A fascinating new exhibition focuses on the challenges female golfers have had to overcome – and also how they have gone from strength to strength in the sport

THE prestigious AIG Women’s Open is back for the third time in St Andrews this summer and is a significant marker of what women golfers have achieved in the last 150 years.

Tracking their progress, challenges and successes is a new exhibition in the state-of-the-art R&A World Golf Museum in the town. Situated just yards from the iconic Old Course, the “home of golf”, the Museum was fully redeveloped in 2021 and is a VisitScotland five-star accredited attraction.

Angela Howe, Director of Museum & Heritage at The R&A explained that the exhibition is a celebration of women’s golf, with equipment, photographs, archive film, artwork, medals and clothing demonstrating their achievements.

The new exhibition has been developed with input from former PhD student Dr Lauren Beatty, who was based at the Museum for the duration of her studies, and whose research focused on the challenges women have had to overcome in the sport, how it has evolved, and gone from strength to strength.

The Ladies’ Golf Union was formed in 1893 and within one year of forming had staged a national championship and introduced a handicapping system, which a few years later was adopted in the men’s game. “They did not waste any time in getting going and there were some real pioneering women, who were determined to show they were just as capable of playing the sport as men,” said Ms Howe. 

“They led the way in establishing a national handicapping system because until then individual clubs followed their own system.”

Above, items belonging to the Solheim Cup Team Europe Captains including: Mickey Walker’s 1992 Golf Bag, Catriona Matthew’s 2003 Golf Shoes and Annika Sörenstam’s 2003 Polo

St Andrews has a long history of women playing golf. 

The St Andrews Ladies’ Putting Club formed in 1867 and is the oldest women’s golf club in the world. In a historic move, in 2014, The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews voted in favour of allowing women members for the first time in its 260-year history.

On show in the exhibition is a painting loaned by renowned Fife-based artist David Mach which he painted in 2015 to mark the historic vote. 

“It shows a female golfer on the Old Course who has  a wall of men behind her, armed with bunker rakes, pin flags and golf clubs and she is holding up her fist in triumph,” said Ms Howe. 

“It is quite ambiguous and open to interpretation, because the men all have smiles on their faces, so it is hard to know if they are supporting her or trying to block her. It’s a really bright, vibrant, colourful painting with lots of different details in it to see and enjoy.”

The exhibition also includes a photograph of the St Andrews Ladies’ Putting Club taken in 1888, showing groups of women wearing full length skirts with bustles and big, elaborate hats. 

“By contrast, as we move with the times, we have a lovely, colourful print of an unidentified woman golfer in from c.1925, who is wearing knee breeches,” said Ms Howe. “It’s interesting when you think about the role women played during the First World War when they took on jobs traditionally held by men.  Women’s fashion started to reflect this change of roles as they start to wear clothing that might previously been associated with men.”

However it seems the golfing world still wasn’t ready for English golfer Gloria Minoprio’s choice of outfit in the 1933 English Ladies’ Championship which is on display in the Museum.

“She wore slim fitting navy trousers, a navy polo-neck and a little navy cap and only played with one club so she was very unconventional,” said Ms Howe.

“Her outfit caused an absolute outrage because she was wearing trousers in a national competition.

The Ladies’ Golf Union issued an apology, but from that controversy women did start wearing trousers and it became very commonplace.

“We bring in social history and attitudes into the narrative to show how wider societal expectations impact on sports, including golf.”

Amongst the trophies and medals on display is the Scottish Women’s Amateur gold medal won by Jessie Valentine, who was known as ‘Wee Jessie’ and was given her first golf club when she was only five years old. 

She won the 1933 Girls’ Amateur Championship, three Women’s Amateur Championships and six Scottish Amateur Championships.  She later designed her own golf clubs and in 1959 was the first female golfer to be awarded an MBE.

The exhibition, and wider museum displays, feature clothing designed by one of the nation’s former top amateur players, Lady Angela Bonallack, who started designing and selling women’s golf wear when her husband, Sir Michael, took over as secretary at The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews in 1983. “That was in the 1980s and her designs are quite quirky so it is a nice collection,” said Ms Howe.

There is also a film with archive and contemporary footage that portrays personal accounts of women’s experience in golf. 

Pass It On: Women’s Experiences in Golf is on display at the R&A World Golf Museum until Spring 2025