x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Saunders left the men bunkered

William Johnson speaks to the lady who showed the light and defied threats to pave the road for women's golf, especially in Europe.

Vivien Saunders, a former British Women's Open Champion who was also the national coach to England.
Vivien Saunders, a former British Women's Open Champion who was also the national coach to England.

William Johnson speaks to the lady who showed the light and defied threats to pave the road for women's golf, especially in Europe When the European Women's Tour hierarchy celebrate the 30th anniversary of their formation next week at the season-ending Dubai Ladies' Masters, they should raise a collective glass to Vivien Saunders. Saunders, now into her 60s but still a formidable character and a player of exceptional ability, took on the might of the men's game and succeeded at a time when many of her supporters were expecting her crusades to end in embarrassing failure.

"It was a big struggle," said Saunders during a visit to the UAE where she was the guest speaker at a special dinner to mark the silver jubilee of the Abu Dhabi women's championship at the Al Ghazal sand course. "The PGA [Professional Golfers' Association] were totally against the women's tour in those days. They said that if I dared organise such a tour they would ensure that I would never earn another penny in the United Kingdom. I chose to ignore those warnings.

"I had to have the courage to do it while others stood back and watched in case I got myself into trouble. I was always prepared to go in and take on the establishment. Somebody had to do it." Since then the European Tour has grown into the healthy state it is in today with players like Annika Sorenstam flourishing as high-earning household names. Sorenstam will make her farewell appearance at the Emirates Golf Club next week where she holds an undefeated record in two previous tournaments.

Two years before that launch, Saunders had again gone out on a limb to establish the British Women's Open which is now firmly established as one of the major events for players on both sides of the Atlantic. "I was so keen to get that tournament started that I actually offered to sponsor it," she said. "I gave my personal cheque to the Ladies' Golf Union to get things moving. But then somebody came in to sponsor it, so I didn't need to use my own money."

She was the second winner of that British Open in 1977, one of 11 tournaments she won. She also became the first overseas resident to acquire a player's card for the US LPGA tour on which she competed for three years in the 70s before withdrawing for family reasons. Saunders has led an eventful life. Her differences with the PGA, an organisation she joined in 1969, led her to believe that she would be unable to get a job as a club professional. Her response to that was to acquire her own club - she eventually bought three courses - and teach from that England base in Abbotsley.

She was also England national coach for 18 years and did some part-time coaching with the Ireland and Wales amateur teams. In her spare time, she refreshed her training as a solicitor, her original profession. "But in 1986, I had enough of that," she added. "I had two clients who committed suicide in the same week, so that turned me off doing law." wjohnson@thenational.ae