I always will remember Charley Hull as the shy blond kid who summoned a lurching train of octogenarians to the back nine of Oceanside Country Club in Ormond Beach, Fla., for the painfully cold final round of the 2011 South Atlantic Amateur, aka the Sally.
Hull, the English girl who made an annual odyssey to Florida as a junior, finished second that day, gave a few thoughtful remarks, then continued to chart her way up the World Amateur Golf Ranking. At age 16, she turned professional in early 2013 and began racking up accolades and Solheim Cup starts. She kept opponents, teammates and media members in stitches with her say-anything attitude.
I’m struck each year at the Sally, perhaps the best of the winter women’s amateur events that make up Florida’s Orange Blossom circuit, by how many Great Britain and Ireland players are in the field. The series is first-class, and it promotes women’s golf in a positive light, like the handful of other major events available to female amateurs (read: top-tier national championships presented by the USGA and R&A).
The Orange Blossom series gives women’s golf fans on this side of the Atlantic a chance to brush up on tomorrow’s GB&I Curtis Cuppers and future Ladies European Tour stars, plus American collegians. Hull, now 21, is the GB&I poster child for her generation. R&A officials no doubt would be thrilled to run a few dozen players like her through their ranks.
Players at Hull’s level, however, are the anomaly, not the norm. The next generation of golfers needs droves of females. They can come up through local competition that feeds into elite amateur events as well as municipal courses and, eventually, company boardrooms. It’s in this spirit that the R&A announced Tuesday that, beginning in 2018, it will add an annual event designed specifically for female amateurs 16 and younger. The organization’s stated reason is to clear a path to the elite events for young female amateurs, but the effect will be larger. More playing opportunities at younger ages builds a better foundation for all of women’s golf. It’s a move for the kind of player who will contribute to the industry for life, regardless of whether we ever see her on TV or not.
Right away, the R&A has shown a commitment to the Girls Under 16s Open Amateur. It will be played for the first three years at Fulford Golf Club in England, a past European Tour venue that also hosted the inaugural Women’s British Open in 1976. The R&A has done a lot of things right here, starting with its realization that the current tournament schedule needed attention. As the Under 16s event comes online, the R&A also will retire its Ladies British Open Amateur Stroke Play Championship. That event took place during such a crowded area of the summer amateur schedule that the R&A is, wisely, directing resources to other areas.
Elite amateur events do not necessarily grow the game, despite the level of publicity they get or the way they introduce us to up-and-coming headliners. To keep growing the participation rate for young females on both sides of the Atlantic is going to take more than a few Florida winter events, no matter how global the fields. More local playing opportunities for younger players across the globe speaks to increased female participation in the game – and ensures that it keeps climbing. It’s refreshing to see these opportunities popping up globally.
Yes, the Girls Under 16s will be a feeder into the bigger national events for older players, but it also will churn out more knowledgeable, experienced golfers. More importantly, it will do more to grow the game than a stagnant stroke-play event for older players. Besides, in creating a championship for girls, the R&A must have identified a need among its community. Take that as a good sign for women’s golf.
Julie Williams is a former college golfer and Golfweek writer who teaches eighth-grade English and coaches a high school girls golf team in Cocoa Beach, Fla. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @BTSD_Jules