The Extraordinary Tale of Gloria Minoprio (part ii)
In the second of three parts, Sunday Times Sports correspondent Nick Pitt explores the enduring mystery of this lady golfer.
According to the only substantial interview she ever gave, Minoprio began golf when she was recovering from the Lulworth Castle fire. “During my convalescence I picked up an old cleek and started knocking a golf ball about,” she told the Sunday Express. “I found that I could use it in many ways that it was not adapted for.”
She was to receive a strange and expensive golfing education. The identity of her first teacher is not known. It may have been ‘Uncle’ Gavin, who had a keen interest in the game. His first wife, Margaret Gavin, from whom he had recently been divorced, was an England international who had three times been runner-up in the US Women’s Open.
Once Minoprio had the basics, she began to practise assiduously, hitting balls into a net erected on the roof of her flat at 169 Piccadilly. The roof area, which is reached by an iron fire-escape, is six floors up and on the Jermyn Street side of Piccadilly so it is quite possible, though unrecorded, that balls might have escaped the net and caused some consternation below.
She also made excursions to Ashdown Forest in Sussex where she played with Alf Padgham, a leading professional of the day. Padgham, who won the Open championship in 1936, once revealed that he had “played with Miss Minoprio a lot at Ashdown Forest”. It was said that their swings were remarkably similar.
Minoprio also took formal lessons from Jim Morris, the club professional at Huntercombe, Oxfordshire. When Minoprio presented herself at the professional’s shop, Morris was expecting her, for he had already had a visit from Gavin who had told him that his ‘niece’ had taken up golf and was anxious to improve. Morris was engaged at well above his usual rates to teach and play rounds with her, daily and for the duration of the summer.
Many years later, Morris remembered Gloria as “a good-looking woman”. He felt sorry for her because her uncle made her practise and play so much, and he thought them both crazy. “How could you get the ball to hold on a green like the seventeenth with only a cleek?” he muttered.
Over the summer of 1930, Gavin rented a cottage with the forbidding name of Bleak Villa. It adjoined what was then the fourth fairway at Huntercombe, so that as well as her daily rounds with Morris, Gloria could practise as much as she liked by playing the fourth and third holes, which ran in parallel.
But what she really needed was bunker practice. Even at this early stage in Minoprio’s golfing progress, we can be sure that she and Gavin were planning for her to play in championships and realised that her greatest problem would be escaping from bunkers on seaside courses with her straight-faced cleek. Gavin made a request to the club that the rough sand in the bunkers on the seventh and seventeenth holes be replaced by fine sea-sand, at his expense. He was turned down.
Undaunted, Gavin had a bunker built in the garden of Bleak Villa, and filled it with a lorry-load of sea-sand specially brought up from the coast. Morris recalled that he often used to see Minoprio in the garden, practising bunker shots with her cleek for hours on end.
But of course the peculiarities of links golf, and its differences from inland golf, are by no means limited to bunkers. Minoprio needed to graduate to links courses and if she was to enter championships she had to join a club.
Minoprio joined Littlestone Golf Club in Kent in 1931. The subscription was six guineas. She never entered the ladies clubhouse (and certainly not the main clubhouse, from which women were excluded); nor did she play any club or county competitions. Yet she was given a handicap of four, comfortably inside the limit of nine laid down by the Ladies Golf Union for participating in national championships.
Why Kent? Because by far the greatest number of links courses within easy reach of London were in the county, mostly within a 25-mile radius of Canterbury. Littlestone, an authentic and charming links course, was the perfect base.
Weld, whose money was funding Minoprio’s golf and lifestyle, as well as Gavin’s, used to visit them down in Kent. Minoprio and Weld were spotted one day in the summer of 1933 by Joan Lauchlan (née Tassell), a member of the Canterbury Club who had a single-figure handicap for thirty years.
“We were playing a ladies’ medal competition on a Tuesday,” Lauchlan recalled more than seventy years later. “My pair was first to tee off. As we came up the second hole, I noticed a car parked in a lay-by. As we went to the third tee, two people got out. There was an elderly man carrying a canvas bag, and a much younger, distinctive woman, who was tall and wearing a skirt. She strode towards the third tee. When we appeared, she saw us and started to walk away. Her companion went back to the car and she followed. They drove down the lane. We were walking down the third when I saw them again, on the fourth tee. She was about to tee off. But she must have realised we would soon be on the third green. She left the tee and went back to the car again. They drove off. A few weeks later, I saw her picture in the paper and realised I had seen Gloria Minoprio.” It was a glimpse of Minoprio shortly before she made her championship debut.
We now return to Westward Ho!, where Minoprio has made her dramatic entrance. Gavin, the orchestrator of the whole business, was present. He stayed at the same hotel as Minoprio and was probably the driver of the limousine in which she arrived.
Also on the links that day was their benefactor, Weld. He was staying at the Cliff Hotel in Ilfracombe from where he wrote Minoprio a letter:
I could not keep away from the scene of the action so I am mingling with the crowd tomorrow (with a false beard and a red wig). Drive as I love you and you will overdrive the green every hole from the tee. What a desolate looking swamp. The course is enough to give the champion the blues.
The letter reveals the depth of Weld’s infatuation as well as his limited knowledge of golf.
On the eve of the championship, doubtless under the direction of Gavin, Minoprio made her only visit to the ladies’ clubhouse and addressed her fellow-competitors with an impromptu speech in which she declared that she would indeed compete using only one club for all strokes, including putting. Greeted by stupefaction, Minoprio strode from the room. About trousers, she said not a word.
News of Miss Minoprio’s intentions soon spread to the golfing press. Ladies championships were assiduously covered in those days and every national daily paper and many regionals were represented.
Once Minoprio had teed off on the first, to applause, Nancy Halsted took her turn. She was a scratch player of high reputation and her drive, like Minoprio’s, found the centre of the fairway.
Minoprio’s approach was short of the green but Halsted, with a splendid brassie shot, found the green and she won the hole.
All those who ever played against Minoprio testified that the experience was unnerving. She never spoke and showed no emotion. She never looked to left or right as she walked. She would play a shot, observe the result dispassionately, walk on and repeat the process. But her etiquette was beyond reproach. She played strictly in turn and stood like a statue when opponents played their strokes.
Halsted was not overly distracted. On the second, Minoprio pulled her drive left into a small clump of sea-rushes. She lost that hole and the third as well. Against all expectation, Minoprio won the fourth hole despite going into a bunker.
By the fifteenth hole, Gloria was four down and when Halsted laid a putt dead it was over. Minoprio stepped forward, offered her gloved right hand and said, “Thank you”. They were the first words she had spoken since she said, “How do you do?” on the first tee. The limousine was on hand on a nearby track. Minoprio walked across to it, climbed in and was driven away.
Minoprio had lost a match but achieved a triumph in publicity. The papers were full of it. “Miss Gloria Minoprio opened a sensational new chapter in women’s golf,” ran the report in the Daily Express, which was typical. “She is the first player (either man or woman) to play in a championship round with one club only, and no woman has ever before defied convention by playing in trousers.”
The Ladies Golf Union was not amused. Their chairman issued a statement in which she “deplored any change from the traditional golfing attire”. At a meeting of the competitors, one veteran threatened to challenge Minoprio dressed in crinolines and a poke bonnet, or alternatively to play her using a full set of clubs, each to be used in strict rotation.
But some of Minoprio’s fellow-players supported her. “There was a furore over what she wore,” said Elizabeth Borradaile, née Powell-Williams. “But many of us thought she was awfully brave. She had a very nice swing and was a very good player. I admired her, and she made her name. But to choose Westward Ho! for her debut with one club was ridiculous.”
Minoprio and ‘Uncle’ Gavin left Westward Ho! for Porthcawl and further practice. Weld, who was unwittingly funding them, wrote again to Minoprio.
“It added five years to my life when I saw you get into those outrageous bunkers, though the way you got out of them would beat a champion armed with all the niblicks and spoons that were ever invented. What idiots those women were who took exception to your dress. I expect their annoyance was due to jealousy – I heard a woman in the crowd say “Hasn’t she a lovely figure!”