Any time now, Jill Thornhill, aged 78, will be playing Caroline Weeks, 57, in the second round of the Women’s Match-Play championship at Walton Heath, the course which will stage the AIG Women’s Open in 2023.
As far as she can tell from last week’s sneak previews of handicaps from the World Handicap System, Weeks will be giving Thornhill a stroke. “It looks like that’s what’s going to happen and it’s incredibly annoying to say the least,” said the younger player.
Why? Because Thornhill is her mother and, for the last 47 years, things have always been the other way around.
“We will both have our game faces on and each of us will be as determined as the other,” continued the daughter. “I can assure you that there will be no love lost out on the course.”
It is not just at Walton Heath that people will be waiting with bated breath for the result, for Thornhill’s fame has never been at quite the same level as it is at the moment, not even when she won the British Women’s Amateur at Silloth in 1983.
At the end of September, she matched her age – a 78 at 78 on a far-from-easy course – in winning the Walton Heath Autumn Gold Medal, an event she had first captured 57 years earlier at the age of 21.
“I never knew what it meant ‘to go viral’ before, but I did after that,” chuckled Thornhill. The coverage started with a few mentions on Twitter but, with Ewen Murray of commentary fame mentioning it during the course of Sky Sports’ US Open coverage, that handful of mentions turned into thousands.
“I felt as if I’d won the British all over again,” said the three-time Curtis Cup player. “No wonder youngsters get caught up in all this social media stuff. For me, it was all over pretty quickly, but I have to say that it was fun while it lasted.”
Yet there has been a rather more lasting repercussion to that day of days. Shortly before it, mother and daughter were both off 6 handicaps. However, when Thornhill won that gold medal, she was cut to 5. And since then, things have changed again.
Following that sneak preview of handicaps, Weeks rang her mother for a conversation which went roughly like this.
Weeks: “Have you had a look at what your handicap’s going to be?”
Thornhill: “No, I was just going to wait and see until it’s official.”
Weeks: “Well I’ve looked, and yours is going to be 5.4 and mine is going to be 4.3.”
With handicaps set to change more regularly under the new system, that could be the start of many more such anxiety-laced little calls.
It was not too many years after the once +3-handicap Thornhill had first introduced her daughter to golf – Caroline was 10 or 11 at the time – that she started to take heed of their respective handicaps. “I was going up and Caroline was coming down and I remember a day when I said an alarmed, ‘Good heavens, you’re catching me up,’ ” Thornhill said.
In which connection, she will never forget marking her daughter’s first handicap cards at a stage where she was struggling to carry the heather from some of the Walton Heath tees. “Caroline would be belting the ball as hard as she could, and I would be expending all my energy on trying to will her ball to make the carries,” Thornhill said.
“How lucky I am, how lovely Walton Heath is looking, and how blessed I am that Caroline loves the game and is getting as much fun out of it as I ever have.” – Jill Thornhill
In time, the two of them started entering the prestigious Mothers & Daughters Open at Royal Mid-Surrey, an event they won twice. On one occasion, when they were leading after the first round and Thornhill started to make a few mistakes after lunch, Weeks was moved to ask a steely, “We’re not trying to lose this, are we?”
On another rare day when Thornhill was off form, this one after she had won one of her 15 Surrey titles the previous afternoon, her daughter came up with another classic: “Can I take it you didn’t play like this yesterday?”
So much apologising – both ways – was going on in this annual event that, two years ago, Thornhill decided not to play in it again. “I couldn’t take the strain,” she laughed.
Yet her love of golf has never wavered. “I’ve had so many wonderful times,” she said. Winning the British and playing in the winning Curtis Cup side at Prairie Dunes in 1986 were just two of them. (She picked up 3½ points out of 4 at Prairie Dunes).
Today, she likes nothing so much as to set out on a sunny afternoon with three or four clubs in a tiny bag and play a few holes on her own.
What does she think about?
“How lucky I am, how lovely Walton Heath is looking, and how blessed I am that Caroline loves the game and is getting as much fun out of it as I ever have,” she said.
Yet the edge between mother and daughter is always going to be there. And how could it not when Weeks drives the ball 30-40 yards past Thornhill, only to cringe as her mother gets down in a single putt.
“Needless to say,” said Weeks, “I am so proud of her and what she’s achieved. Her 78 at 78 might be seen as the icing on the cake of what’s been a great career. Personally, I think there’s more to come.”
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