When ladies professional
golf came to Melbourne
Gary Player was the standout golfer of the seven inducted into the PGA of America Hall of Fame in 2017.
Two if the inductees were women – Mickey Wright and Renee Powell.
Mary Kathryn “Mickey” Wright had a most impressive playing record – she joined the ladies professional tour in 1955 and won 13 major championships and 82 LPGA Tour career events.
But it was Renee Powell who perhaps made the most significant mark on women’s golf.
Renee became known to Australian golf fans in the early 1970s when she played tournaments around the country.
She was among the new female professional golfers who played their first tournament in an Australian capital city when they contested the Tarax Open at Box Hill Golf Club in 1973.
Until then the women professionals had been confined to playing tournaments in regional Australia, such were the divisions them between men and women in golf.
When the Surrey Hills Golf Club in Melbourne (from where the Box Hill Golf Club traces its origins) allowed women to join as full members they were promptly told off.
Other clubs at the time restricted women to ‘Associate” membership – most were spouses or partners of Members, hence the term “Associates”.
The Surrey Hills move however was short-lived, the Club returning to Associate membership for women after a short period of time, due largely to peer pressure apparently from other influential golf clubs.
With the arrival of discrimination laws in the 1980s, the term “Associates” began disappearing. Box Hill was among the first clubs to award full membership to women.
May 2018 marks 45 years since Box Hill hosted the Tarax Proettes (the term proettes was dropped many years ago.
Renee Powell at Box Hill in 1973
The Box Hill event brought Renee Powell to notice – she was only the second African American female golfer to embark on a professional career.
Large crowds turned out to watch the two events held at Box Hill. ABC Television covered the event and there were numerous reports in the press.
Renee Powell was to be a trailblazer in golf.
She was born in East Canton, Ohio, and began playing golf at the age of three. Her father, Bill Powell, is the only African American to design, build, own and operate a golf course in the US, Clearview Golf Club in East Canton Ohio – “America’s Course.”
Renee Powell had many “firsts” in her career, including among the first women honorary members of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club at St. Andrews.
“I never looked at myself as a trailblazer,” she said. “I believed that my mission was to create opportunities for everyone. It was a way of breaking down barriers. My parents set the model for me.”
She entered her first amateur tournament at the age of 12 and won her division. Three years later, she had 30 youth tournament trophies. She graduated from Central Catholic High School in Canton and attended Ohio University and Ohio State University, appointed captain of the women’s golf team at both.
Renee competed in more than 250 professional golf tournaments. Her first tournament after turning professions in 1967 was the US Women’s Open.
On her Australian visit, and once the barrier to capital city appearances was torn down at Box Hill, she went on to win the Kelly Springfield Open in Brisbane.
In mid-1973 and early 1974 the Tarax Drinks Company (part of the Schweppes Group) sponsored tournaments that were held at Yarrawonga, Cobram, Corowa, Paterson River and eventually Box Hill.
The Tarax Box Hill Open gave the Proettes the chance they were waiting for; the first Proette tournament played in the metropolitan area. That was in May and $5500 prizemoney was on offer. A ProAm was played on the Wednesday and the tournament itself on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. Two overseas players – veteran American Betty Jameson and English woman Vivien Saunders – joined the locals. Saunders won the tournament from Australian Penny Pulz.
Vivien Saunders was at the time a fully qualified Assistant Professional and member of the PGA. However, because she was a woman she was not permitted to play on the major PGA tour. And because she was a member of the PGA, sponsors of women’s events would not invite her to play in their tournaments.
She overcame all those issues to become one of the most high-profile golfers in the UK. Her fight to become a club professional is still one of the leading cases under the Sex Discrimination Act introduced in 1975. She then took up law studies and became a partner in a law firm. But golf again beckoned – she bought the Eynesbury Hardwicke Golf Club in St Neots and renamed it Abbotsley Golf and Squash Club, where she ran golf schools. Because of the distinctions between professional and amateur golf at the time she was forced to return to amateur status to continue playing competition golf, now as a senior. 60s. Her CV makes inspirational reading (she has her own web site).
Laureen Radford (Qld), Judy Proctor (NSW),
Penny Pulz (Vic), Betty Jameson (USA),
and Marilyn Smith (NZ) at Box Hill GC in 1973
The Tarax “Tour” returned to Box Hill in December that year with $15,000 prizemoney for the four-day event that attracted six overseas Proettes – among them Renee Powell – as well as almost all Australian LPGA members, including Jan Thomas, who was to make her name in the world of professional golf as Jan Stephenson.
It wasn’t without controversy, however, as rumours spread that the Box Hill event would not go ahead if the Proettes declined to play in the Victorian Open Championship (alongside the men) at Huntingdale in February 1974.
The LPGA policy at the time was that “the girls” would not play in any men’s tournament. The LPGA said it had already approved the Tarax event at Box Hill and it would go ahead.
And it did, with a Pro-Am to kick things off.
New Zealander Glennis Taylor set a course record three-under-par 67 on the first day. Unfortunately, rain intervened. The third round was washed out with the Proettes having to play 36 holes on Sunday, 16 December. Jan Thomas emerged victorious.
Jan Thomas at Box Hill in 1973
Today the Victorian Open is a joint event between the men and women.
The Box Hill event in May 1973 was closely linked to the formation just a few weeks earlier of the Australian Ladies Professional Golfers Association as it is now known.
It all began in 1972 when the Ladies Professional Golf Association of Australia (LPGAA) was formed.
Mr H.T. Bonython, a grazier from South Australia, and Patron and Executive Board Member, financially guaranteed the Association for the first two years of it operation. The Founder and Executive Director, Mr Alan Gillott, launched the LPGAA on a tournament circuit in March 1973.
Twelve enthusiastic lady professional golfers took part in the first historic events, played at three New South Wales country courses – Wollongong, Moss Vale and Nowra. They were Glennis Taylor, Marilyn Smith, Betty Dalgleish, Barbara McHutchinson, Judy Perkins, Anne Kenny, Penny Pulz, Jan Kelly, Roberta Simpson, Judy Proctor, Laureen Radford and Jackie Pung (Hawaii). They played for a purse of $3000 sponsored by Simpson Pope.
In the same year, 1973, membership grew to nineteen. Seven successful tournaments were played that year in Victoria and New South Wales, followed by a two-month tour of Queensland. November saw the lady professional golfers playing their LPGAA championship in Adelaide.
1975 saw the number of players reduced by three with top stars, Jan Stephenson, Penny Pulz and New Zealand’s Marilyn Smith heading overseas to tackle the rich American LPGA Tour.
Some lean years followed and reorganisation was undertaken.
Membership numbers steadily increased during the 1990’s reaching 97 in 1998.
In 2002 the Tour schedule included five ProAms and three major tournaments providing a total purse of $1,445,000.
Today Australian tour membership stands at more than 170 and a dozen tournaments on the schedule.
Breaking down Barriers
William (“Bill”) Powell
Bill Powell served on D-Day, played golf in the UK but returned home to be denied access to local courses.
When he decided to build his own course, local bankers pleaded ignorance of ever hearing of the G.I. Loan scheme set up to assist returning service people. Powell found two African American partners in Northern Ohio for financial support – a physician in Canton who had delivered his three children, and a doctor in Massillon.
He built Clearview “to provide anyone who wanted to play golf the opportunity to do so and feel welcome. It’s an opportunity that was denied me and resulted in my determination to just build my own course and put the ‘fair’ back in fairway.”
The PGA continues the story: “By mid-April 1948, Clearview Golf Club opened nine holes. Powell was ahead of the curve, operating junior golf programs, tournaments and women’s leagues.
“In 1978, Powell completed 18 holes on the 130-acre property that was once a dairy farm. Powell proudly called his creation America’s Course, ‘where the only color that matters is the color of the greens’.”
Bill Powell was posthumously inducted into the PGA Hall of Fame in 2013. Renee followed on 3 November 2017, the only father-daughter combination to receive the PGA’s highest lifetime honor.
Renee continues the work of her father in bringing diversity to golf.
Renee Powell and the commemorative
plaque at Clearview
The PGA notes: “She would take 25 trips to Africa, helping instruct heads of state and their respective citizens. In 1971, as part of a USO Tour under heavy security, Renee visited the troops at the height of the Vietnam War. She also lived in England for a short time, serving as the first woman head professional in the United Kingdom at Silvermere Golf Club outside London.
“As a member of the Professional Golfers Association of Great Britain & Ireland, she was the first woman PGA Member in the country to compete in an event from the men’s tees. Somehow, she also found time to design women’s apparel that was displayed at legendary Harrod’s.
“When Powell returned home to Clearview Golf Club in 1980, she would lead her own youth golf camp to benefit inner-city junior high students in greater Cleveland. She was invited to become a member of the PGA of America, but at first declined after witnessing golf had shunned her father.
“She would ultimately accept the PGA’s invitation and earned and was elected to PGA Membership in 1996. Renee also witnessed the wheels of injustice slowly turn around for the family, which was honored by the National Golf Foundation as the 1992 Jack Nicklaus Golf Family of the Year.”
Author’s note: Thanks to Laureen Ford (nee Radford) for her assistance in researching the Tarax events.