Looking Back: 1909 U.S. Women's Amateur

Dorothy Campbell added the U.S. Women's Amateur title to the British Ladies Open Amateur Championship she had claimed earlier in the spring. (USGA Museum)

Dorothy Campbell added the U.S. Women's Amateur title to the British Ladies Open Amateur Championship she had claimed earlier in the spring. (USGA Museum)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

By Rhonda Glenn, USGA

This is the second in a series of 18 articles looking back at every USGA championship and international team competition held at 2013 U.S. Open host Merion Golf Club, which was known as Merion Cricket Club until 1942.

The 2013 U.S. Open will be a record 18th USGA national championship hosted by the historic Merion Golf Club. It’s noteworthy, however, that the club’s first two USGA championships were for women, and at least one of those championships stood this country on its ear, helping to internationalize the women’s game and producing one of golf’s greatest champions.

When the first players teed off on Oct. 4 in the 1909 U.S. Women’s Amateur, Merion Cricket Club’s members knew what to expect. Several thousand spectators had shown up when Merion had hosted the 1904 Women’s Amateur. The championship was covered by The New York Times, a Connecticut woman – Georgianna Bishop – had won and everyone had a fine time. The members liked those results. 

Just five years later the club had offered to repeat, joining several other clubs as hosts of multiple USGA championships. And so, the USGA flag was once again hoisted over Merion’s quaint shingled clubhouse in Haverford, Pa., and the 15th national championship for women began. 

Many expected another American winner to emerge. After all, American women had captured every national championship since its inception in 1895. 

Others had nagging doubts: There was that wily, straight-hitting Scot whose reputation preceded her. Dorothy Campbell of North Berwick, Scotland, was the reigning British Ladies Open Amateur champion, having won at Royal Birkdale in the spring. At that championship – before radio, before television, before the foreign newspapers could reach American shores – a buzz about a wonderful emerging player had begun. Several Americans had attended that championship and when they returned, word about Campbell spread.

Some American players, most notably Harriot and Margaret Curtis, already knew of her. In 1905, the North Berwick lass had been part of a British team that trounced an American squad led by the Curtis sisters in an informal match in England.

Campbell, they knew, was among the strongest players on the continent and now she was here. Two other strong British players were in the field; Jane Spence of England and a Miss F. Teacher of Scotland, but it was Campbell who struck fear in their hearts.

She was friendly enough, as golfers tend to be, but shared the reserve of many British players. It was her game that was intimidating.

Campbell literally had swung a club since she could walk. The daughter of a metal merchant and his wife, she was a member of a family of devoted male golfers. Her paternal grandfather and eight uncles played, so it was natural that she first swung a toy club as a toddler of 18 months, “in the stiffly-starched attire of babyhood.” 

In 1915, without the aid of a ghost writer, Campbell wrote a reminiscence of her early golf at North Berwick, expressing herself in fine descriptive tones: “The days when there were big matches were red letter ones for us as our nurse generally yielded to a little coaxing and would take us to follow amongst the gallery for the last two holes… I cannot remember anything about the play in this match but very fresh in my memory is the awe and admiration I felt for people who could do anything well enough to be followed by a crowd so large that it had to be kept in order.”

North Berwick, she wrote, was then still a sleepy, picturesque place, “…just a straggling long line of red sandstone houses set down haphazard on the East Lothian shore, unchanged since a couple of decades before when Robert Louis Stevenson used to build a bieldy (sheltering) spot on the shore and hold his playmates spellbound with his wonderful tales…” 

A prodigy, at the age of 5 Campbell played in a two-ball foursomes match with Arthur Dewar, a member of Parliament, as her partner. The course seemed so long and she was so weary that Dewar carried her on his shoulders between shots on the later holes. They won the match. At 12, she was allowed to join the club “but had to be contented to play with our faithful nurse, Marion McSwan, on the small links relegated to the caddies.” 

The little course was rough, with no tin-lined holes or flagsticks. Often, Campbell and her childhood friends would mark out a little golf course on the wet sand after the tide had gone out.

She became a pupil of famed teacher Ben Sayers and progressed quickly. Word of her potential got around and in 1905 when she was 18, she won her first Scottish ladies title at her home course and more than 4,000 spectators watched the final match.

Early photographs show a swing remarkable for its contemporary flair, distinguishing it from other golf swings of that era. While she used a 10-fingered or “baseball” grip in 1909, Campbell had a strong-looking, compact backswing. Pictures show her in ankle-length skirts, sturdy boots and wide-brimmed hats, but her follow-through is classic. By far, it appears to be the most modern golf swing of her era.

Now, at 23, with the British title in hand, she was attempting to become the first to win the U.S. championship in the same year and secure the double. At Merion’s course, Campbell qualified with 87, one stroke back of a three-way tie for medalist. She won her first-round match, 10 and 8, against an overwhelmed Mrs. C. W. McKelvey of Massachusetts, found rougher going in the second round against Merion’s Mrs. E.H. Fitler, winning 2 and 1, and eased past Mrs. C.T. Stout in the third round, 2 up.

“…There is a general feeling among the contestants that she stands an excellent chance of carrying the title home with her,” said one reporter. “Such an outcome would be so unprecedented that it has never been seriously contemplated until within a day or two.”

Campbell’s semifinal battle against the veteran campaigner Mrs. Caleb Fox was expected to be a close one, but Fox was off her game and Campbell won, 3 and 2. 

A large gallery showed up for the 18-hole final, where Campbell faced Lillian Barlow, a crack Philadelphia player. Women could not be members of Merion but Barlow was affiliated with the club.

“Miss Campbell, in view of the admirable game she has shown during the week, was the favorite, but notwithstanding this, the Americans were hopeful that, by some chance or brilliant play, their representative might retain the cup in this country,” said The New York Times.

It was not to be. Campbell played steadily, Barlow erratically, and Campbell won, 3 and 2. For the first time in history, the Robert Cox Trophy would sail overseas.

The American reaction was gracious. “Never have I been more sincerely praised for a victory, even when I brought the women’s championship title back to Scotland,” Campbell said, referring to her win in the British.

Herbert Jaques, the USGA president, honored Campbell. “I want to congratulate you on the fine, consistent game you have played during the week,” Jaques said. “You are a credit in the land of your birth, home of the great game of golf, and I must add that we hope to see you on this side again before another year.”

Campbell did indeed return in 1910 and won her second straight U.S. Women’s Amateur. Over the course of her competitive career, it is said that she won between 700 and 800 tournaments. In 1924, as a matron of 41, she won her third U.S. Women’s Amateur crown. Over the next years, Campbell married twice and gave birth to a son. In her 50s, she won a United States senior women’s title. She was remarkable enough to be mentioned 15 times in Glenna Collett Vare’s 1928 book, “Ladies In The Rough.” 

In 1945, just four days before her 62nd birthday, Campbell visited friends in Beaufort, S.C. After her visit, she was In Yemassee, a neighboring small town, waiting to depart on a train when she fell from the platform and onto the tracks. She was killed instantly by an oncoming train, a tragic death for one of the greatest players of the 20th century. 

In 1978, Dorothy Campbell Hurd Howe was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. In a ceremony at the hall’s old location overlooking the Pinehurst courses in North Carolina, her great niece accepted the honor on Campbell’s behalf. In the lovely pillared pavilion, busts of great players stood as silent sentinels over one of the grand occasions in golf. Billy Casper, Bing Crosby, Harold Hilton and Clifford Roberts were also inducted that year, and several great players and noteworthy officials milled around, seeming to whisper in the hallowed atmosphere. The great niece made a brief, pleasant speech. People clapped politely, but almost no one seemed to know who Dorothy Campbell was.

Rhonda Glenn is a manager of communications for the USGA. 

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