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Obituary: Joyce Wethered

Tim Glover,Hugh Meller
Friday 21 November 1997 01:02 GMT

Joyce Wethered, golfer; born Brook, Surrey 17 November 1901; married 1937 Major Sir John Heathcoat Amory Bt (died 1972); died 19 November 1997.

Joyce Wethered once remarked that her golfing style evolved from imitating others. Yet the result was so inimitable she drew praise from some of the greatest players in the game.

Bobby Jones said she was the most gifted player he had ever seen and Walter Hagen was similarly impressed: "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," he said. "She hit her shots crisply, like a man expert, but without having any mannish mannerisms to detract from her charm as a gracious young sportswoman."

She won the British Amateur Championship in 1922, 1924, 1925 and 1929, the English Championship from 1920 to 24 and was playing captain of the Curtis Cup team against United States in 1932.

Wethered, whose father was a useful player with a handicap of six, took up the game during family holidays at Bude, in Cornwall. She also played regularly at Dornoch, in Scotland, where the family had a house overlooking the course. Her brother Roger, a Walker Cup player from 1921 to 34, tied with Jock Hutchinson for the Open Championship in 1921 and then asked to be excused from the play-off because he had arranged to play cricket. He was persuaded to compete but was comfortably beaten by Hutchinson. When her brother won the Amateur Championship at Deal, in Kent, in 1923, Joyce, who had just been defeated in the semi-finals of the British at Burnham and Berrow, Somerset, drove through the night to see him play.

However, she denied suggestions that he had had a major influence on her career. She had only one formal lesson, but recalled watching the champions of her day, Harry Vardon, J.H. Taylor and Bobby Jones.

When Wethered entered the English Women's Championship at Sheringham, in Norfolk, in 1920, the outstanding favourite was the holder, "Cecil" Leitch. "People either adored Leitch or they didn't," Wethered told Golf Monthly. "She was the big noise in women's golf when I came on the scene and what made her stand out was the fact that she had so dominant a personality. Perhaps because I had an ability to disappear in a cocoon of concentration, I was never mesmerised by Cecil to the same extent as others."

At one point in their match, Wethered was six down in the final and responded with a succession of threes before winning on the 17th. The penultimate hole runs alongside a railway line and as she stood over the putt for the match, a train rattled past. Asked if it had disturbed her, Wethered replied: "What train?"

Her most satisfying victory came in the 1929 British Women's Championship over the Old Course at St Andrews, the home of the Royal and Ancient and the club that, to this day, does not have women members. Nevertheless, it was the prospect of playing at St Andrews that brought Wethered out of retirement.

In the final she was up against her old adversary Glenna Collett, the greatest amateur in America. Collett, who was taught by a Scot, Alex Smith, was five up at the turn. Wethered turned the tables in the afternoon, winning hole after hole and although Collett rallied, the end came at the 17th or the 35th. "We became the centre of a squeezing, swaying and almost hysterical mob," Collett said. "The Scots, nice as they are, really were pulling for her. The bobbies had to escort us to the clubhouse. I thought if I had beaten Joyce that day I wouldn't be here to recall the tale."

After her triumph - it coincided with her family losing its fortune in the Wall Street crash - Wethered forfeited her amateur status by working in the golf department at Fortnum and Mason. As a professional she toured America in 1935, playing 52 matches against leading players, including Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazen, and earning pounds 4,000 in the process.

When she returned home she married Sir John Heathcoat Amory. Apart from playing golf, they had a shared interest in the gardens surrounding his mansion, Knightshayes Court, at Tiverton, in Devon. The house, designed by William Burgess, was built by Heathcoat Amory's grandfather in the 1870s. When Sir John died in 1972 it was handed over to the National Trust.

Watching the modern lady professionals, the only thing Wethered envied them was their casual clothes. She had had no choice but to play as if dressed for a church outing rather than a day of sporting competition. As it was she blazed a trail in a man's world. "There were too many clubs where you had the feeling you were not wanted," she said. "Often women wouldn't be allowed in the club-house. I well remember, while waiting for my male partners to emerge from the locker-room at Sandwich, I kept my hands warm on the radiator of someone's Rolls-Royce."

- Tim Glover

Devon's benign climate has fostered several famous gardens, but Knightshayes is perhaps most exceptional of them all, writes Hugh Meller. It was originally laid out in the late-19th century when the house was built, but the present 30-acre garden is largely the creation of Joyce Heathcoat Amory and her husband.

From the 1950s until Sir John's death, the Amorys enlarged the garden by extending it into the neighbouring woods, thus pioneering the idea of gardening in woodland. Glades were formed and planted with rhododendrons, azaleas, ericas, meconopses, primulas and peonies among rarer plants imported from all over the world. Specimen trees like magnolia, birch, southern beech and maple were interspersed with indigenous specimens through which roses and clematis were encouraged to climb. At their base, Joyce Heathcoat Amory's favourite cyclamen were allowed to flourish, creating a magic affect in autumn. In a rare gesture of acknowledgement, the Royal Horticultural Society awarded the Victoria Medal of Honour to both Sir John and Lady Heathcoat Amory.

When Knightshayes was given to the National Trust it was at first thought that only the garden should be open to visitors. However, as interest in Victorian houses was then on the increase, William Burgess's great house was also opened, despite misgivings; Knights- hayes had not always been appreciated by the family and it had suffered as a result. The National Trust began a slow programme or restoration, which still continues and it is entirely to Joyce Heathcoat Amory's credit that she not only encouraged the work, which included replacing features that she herself had previously removed, but she also assisted it through generous donations.

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