Girls’ golf blooming but Troon must smell roses

A TRIP to Troon is always exhilarating. The whiff of Ayrshire air that hits your nostrils on arrival is the perfect tonic after being cooped up in a car on a drive through from the east coast.
Lydia Ko claimed her first LPGA Tour title as a pro when winning the Swinging Skirts Classic. Picture: APLydia Ko claimed her first LPGA Tour title as a pro when winning the Swinging Skirts Classic. Picture: AP
Lydia Ko claimed her first LPGA Tour title as a pro when winning the Swinging Skirts Classic. Picture: AP

It’s hard to believe that my first journey there was fully 25 years ago to watch Mark Calcavecchia claim the Claret Jug at Royal Troon and, after an absence of 12 years, it will be great to see the battle for that trophy return to a true gem of a course in 2016.

Since that last Open Championship, the majority of this correspondent’s visits to one of the country’s golfing hotbeds has been to cover the Helen Holm Scottish Women’s Open Stroke-Play Championship. It has been an eye-opener. In more than one, too.

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First and foremost, and this has definitely accelerated in the space of the last few years, it has shown me how the face of the women’s amateur game has changed dramatically.

Inspired by the likes of Michelle Wie, Lydia Ko, Charley Hull and Carly Booth, it is now being dominated by teenage talent. Annabel Dimmock, a 17-year-old from Wentworth, claimed the prestigious title on Sunday, when her two nearest challengers were also younger than 18. Girl power has taken over and that bodes well at a time when golf clubs need new blood.

Attending the Helen Holm Trophy also gave me my first experience of setting foot inside a ladies-only golf club, a prospect that, laughably, would no doubt send a shiver up the spines of some male counterparts.

What do they expect to see in such clubs? A nail bar in the corner of the lounge, pink fluffy cushions everywhere and perfume choking the air? Certainly not at the Ladies Golf Club, Troon, which hosts one of the Scottish Ladies Golfing Association’s flagship events every April.

Its members are certainly a colourful bunch, but the club itself is no different to the vast majority of mixed-gender clubs around the country, both in terms of appearance and the welcome offered within. Indeed, it could teach a few places some lessons when it comes to the latter.

The existence of such clubs – there are others at Gullane, Carnoustie, Royal Aberdeen and Lundin, to pick out a few – has been used by some as a defence for why men-only clubs should be allowed to go about their business without a welter of criticism being aimed at them.

Indeed, Royal Troon was quick to roll that one out when it was suggested it would have to look at its membership policy and follow the lead of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews if its doors are opened to women members later this year.

“We are a single-gender club but, in my view, we feel it is unfair to be compared to some other clubs,” declared David Brown, the Royal Troon secretary, in reference to both Muirfield and Royal St George’s after the 18 September vote was announced by the R&A. “The Ladies Golf Club, Troon was founded in 1882. They have 370 paying members. They pay us rent to play on our course and use all our facilities. But they are an autonomous club.”

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Based purely on my visits to the Ayrshire coast, I was prepared to go along with believing these scenarios were indeed acceptable and, under the laws of the land, they are, of course.

If Royal Troon wants to be viewed “differently” to both Muirfield and Royal St George’s, though, it really needs to be far more accommodating to someone like Connie Jaffrey, the 17-year-old from the town who produced the best performance of her career to finish runner-up in the Helen Holm at the weekend.

In reply to a question that certainly wasn’t a loaded one, she revealed that Sunday’s outing on Royal Troon – it traditionally stages the final 18 holes in the event – had been a rare one for her. “They’re quite tight on the rules so I only get to play it a couple of times a year,” she replied. “I don’t even get to use the practice putting green, which is unfortunate.”

Shocking more like and something that should be addressed with immediate effect. Jaffrey, the current Scottish Girls’ champion, has talent. Bags of it. Playing more regularly on a course like Royal Troon would surely benefit her development.

Put it this way, it’s unlikely that Ko has had restrictions imposed on her and just look at what she has achieving in the game. In the week she turned 17, the Kiwi was first named as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, then claimed her first LPGA Tour title as a professional when winning the Swinging Skirts Classic in San Francisco. She is now the world No 2 and likely to be No 1 before too long.

Girls’ golf is blossoming in Scotland as much as anywhere else in the world. Let’s do ourselves a big favour, though, by making sure the likes of Jaffrey does not suffer due to barriers that should really have been brought down long ago.