The fascinating story of Joyce Wethered: A dominant force in women's golf through the 1920s then a renowned horticulturist as Lady Heathcoat Armory.
Before the 1930 British Amateur Championship, legendary amateur Bobby Jones had the chance to play a practice round over the Old Course at St Andrews with Joyce Wethered. Both played off the back tees and, after Wethered putted out for a 75, Jones said. “I have not played golf with anyone, man or woman, amateur or professional who made me feel so utterly outclassed.”
By the end of her career, Joyce Wethered, who was later known by her married name of Lady Heathcoat Armory, had won four British Ladies’ Amateur titles and five English Ladies’ Amateur titles. She is considered one of the most talented golfers of the early 20th Century and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1975.
Born in 1901, Wethered’s first golfing experiences came during family holidays to Bude in Cornwall and to Dornoch in northern Scotland where the Wethereds had a house overlooking the course.
Her golfing prowess developed quickly and, at the age of just 18, she entered the 1920 English Ladies’ Championship at Sheringham Golf Club in Norfolk. She was something of an unknown quantity and was largely overlooked through the early stages of the competition with the focus on overwhelming favourite Cecil Leitch. Even when Wethered made it to the final against Leitch, few gave her a chance of victory over her more experienced adversary.
The contest seemed to be progressing by the script as Leitch raced into a six-hole lead. But Wethered was not overawed by Leitch’s reputation and self-confidence. She rattled off a succession of threes and finally won the match on the penultimate hole. Immersed in a “cocoon of concentration,” as she described it to Golf Monthly, Wethered holed the winning putt just as a train came thundering past on the line running adjacent to the 17th green. “What train?” She said when asked about it later. She went on to win the English Ladies’ title four more times in successive years from 1921-1924.
In 1922 Wethered won her first British Ladies’ Amateur Championship at Royal St Georges, beating Leitch by 9 and 7 in the final. She won again in 1924 and 1925, but secured her most memorable victory when the competition travelled to St Andrews in 1929.
Up against America’s top lady amateur Glenna Collett in the final, Wethered was staring at defeat, five down after the morning’s play. But the Englishwoman rallied in the second round and eventually won the contest at the 35th hole. The huge crowds following the match were so exuberant that the players required a police escort back to the clubhouse.
Later that year, the Wall Street Crash hit the Wethered family hard and Wethered went to work in the golf department at Fortnum and Mason. At the time, the rules on amateur status were far stricter than today and taking the job meant her amateur status was forfeit.
As a professional, Wethered toured the USA and played a series of matches against top players like Gene Sarazen, Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen. “As I watched her I thought there wasn’t a male golfing star in the world who wouldn’t envy the strong, firm strokes she played.” Said Hagen.
Upon her return to the UK, Wethered married Sir John Heathcoat Armory and moved to his family home – Knightshayes Court in Tiverton, Devon.
The Heathcoat Armorys worked extensively on the gardens at Knightshayes and what they created there was so striking that the Royal Horticultural Society awarded them the Victoria Medal of Honour. Both the house and gardens at Knightshayes are now owned by the National Trust and are open to the public.
Lady Heathcoat Armory died in London in 1997, the day after her 96th birthday.
Date of birth: November 17, 1901
Died: November 18, 1997
Place of birth: Brook, Surrey
English Ladies’ Championship winner: 1920, 1921, 1922, 1923, 1924
British Ladies’ Amateur Championship winner: 1922, 1924, 1925, 1929
1932 Playing Captain of Curtis Cup team
1975 Inducted into World Golf Hall of Fame
Quote: “In my time, no golfer has stood out so far ahead of his or her contemporaries as Lady Heathcoat Armory.” Henry Cotton