Originally created 11/30/97

Britain's Grand Dame of golf remembered as one of the best



His gentle drawl at the other end of the phone paused, his mind thumbing through the pages of time.

"I'm sad to hear of her passing," Charles Yates said last week about Joyce Wethered, one of the best players to swing a golf club during the game's first big growth period after World War I.

"But at 96 she had a full life," said Yates, 85-year-old member of the Augusta National Golf Club and winner of the 1938 British Amateur who played with Wethered in an exhibition with Bobby Jones in the mid-1930s. "Oh my, she could play."

Wethered, who died in England on Nov. 18 - one day after her 96th birthday - could indeed play. She was nearly unbeatable for seven years.

A willowy 5-foot-10, she won 33 consecutive matches in taking the English Women's Amateur title from 1920 through 1924 and won 36 of 38 matches in taking the British Women's Amateur championship four times from 1922 through 1929.

Those numbers could have been even more impressive if she had not retired for three years after 1925, before she had reached her 24th birthday.

"I have simply exercised a woman's prerogative of doing something without the slightest regard for what anybody else thinks and because I want to please myself," she said.

Wethered came out of retirement in 1929, lured by the prospect of playing the British Women's Amateur at St. Andrews, and defeated Glenna Collett 3 and 1 in the scheduled 36-hole match while followed by more than 10,000 people.

Collett played the first nine holes with eight 4s and a 2 to go 5-up. She missed a short putt on No. 11 that would have put her 6-up then watched in disbelief as Wethered won nine of the next 15 holes.

Yates met Wethered after she retired as an amateur and was playing exhibition matches for money.

"It was Joyce and Bob (Jones) and me and a girl named Dorothy Kirby," Yates said from his home near Atlanta. "She was my partner and she outdrove Bob and me several times. I didn't help her until the 15th hole and we ended up tying the match."

Wethered was born in Witley, England, on Nov. 17, 1901, and learned the game from her brother Roger, who lost the 1921 British Open in a playoff to Jock Hutchinson.

She got the attention of the golf world in 1920 when, at 19, she won the English Women's Amateur by making an 8-foot putt on the 17th hole at Sheringham to defeat Cecil Leitch.

As Wethered was making her winning stroke a train rumbled by on the tracks lining the hole. When asked how she could make such an important putt with such a great distraction, Wethered, known for Hogan-like concentration, replied: "What train?"

Wethered, who in 1937 married Sir John Heathcoat Armory and became Lady Heathcoat-Armory, had a powerful, upright swing marked by rock-solid balance.

"Good swing?" the Scottish pro Willie Wilson once remarked. "My God, mon, she could hit a ball 240 yards on the fly while standing barefoot on a cake of ice."

Wethered herself found great confidence in her remarkable sense of balance.

"I feel nobody could push me off my right heel at the top of my swing, and at the other end, I feel nobody could push me off my left foot," she told Leonard Crawley in a series of instructional pieces for the Daily Telegraph.

Praise for Wethered came from the most prominent players of her era.

"In my time, I do not think a golf ball has ever been hit, except perhaps by Harry Vardon, with such a straight flight by any other person," said three-time British Open champion Henry Cotton.

Jones, who won 13 major championships in the 1920s, said of Wethered: "I have not played golf with anyone, man or woman, amateur or professional, who made me feel so utterly outclassed."

Yates considered Jones' words only briefly before saying, "Bob didn't say things he didn't mean."

Yates' contact with Wethered was 60 years ago, but her grace and game made a lasting impression.

"A couple of years ago I found out that she was in a nursing home and I wrote her a letter about that match," Yates said. "I got the sweetest letter back about that game and her admiration for Bob Jones."

Told that his letter must have meant a lot to Wethered, Yates replied: "It meant more to me."

It was a sad day for Charles Yates, and all who care about that era of golf that produced Bob Jones, Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen - and Joyce Wethered.