SUNNINGDALE, ENGLAND | The year 1934 was important in the history of the game.
It was then that Horton Smith beat Craig Wood by one shot to win the inaugural Augusta National Invitation Tournament, which would later become known as the Masters.
Also that year, thousands of miles away on the other side of the Atlantic, the Sunningdale Foursomes was born.
For years, before the advent of the wraparound season, the Masters was widely regarded as golf’s rite of spring. But not by a prominent group of British amateurs and professionals who elected instead to begin their seasons in what was, and still is, a quintessentially British tournament staged on arguably two of the finest inland courses anywhere in that country.
“The Sunningdale Foursomes was the curtain-raiser for the season,” recalls 88-year-old Peter Alliss, the veteran Ryder Cup player and TV commentator, who won the event twice in 1958 and 1961 with Jean Donald (later Jean Anderson) and who still attends the annual past champions lunch held on the final day of each year’s event.
“This was big stuff for its time. It used to attract about 80 percent of the pros who really could play, the Ryder Cup players, as well as a lot of the leading amateurs of the time. Wentworth tried to challenge it for a bit. They had the Wentworth Foursomes, but it only ran for a handful of years, I can’t remember exactly how many, before it fizzled out.
“It’s hard to understand nowadays just how big an event it was. It used to get about half a page each day in The Daily Telegraph but not nowadays, of course. That’s a sign of the times, but it’s a shame, it really is. It deserves better because it’s such a splendid event.”
A glance at the event’s two honours boards, found in the Critchley Room, named in honour of the event’s first winner, former British Girls’ and Women’s champion Diana Fishwick (later Mrs Critchley), shows that Alliss was not exaggerating when he said it attracted a quality field. The great Joyce Wethered won it twice, in 1935 and 1936, alongside JSF Morrison. Other winners in its heyday included 1951 Open champion Max Faulkner, Brian Huggett, Sir Michael Bonallack, Neil Coles, Peter Oosterhuis, Sam Torrance and Ronan Rafferty to name but a few.
Nowadays, with the expanded tour and elite amateur schedules, it no longer attracts leading players in such numbers, but they have not abandoned it altogether. Future Ryder Cup player and world No 1 Luke Donald lifted the trophy as an amateur in 1996, while in 2012 a then 15-year-old Charley Hull teamed up with Ian Poulter’s one-time coach, Lee Scarbrow, to beat two-time Ryder Cup player David Howell. Future Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley also played that year, together with wife Alison (nee Shapcott). In 2016 Laura Davies and Barry Lane made an appearance together while over the last few years Open champions Sandy Lyle and Paul Lawrie and tour players Tommy Fleetwood and Eddie Pepperell have been among the other big names to make an appearance.
It has much else to commend it but surely it would not have attracted such strong fields had it not been for the quality of the club’s Old and New courses, which both rank among the finest built by the acclaimed course architect Harry Colt.
In 2017, Lyle made an emotional return to the tournament four decades after reaching the 1975 semi-finals paired with Martin Poxon only to see their hopes of victory scuppered by 6 inches of overnight snow. The only other time the event has been abandoned as a result of the weather was last year when the Scot was also scheduled to play.
“We were due to play veterans Lionel Platts and Hedley Muscroft, so I don’t know if we would have won, but it would have been good to try,” he told me. “That year, I’d just been left out of the Walker Cup team so I guess I had something to prove.”
This year, for the 84th staging of the event, former European Tour No. 1 Ronan Rafferty played with son, Jonathan, a Sunningdale member. Tour players Callum Shinkwin and Paul Eales teamed up with their respective wives, Stephanie and Sharon, but the biggest draw was undoubtedly reigning Ricoh Women’s British Open champion Georgia Hall, who made her debut in the company of boyfriend and caddie Harry Tyrrell. Her father, Wayne, was on the bag, just as he was during her triumph at Lytham, albeit with a very different result.
“It’s something Harry and I have wanted to do for a while, but finding the time proved difficult,” Hall said after losing their first round match played in torrential rain against another mixed pair, Hannah Davies and Samuel Prince. “It’s just a shame it didn’t last a bit longer, but we have only ourselves to blame. We didn’t play well enough.”
The presence of Hall, Fishwick, Wethered and all the other ladies highlights one of the features which sets the Sunningdale Foursomes apart from the vast majority of other events.
Mixed golf tournaments have been much in the news of late, thanks to tour events like the GolfSixes and the ISPS Handa Vic Open, but they were as rare as hen’s teeth back in the 1930s, in an era in which golf was very much a male dominated sport.
Sadly, no record exists to tell us why Sunningdale elected to make its Foursomes tournament a mixed event, but one veteran member has an interesting theory on the subject.
“Back in the 1930s, Sunningdale had a large group of very good lady players so maybe it was to recognise them that they chose to make the Sunningdale Foursomes a mixed event,” said John Churchill, a member of the club since 1955 and the editor of The Sunningdale Story, written by Guy Bennett. “I like to think what they were trying to show was that ladies golf was just as important as the men’s game.”
The presence of men and women, amateurs and professionals, has spawned another feature unique to the Sunningdale Foursomes. The rules state all competitors play from the back tees so, to even things out, the club has devised its own special handicap system. It has been altered several times over the years but currently stipulates that male professionals play off plus-1, male amateurs play off scratch, women professionals get two shots and women amateurs receive four. That has resulted in some occasional criticism, often from male pairs beaten by female opponents, but in the main it has been proved to work.
The main beneficiaries this year were Swedish amateur internationals Linn Grant and Maja Stark, who received nine shots when beating 16-year-old amateur Joe Sullivan and his professional partner, Louis Hirst, by two holes in the final to become just the fifth all-female pair to lift the trophy after Christine Langford and Mickey Walker (1982), Maureen Madill and Mary McKenna (1984), Corinne Dibnah and Dale Reid (1990) and Julie Hall and Helen Wadsworth (1997). They were also the first winners from the Continent of Europe and extended a run which has seen at least one woman being part of the winning side in five out of the last seven tournaments.
Stark was making her debut in the tournament but Grant, who qualified for both the US Women’s Open and the Ricoh Women’s British Open last year, had played once before, having decided to do so after listening to her father, John, talking about his experiences playing in the event. Incidentally, she gets her surname from a Scottish grandfather who won his country’s national Boys’ title in the 1950s, before emigrating across the North Sea.
“Dad has played in it four times,” she said. “He often talked about how good it was, so I thought I’d give it a go,” she said.
“I played with Martha Lewis two years ago, but she wasn’t available this year, so I teamed up with Maja instead. It has been fantastic to play here this week, especially with Dad on the bag. We’ve had a lot of fun.”
“The courses are magical,” agreed Stark, whose father, Lars, also caddied for her. “I knew they were good, but not as good as this.”
In that single sentence Stark may well have hit on the prime reason for the enduring success of the Sunningdale Foursomes. It has much else to commend it but surely it would not have attracted such strong fields had it not been for the quality of the club’s Old and New courses, which both rank among the finest built by the acclaimed course architect Harry Colt.
That is something that both Sam Torrance and Alliss confirmed in my conversations with them.
“I’ve stopped playing in it because I’ve got too old, but it’s a great event and always has been,” said Torrence, the Scot who had to go seven extra holes together with John O’Leary before beating fellow future Ryder Cup captain Bernard Gallacher, and his partner, Pat Garner, in the 1985 final.
“It’s got history and then there’s the place itself. Any golfer on the planet is going to take the opportunity to play the Old and the New courses, especially in a competitive environment. I think it’s an honour to come and play here.”
The last word goes to Alliss who, in many ways, epitomises what the tournament is all about.
“We used to all love coming here,” he said. “Even now, every time I return, I look out the window and just want to go out and play. It’s a very special place.”
Sunningdale, seen here in 2004, has attracted elite players for its famed Foursomes since 1934. Photo: Paul Childs, Reuters
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