As the Open returns to Royal Portrush after 68 years, Anne Marie McAleese outlines why one Northern Irish golfer in particular deserves a special place in the history of the game
Unsuspecting visitors to the Irish seaside town of Portrush on a summer’s evening in 1899 might have been forgiven for wondering why the centre of the town was unusually busy. Hundreds of people had gathered around the railway station to give a rapturous welcome to a teenage golfing sensation. As a 17-year-old, May Hezlet and her mother made their way towards the jubilant crowds, the sky above the resorts West Strand beach dazzled in a blaze of colour and the air was filled with the loud, crackling sound of fireworks.
A celebration befitting the champion golfer that Hezlet had, unassailably, just become. In back to back triumphs, she won the Ladies Open Championship, staged by the Ladies Golfing Union of the United Kingdom, just two weeks after winning the Irish Ladies Open Championship. Both prestigious tournaments were played at the links course in Newcastle, County Down.
Miss May, as she was known, was the most accomplished of four talented Hezlet sisters. She was introduced to the game at the age of nine, by her mother, also a skilled exponent of the relatively new sport.
By 11, she had won her first competition using only a cleek, mashie and putter. Her aptitude for golf was matched only by her passion for it.
The family lived in Bovagh House in rural Aghadowey, County Londonderry, though spent much of their time 12 miles further north in the coastal town of Portrush in the neighbouring county of Antrim.
It was here that, as a young girl, May honed her considerable skills and soon joined the ranks of the older women of the Ladies Club in Portrush who themselves had blazed a trail for women’s golf at the turn of the 19th century.
Lady Margaret Scott, Helen Cox, Rhona Adair, and the three other Hezlet sisters, Emily, Violet and Florence, would have many gripping fairway battles in the early years of the County Club in Portrush and later as members of Royal Portrush Ladies.
Among these leading lights, club and championship titles would trade places with speed and regularity and in those days the women’s haul of trophies and accolades far outshone that of the men.
Current Portrush Ladies President Moyra McElderry believes that May’s contribution to establishing the game for women was immense: “Without May Hezlet, women’s golf would not be where it is today – she was a pioneer and in those early days she and her contemporaries, particularly Rhona Adair, were vital to the development of the modern game. They put golf in Portrush on the map and we owe them a great debt.”
Hezlet went on to claim four further Irish Championships in 1904, 1905, 1906 and 1908 and added two British Championship titles in 1902 and 1907.
At the age of 22 she wrote a book called Ladies Golf which reinforced her progressive thinking as far as equality on and off the course was concerned.
In the first paragraph on the first page of the first edition published in 1904, she wrote: “It is now generally acknowledged that golf is the game – par excellence – for women. The girl of the present day must have some outlet for her superfluous energy, and she is not content with the life which women were expected to lead in former years. In those days their principal occupations were household duties and sewing and embroidery. Exercise was not considered needful, and a quiet walk in the garden was the only change permitted from the work-chamber or still room. Household duties are a very necessary part of life and sewing and amusements of the like nature are excellent in moderation but are not considered enough to satisfy the tastes of the modern girl. Exercise in the open air is the necessity to her and when combined with healthful bodily exertion, so much the better.”
Social historian Nina McNeary, pictured below (left) with me when I went to visit Portrush recently, has carried out extensive research for a forthcoming History of Golf exhibition organised jointly by the local Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council and the Portrush Heritage group.
She says: “May Hezlet was a hugely important figure as far as women’s emancipation was concerned. She was a woman ahead of her time in regard to equality, status and even fashion. At a time when long, heavy and impractical skirts were the style she advocated for shorter skirts and also for women to have more control over how their golf club was managed.”
In 1905 May and her sister Florence played on a British and Irish team in a match against a visiting American side at Royal Cromer Golf Club in Norfolk. Importantly, Harriot and Margaret Curtis were on the US team and despite the fact that the match resulted in a 6-1 win for the British team – Margaret Curtis lost to Hezlet while Harriot Curtis lost to Elinor Neville.
The Curtis sisters loved the experience and some years later in 1927, donated a trophy to honour their transatlantic battle. Four years later in 1931 the USGA and LGU agreed to co-sponsor a bi-annual event which they named the Curtis Cup. It is still played at two year intervals.
At the age of 27 May Hezlet married the reverend AE Ross, the church of Ireland minister at Portrush and as Mrs Ross, represented Ireland one last time in the Home Internationals of 1912.
In 1913 the LGU awarded Hezlet and Rhona Adair scratch handicaps for life in recognition of their excellence and mastery of golf. At that time, no other female golfers could hold a scratch handicap for more than six years.
May became the inaugural president of Royal Portrush Ladies in 1922, having been lady captain in 1905. She remained President until the Open was held for the first time at Royal Portrush in 1951.
A portrait of her by artist Harry Douglas, commissioned by the club to celebrate her success, still hangs in the Portrush Ladies clubhouse.
The premature death of her husband in 1923 left May a widow at the age of 41 and some time later she moved to England to work for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. She became president of the Mothers’ Union, though had no children herself.
As a 10-year-old joining Royal Portrush in 2002, Stephanie Meadow might not have realised the illustrious footsteps she was following in and how she would make her own mark on the golfing world in the years to come.
Currently Northern Ireland’s top female professional golfer, she came 3rd in her first professional appearance at the US Open in 2014 and has represented Ireland at the Olympics.
There is no doubt Hezlet would have revelled in her success as her sister Violet did when another Portrush Ladies member brought distinction to the game.
Following Maureen Madills triumph in 1979 in the British Ladies Amateur Championship, a year later, she was on the winning Irish team in the Women’s Home Internationals at Cruden Bay.
At the age of 97, Violet Hulton (nee Hezlet) wrote a letter congratulating Maureen on her success and mentioned that she and her sister May had been on the last winning Irish team, 72 years earlier.
May Hezlet died in 1978 at the age of 95. Little could she have known when she arrived on the platform of Portrush train station eight decades earlier that she would go on to carve her name in the annals of golfing history.
How she would have relished the oldest and most prestigious golf tournament in the world returning to the scene of so many of her victories.
She watched the Open when it was first played in Royal Portrush 68 years ago and in 2019 her spirit will be felt, especially by Royal Portrush Ladies.
More than a century ago, behind all these great golfing men, there was indeed, at least one, even greater golfing woman.
Photo credits: Anne Marie McAleese and Causeway Coast and Glens Museum