Paula DiPerna

(WOMENSENEWS)–I never did get to play the last two holes of The Orchards Golf Course in Massachusetts, where the U.S. Women’s Open, (June 27 – July 4) just finished turning out great golf.

Sheets of rain and thunder finally ran me off the course, though I had had a pretty good round going.

Too bad. But while the pros worked the course, I still dreamily wondered whether my own shots might have flown in a perfect arc to the green or if my final putt would have dropped easily into the hole with that pure victory click that keeps all golfers coming back.

The Open is the season’s most important tournament and The Orchards is a fitting field for it. Nestled in dark, mature woods in the middle of the tiny village of South Hadley and now owned by Mount Holyoke College, the course was built in 1922 by textile magnate Joseph Skinner. Legend has it that it was for his daughter, Elisabeth, who wanted to learn to play.

History makes sparse mention of Elisabeth’s playing skill, but fortunately her golfing records have been unearthed by curator Kate Navarra of the Wistariahurst Museum, the former Skinner home, for a special exhibit timed for the Open.

Skinner started playing golf at 31, an age when most pros today might think of giving up if they hadn’t yet hit it big. She went on to become one of the top players in Massachusetts.

Skinner Held Course Record for 40 Years

Her personal best score of 74, shot in 1933, stood as the course record for 40 years–for both men and women–until broken in 1973 with a 73 by Pat Bradley, a renowned golfer who is this year’s Women’s Open Honorary Chair. In fact, according to Navarra, Elisabeth Skinner hit the only hole-in-one on the 17th hole at The Orchards, a distinction that holds to this day.

Seeking a top-notch course, Skinner hired legendary Scottish designer Donald Ross, known for melding the golf course with the surrounding landscape and for creating large greens that flow and surprise like waves of the sea. Devilish and gorgeous is how I think of a Ross course.

Though The Orchards has been changed a bit since 1922, the Ross hallmarks are still there. The long lean fairways cry out for a soaring tee shot and, when I played, so many apple trees were in bloom, they blocked the otherwise peerless view of mountains in all directions. And on the tee on the 14th hole, with the roll of the green sculpted to mimic the rise and fall of the ridges in the distance, golf became true landscape art.

On such a magnificent course, I kept eyeing the clouds in the hope of holding off the storm. Wet courses are no fun to me, for wet grass can grab the club as it meets the ball, spinning a shot off wildly left or right. Of course, the pros can handle such vagaries and I thought, as my tee shot on the fifth hole reached the green but rolled away, not toward, the flagstick, it would be thrilling to watch the pros take on this hole, short but sweet, and to hear the mighty hush of an adoring golf tournament crowd.

Tournament Attendance Rising

Women’s golf has been on the upswing, so to speak, lately, with attendance at women’s tournaments increasing 9 percent in 2003 and 12 percent in 2002. The Ladies Professional Golf Association Web site enjoyed a 42 jump in average monthly visitors last year.

Some attribute the rise to such key female players as Annika Sorenstam and Michelle Wie, who have drawn global attention by holding their own in tournaments previously reserved to men. Also, golfers–male and female–are spending more time conditioning themselves as all-around athletes, bringing more power to the game.

But women’s golf is still, with a few exceptions, different from men’s where distance is concerned. For a variety of reasons, including differences in upper-body strength, most women hit a golf ball less far than most men.

To accommodate widely ranging skill levels, golf courses offer varying tee-off areas–forward, mid and back–usually marked red, white and blue or dark green. Most courses recommend players use the tees that best match their distance and overall skill level. Traditionally, “the reds” have been the most forward. They make the entire course shorter and at one point became labeled the “women’s tees.”

Today, however, most courses have dropped the moniker and refer to the tees simply as “red” or “forward.” Still, most recreational golfers who are women do happily use the reds, glad for the distance advantage, while most recreational golfers who are men would not be caught dead playing from the reds, no matter how weakly or errantly they hit the ball, likely to avoid the vestigial stigma of the forward position!

This separation is, interestingly, an artifact of modern times and sexism.

When I was in Scotland researching a book on golf, I noted that, for example, in 1875, at the legendary Old Course in St. Andrews Links, a Captain Fordyce, a man, was lauded for having shot 102, the best score of the opening day of the season, only to have it matched a few days later by a woman, Mary Simon, playing the same distances and par. In other words, there WAS no difference at that time in layout at the most venerable course in the world. In fact, Elisabeth Skinner’s record score at The Orchards in 1933 was established from what some would call the “men’s tee,” there being only one set of tees at the time!

Paula DiPerna is the co-author, with Vikki Keller, of “Oakhurst: The Birth and Rebirth of America’s First Golf Course” (Walker and Company, 2002).

For more information:

2004 U.S. Women’s Open:

Wistariahurst Museum–
The Orchards Golf Course Exhibit: