historian at Formby
Golf Club. "Some members would like to see the clubs come
together for financial, not for golf, reasons. But there doesn't
seem to be much enthusiasm for it."
The Eccleses, meanwhile, can't imagine life without Formby
Ladies. "We've thought of moving out of Formby, maybe even to
America," says Beryl, "but we'd never find what we have here.
It's.... It's...." She hesitates, searching for the right
category. "Well, it's unique, isn't it?"
One room is called the Monkey House. "We like to go in there
after a round, take our coffee, have a natter," says Eccles.
"Some members would like to see the clubs come together for
financial, not for golf, reasons," says Sands Johnson.