FEMALE golfers in East Lothian are being given the chance to test themselves in a ‘Battle of the Sexes’ after a proposal to open up its popular Winter League to women received unanimous backing.
The move, which was encouraged by the Scottish Ladies Golfing Association, is aimed at giving rising stars like Clara Young and Lesley Atkins competitive opportunities in the winter as they bid to follow Catriona Matthew’s spikemarks into the pro ranks.
Former Scottish Women’s champion Laura Murray has been playing against the men in the North-East Alliance in and around Aberdeen over the past couple of seasons.
But it is believed East Lothian is the first Winter League in Scotland to change its rules to permit women to play in it at a time of the year when there are few events for them to play in.
“There was some discussion at the start of the 2012-13 season as Clara and Lesley had both been performing well,” said East Lothian Winter League secretary Torquil McInroy.
“I remember speaking to Dawn Young, Clara’s mum and then the newly-appointed East Lothian Ladies County Golf Association captain, so the change may have stemmed from that, although I’m sure other conversations took place.
“Both girls had previously played in the Winter League junior matches, which have been around for about ten years and have always permitted girls.
“I raised the subject with [League chairman] Neil Bain and his view was very much that we should be inclusive. Indeed, he would probably have asked Lesley Nicholson to play for Haddington on some occasions if she were eligible.”
While the league, one of the most competitive throughout Scotland, operated in its first 25 years without a constitution, one was introduced in 1990 and it included a rule stating “teams must be comprised of male amateur members of the club they represent”.
“At my instigation, we asked the SLGA for their comments about the possibility of changing that to include women, then canvassed member clubs,” added McInroy, who has played in the Winter League himself for a number of years. In a response from the SLGA, its development manager Dawn Butchart welcomed the proposal. “Unfortunately, due to the lack of numbers, the ladies and girls lack sufficient competitive play over the winter, which would in turn enable them to be match ready for the forthcoming season,” she wrote.
“It would be very much appreciated if you could agree to their participation as this would greatly help to develop their game and provide much needed match play practice.”
The response from clubs was “generally supportive”, the only concern raised being that matches should continue to be played off scratch and from men’s medal tees.
“This point having been made, the motion to change the rules allowing ladies to play was comfortably carried at this year’s AGM,” said McInroy, who caddied for Young when she reached the final in this year’s Scottish Women’s Championship at Longniddry.
Prior to the constitution being introduced, Diane Martin played for Gifford in the mid-80s soon after they first joined the League. With a small pool to pick from, she was probably a first-choice player anyway and it was only when she turned pro that she became ineligible.
Now the door has been opened for the likes of Young and Atkins, two of the brightest young talents in the Scottish women’s game, as well as a whole host of other talented female golfers in East Lothian to take up the baton.
“In my view the change is a progressive step for the league and I think it’s been well received generally,” said McInroy. “I don’t know if any other men’s leagues in Scotland have made a similar move, but I guess there’s a parallel in some of the Private Schools’ FP team tournaments – the Queen Elizabeth, Halford Hewitt, etc – which have allowed ladies to play for some years. Roseanne Niven and Alex Bushby, for example, have played quite regularly.
“However, it remains to be seen whether any club picks a female player this season. Lesley is now at university in the USA and Clara is at present recovering from a knee operation.”