Gemma Dryburgh claimed back-to-back victories in week four of the Rose Ladies Series, and digital editor Keith Jackson was at Royal St George’s to witness a historic day for women’s golf…
In an ordinary 2020, the idea of ladies competing in a professional tournament staged at Royal St George’s in mid-summer would have been a prospect almost impossible to take seriously.
However, most of planet Earth has hopped into a collective DeLorean and been transported into an alternate reality, the result of a new temporal event sequence created by the spread of the deadly coronavirus pandemic.
For all the grim realities of the three-month global sporting shutdown from March until June, there have, at least, been some positive developments, one of which being the ground-breaking Justin Rose Ladies Series.
What started as a one-off, one-time tournament at Brokenhurst Manor, the brainchild of Ladies European Tour professional, Liz Young, has now become a series of 10 events, including a three-part “Race to the West” Grand Final that will conclude on the iconic West Course at Wentworth.
Justin Rose and his wife Kate needed little persuasion to offer up £35,000 of their own hard-earned to give invaluable support to the venture, with American Golf and Computacenter also adding significant investment to give the competition the credibility it richly deserves.
With the return to action of the LET unclear when it was announced that PGA Tour and European Tour members would have cards to mark and cheques to cash from June onwards, Young’s efforts to relaunch competitive golf for British-based ladies were publicised by Kate Rowan in the Daily Telegraph.
The article hit a cord with Paul McDonnell, head of the European division of Excel Sports Management and a long-time manager, confident and friend of Justin Rose. In fact, “Macca” was best man at Justin and Kate’s wedding.
A brief chat with McDonnell during an absorbing, and eye-opening day on the Kent coast was enough to convince that the Rose Ladies Series would be done properly, with no half-measures and lashings of passion and commitment for the women’s game.
“I saw the Liz Young piece in the paper and sent a message to Justin,” explained McDonnell. “He spoke to Kate, and he got back to me within half an hour or so, and that’s how it really got started.”
Several phone calls and emails later, Liz Young’s idea of an 18-hole shootout in the New Forest had transcended into a 10-week series of one-round events, all at first-class venues which offered their facilities free of charge, giving a shot in the arm for a talented pool of professionals whose futures were lacking clarity, to say the least.
“We agreed on a £35,000 in prize money, a figure which American Golf were happy to match, and then Computacenter came on board with big money for the Grand Final,” added McDonnell, the tournament director whose devotion to the cause has ensured success and prosperity for the Series.
The competition offered a lifeline to many who can only dream of the financial stability enjoyed by a rapidly-growing number of their male counterparts, and having Wentworth booked to stage the finale was a crucial piece in Rose’s puzzle.
“That was big for Justin,” McDonnell said. “Wentworth was where he first watched a proper, professional golf tournament and he was determined that a series bearing his name should conclude.
“And having the Grand Final kick off at North Hants, where Justin has been a member since he was a schoolboy, was another massive bonus for him personally.”
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With a world-renowned title sponsor, sound financial backing and a number of high-quality venues all confirmed, the inaugural Rose Ladies Series commenced with a 44-player field at Brokenhurst Manor and ended with a win for Solheim Cup star Charley Hull, who got the better of Young at the first extra hole.
Young was again runner-up to an inspired Meg MacLaren at Moor Park a week later, and Gemma Dryburgh edged out 2018 Women’s British Open champion Georgia Hall and Cara Gainer to clinch a one-shot victory at The Buckinghamshire in week three.
And then it was on to Royal St George’s, in pristine condition and resplendent with various areas of Open branding on a day which was scheduled to signal one week to go before Shane Lowry began the defence of the Claret Jug in The 149th Open.
I must confess that I arrived 10 minutes too late to see where Rachel Drummond’s opening tee shot landed, but it mattered little in terms of its significance. A female professional had hit her first competitive shot in the 137-year history of the famed Sandwich links.
Any debate on the rights or wrongs of that can be saved for future argument, but for the 57 ladies pegging it up on a typically blustery day at a venue which will host The Open for the 15th time next year, it was a day to savour and embrace rather than feel aggrieved.
With ages ranging from late teens to Dame Laura Davies, the overriding atmosphere of enthusiasm and gratitude was impossible to go unnoticed. Many arrived on the first tee fully aware they stood next to no chance of pocketing a cheque signed by Justin Rose but, for those “many”, the chance to indulge in genuine competition over one of the most famous golf courses in the world was sufficient.
Having watched around a dozen happy threeballs get their rounds underway, including a cracker from Sophie Keech moments after the unfortunate starter incurred a two-shot penalty for pronouncing her name wrong, I headed to the eighth green to intercept the marquee trio of Hall, Hull and Dryburgh.
With the winds strengthening almost by the pace, I was expecting to spend the best part of the next couple of hours helping in the search for balls that had missed the fairways by a distance and disappeared into the knee-high rough and occasional areas laden by gorse.
Those predictions proved grossly unfair and completely unfounded. Hole by hole, I offered a silent apology and continued to be taken aback by a quality of golf for which I had been unprepared. These girls are seriously good!
No matter what direction of the crosswinds that made practically every hole on the back nine a daunting challenge, the fairway finding was metronomic, and the ball-striking consistency thereafter was sublime.
The commitment was steadfast and, as Dryburgh’s father and caddie, John, observed, there was precious little between the three leading players, each of whom enjoyed the lead at various stages during an absorbing race to the finish line.
Dryburgh could not match her playing partners for length, but she overcame that disadvantage with a supreme confidence in her ability to find her targets no matter what piece of timber she regularly had to uncover for many of her second shots into par-fours.
And her accuracy with the putter, on unfamiliar greens, was truly awesome, particularly the 40-footer she binned from the fringe at the 10th which would later prove decisive in the outcome of the tournament.
A shot behind Hull with two to play, and with Hull in a spot of bother at the penultimate hole after tugging her drive into the long stuff, Dryburgh laced a pure three-wood from close to 200 yards out to 15 feet beyond the pin, via a delightful high, soft draw that prompted an appreciative ripple of applause from the smattering of onlookers.
Hull was unable to avoid a bogey and Dryburgh settled for a two-putt par which left all three still in the hunt going up the last, a ferociously difficult par-four into the breeze which had the vast majority of the field struggling to reach the putting surface in two blows.
Again forced to whip the cover off a fairway wood for the eighth time on the day, Dryburgh’s second found the front fringe while Hull and Hall, both with long irons in hand, leaked their approaches a little too far right – Hull finding the front-right bunker and Hall coming up just short of the trap.
Hall pitched to six feet, Hull splashed out to four feet, and Dryburgh’s long putt from the fringe was short of the required pace, leaving her a knee-knocker of a five-footer to save her par.
Hall holed, Dryburgh holed, and a play-off looked a certainty with Hull studying her par putt on the same line as Dryburgh’s but with a different result as her ball refused to drop. That left Dryburgh as the only player in red figures in the clubhouse, with Hull and Hall one further adrift.
To her credit, Hull was entirely courteous in defeat. To lead after 16 holes only to bogey the last two and finish one behind is hard to take in any form of competition, but the newlywed English star offered no histrionics, just a few sincere and genuine words of congratulations for the champion elect.
Dryburgh was a model of calm, modesty and dignity as she waited for the remaining groups to come in, with the likes of Emily Toy and Cara Gainer threatening to scupper the Scot’s bid for back-to-back victories, and she laughed off an eight-pronged, good-natured inquisition on her next move.
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The Rose Ladies Series Order of Merit leader is now heading back to the United States, where she will undergo the mandatory two-week quarantine procedure ready for the resumption of the LPGA Tour in Ohio – the inaugural LPGA Drive On Championship beginning on the final day of July.
It would be a huge loss for the Series if Dryburgh is unable to return to Blighty for the Grand Final, which starts on August 5 at North Hants, with the 27-year-old intending to stay in Ohio for the corresponding Marathon Classic.
However, you simply cannot fault her desire to tee it up against the cream of the crop in women’s golf with big dollars on offer. While many male pros around the world had the luxury of not being forced to travel to the US for weeks of quarantine and testing on the resumption of the PGA Tour, the prospect of financial stability for too many women in the sport remains a pipe dream.
But the show will go on, and a historic and enjoyable day at Royal St George’s proved beyond any doubt that these ladies thoroughly deserve the support which Team Rose have provided. A quick scout around social media revealed only positive and upbeat experiences among the field whatever their score and lost-ball count was.
And now, thanks to the Rose’s digging a little deeper down the back of the sofa to provide extra investment towards television production overheads, you’ll be able to see a concise 30-minute highlights package on Sky Sports Golf, with the first airing at 6:30pm on Wednesday.
Tune in and enjoy, and you’ll be left in no doubt that watching these girls enjoy their monumental day in history is compulsive, and addictive viewing.
These girls are good. Let’s get behind them.