Women have been playing golf in Australia for more than 100 years. Here, we’ve pulled together five stories from the rich history of the game.
The story goes that the first woman to play golf was Mary, Queen of Scots. There are even reports that Mary was the driving force behind the construction of the St Andrews course in the 16th century. While it would be another 200 years before the first recorded tournament for women was held—in Scotland in 1811—golf would soon become one of the most popular sports for women.
In Australia, news of women playing the game internationally filtered through to local newspapers. Reports published in the gossip pages of The Australaisian in 1887 noted that a ‘ladies’ golf tournament has been held at Elie, Fifeshire’.
But what of the history of women’s golf in Australia? From inter-colonial competitions and Ladies Golf Unions to wresting control from the men and golfing phenomenons, we’ve pulled together a handful of stories from the history of women’s golf that you may not know about.
A hundred years and more of history
According to Marion Stell’s Half the Race, a woman played in a golf match at Moore Park in Sydney in 1884, perhaps the first woman to play the game in Australia. In August 1893, The Argus reported on the ‘first ladies’ golf match ever played in the colony’ in Geelong and stated that ‘in spite of the weather, which was unfavourable to both golf and spectators, there was an excellent attendance’.
The following year, Geelong would be the site of the first Ladies Golf Championship of Australia.
While strides were taken in the late 1800s, many women were still barred from being full members of clubs, restricted to associate members. They were also often barred from using club facilities and there were only limited times for them to play.
Kennedy a golf prodigy
The story goes that Edwina Kennedy was given her first set of golf clubs when she was just two. Seventeen years later, in 1978 and at only 19-years-old, Kennedy won the British Women’s Amateur Golf Championship, the first Australian to do so.
An incredible feat but hardly a surprise. Kennedy won the Australian junior championship, not once, not twice but four times. At 16-years-old, she also won the Australian foursomes (with Sue Goldsmith).
Kennedy’s list of achievements is long. She represented Australia multiple times, including in four world amateur team championships. The same year she won the British Championship, she helped the Australian team take home gold in the International Golf Federation Women’s Championships in Fiji. Two years later, she’d help the team bring home silver.
Between 1977 and 1991, Kennedy represented Australia more than 30 times in over 20 countries. She retired from competition in 1993, the same year she was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame. She was later awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 1985 and the Australian Sports Medal in 2000.
Five time state winner Florence an international champion
During the 1930s and 1940, golf was one of the most popular sports for women. In 1940, a report compiled on the sports played by women in Australia and New Zealand put golf at second, behind tennis.
It was around this time that the Australian Ladies Golf Union, now in control of the women’s game on the national stage, looked for opportunities for women to compete internationally.
So enter South Australian Florence Fowler. In 1931, Fowler won the Italian women’s open championship, the first Australian to claim an international title. She was also runner-up in the Swiss open championship. All this as well as her five South Australian women’s golf championships.
Pioneers in more ways than one
In August 1897, women golfers in NSW and Victoria played in the first inter-colonial tournament at Bondi. As Stell writes, this match ‘preceded the first intercolonial men’s golf match by several months’.
Throughout the early 1900s, Ladies Golf Unions sprung up across the country. By 1903, the NSW Ladies Golf Union was up and running. Soon after came the Victorian Ladies Golf Union in 1906 and in 1908, the Western Australian Ladies Golf Union.
While at a state level the women organised their game, at a national level men controlled women’s tournaments. At least until 1921 when the Australian Ladies Golf Union was formed which wrested control of women’s tournaments from the men of the Australian Golf Union!
MacKenzie takes home the first prize (and the second)
Evelyn (also known as Eveline) MacKenzie won the first Ladies Golf Championship of Australasia organised by the Geelong Golf Club in 1894.
As Stell writes in Half the Race, before the 1894 championship, a male commentator wrote:
‘Women will never go through one championship with credit… Constitutionally and physically women are unfitted for golf. They will never stand the strain of a 26-hole final… The first ladies’ championship will be the last.’
Evelyn MacKenzie would go on to win the Ladies Golf Championship of Australasia in 1895, 1896 and 1898.
A self-taught champion
As far as sports stories go, Vedas Ebert’s may be the most interesting path to a championship ever taken. Hailing from Griffith in NSW, Ebert was ‘seized with the mania for golf’ but there were no professional golfers attached to her home club and so she couldn’t arrange lessons. The resourceful Ebert wasn’t about to let that stand in her way.
Reports describe how Ebert bought a book on the game written by James Braid and ‘pored over its contents’. She followed the instructions outlined in the book to the letter and practised her swing in front of her wardrobe mirror. Her persistence and unusual training certainly paid off.
Ebert was only 24-years-old when she was named the associate country champion of New South Wales. By 1936 she had contested and won six Riverina Championships. In 1937, Ebert joined a handful of other Australian women golfers on a tour of New Zealand.
Reports during the 1930s describe her as ‘outstanding amongst the women golfers of Australia’ and ‘something of a phenomenon’. Ebert would continue to win championships and tournaments right into the 1950s.