Coloradan Christie Austin relishes trip to Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews — this time as a member of former all-male-membership club
by Gary Baines
One of the biggest honors of Christie Austin’s life almost got lost in the mail — literally.
Late in 2015, a year after the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews in Scotland voted to add female members for the first time in its 260 years of existence, the club sent an invitation to Austin, a Coloradan who served on the USGA Executive Committee and became the first woman to chair the powerful USGA Rules of Golf Committee.
The only problem was, the R&A sent the membership invitation letter to Austin’s old address in Cherry Hills, and her mail was no longer being forwarded to where she was then living.
Had the R&A not followed up a couple of weeks later with an email, Austin may have been forever unaware of the trailblazing honor she was being paid.
“I get this email about the third week of November, and I don’t know who this is, I don’t know what they’re talking about,” Austin noted in a recent phone interview. “I click on the attachment, which was the formal letter inviting me to be a member. I sat there and read it, thinking, ‘Who sent this as a joke? Who’s trying to fool me?
“I had never received (the invitation in the U.S. mail). We had been out of our Cherry Hills home for more than a year so our mail had stopped forwarding, and (the R&A) hadn’t received it back yet. They didn’t know I hadn’t received it.
“So I almost never got it. I can’t even imagine what would have happened if they had never sent the electronic version. I guess they would have said, ‘I guess she’s not going to join.'”
Upon discovering what had happened, Austin quickly shot off an email response to the R&A explaining the situation and thankfully accepting the invitation to become a member at the historic club in St. Andrews, the proverbial “home of golf”.
But it wasn’t until late last month that the Colorado Golf Hall of Famer from Cherry Hills Country Club actually went to Scotland to receive a ceremonial acceptance from the club and to participate in the culminating events of its Autumn Meeting.
To be sure, this adding of women members is all part of a major happening for the R&A, one of the oldest and most prestigious golf clubs on the planet, with a membership of about 2,400 worldwide. From its founding in 1754, it had a male-only membership until shortly after voting on Sept. 18, 2014 to admit female members.
Since then, the club has named a number of female honorary members, including World Golf Hall of Famer Judy Bell of Colorado Springs, who served as the first woman president of the USGA. And there have also been 15 female “ordinary” (which is to say, dues-paying and voting) members who have accepted invitations after being nominated and approved. Austin is one of those 15 who were fast-tracked, and, she indicated, one of just four American women. The others are World Golf Hall of Famer Carol Semple Thompson, USGA Executive Committee member Martha Lang and current USGA president Diana Murphy.
That’s some pretty heady company.
Becoming one of the R&A’s first female members “is right up there with the most incredible things that have happened in my life — Hall of Fame induction and all,” Austin said. “It’s very special.”
Austin no doubt was on the R&A Golf Club’s radar for her work on the USGA Executive Committee from 2007-13. When she came on board on 2007, she was just the fifth female ever to serve on that powerful committee. It oversees the USGA, which conducts national championships — including the U.S. Open, U.S. Women’s Open, U.S. Senior Open and U.S. Amateur — and along with the R&A governs the game worldwide. The organizations jointly administer the Rules of Golf, equipment standards, amateur status and the World Amateur Golf Rankings. Her chairing the USGA’s Rules Committee (2012) and Amateur Status Committee (2010-11) put her in many meetings with her R&A counterparts.
During her time chairing Amateur Status, the USGA and R&A for the first time agreed on a joint, unified Amateur Status Code worldwide. And it was during Austin’s stint as chair of the USGA Rules Committee that the ban on anchoring was advanced.
“My gut tells me the combination of chairing Amateur Status and getting to know a bunch of (R&A) members, then chairing the Rules of Golf for the USGA and conducting Joint Rules Committees with the R&A” led to Austin receiving an invitation to join the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, she said.
Austin spent the time from Sept. 20-30 in Scotland, with CWGA board member Laurie Steenrod and Arizonans Cindy Pallatino and Lisa Blocher being the friends with whom she traveled and played golf during the trip. (Coincidentally, that time period is the same one in which Austin’s husband Bob coached the Kent Denver boys golf team to its record ninth state title.)
Austin (at left on the Old Course’s Swilken Bridge) attended the “driving in” ceremonies for the club’s new captain on Sept. 23, when a large crowd gathered at the Old Course in St. Andrews to watch the new captain hit a tee shot down the first fairway, which is lined with caddies at the time.
“It’s a big deal. They have television cameras there and all that,” Austin noted. “The very next tee time was my tee time with Peter Dawson, who retired as the CEO (of the R&A) last year. Peter is really well known all over the world. The crowd is still there. I’m thinking, ‘Oh, please disperse. You don’t need to watch us.’ Before I teed off, people were gathering — whether it be people I have known or even staff. It was like seeing old friends. That was pretty special.”
Austin, Dawson and others competed that day in the autumn medal tournament for players with handicaps of 4 or less. (Austin and Dawson are pictured at left.)
Despite very cold and breezy conditions, a bundled-up Austin played very well, shooting a 6-over-par 82 with two double bogeys. “I was grinding because I didn’t want to embarrass myself,” she said. With only one other female player competing that day in the scratch tournament, the Coloradan earned a very memorable keepsake that day — the Queen Elizabeth Scratch Medal. As it turns out, Austin was the first person to receive that gold medal because only recently did the Queen of England agree to lend her name. The Coloradan also received a silver medal for the handicap competition. (The medals are pictured below.)
“They’re really beautiful,” Austin said. “It was fun to walk away with medals, I’ll tell you that. I was very excited.”
That night at the dinner in which Austin and others received their medals, the new members in attendance were asked to come up as sort of a formal acceptance into the club. Forty-four new members came forward, two of whom were women.
“I always knew the R&A was a male-only organization,” Austin said. “I was fine with that because I’m a firm believer that private clubs have the right to choose their membership without interference by anybody — through legislation, governments, whatever. Even though that was a fact, they always treated me with incredible respect. Even in meetings or discussions where we had slightly different perspectives and opinions — and I was always the only woman in these meetings — they were always productive and professional. I always came away impressed; it was a great experience. I can’t say enough about these gentlemen because this (membership policy) was a tradition that certainly some opposed. But when they finally took the vote, a great majority of them said, ‘It’s time we joined the 21st centery, it’s time we admit women.’
“Then when I got this letter inviting me, I was numb. I was truly like, ‘Why did they choose me?’ I was flabbergasted. It was so unexpected, but what an amazing honor. When I went over and walked in the door of the R&A clubhouse — members only — people would stand up and come over and introduce themselves, people I had never seen or ever met. They were all so welcoming and so glad I was there and had made the trip over.”
The days in St. Andrews proved to be part of a recent golf extravaganza of sorts for Austin. She played a total of seven rounds — including two at the Old Course, plus at Carnoustie, Kingsbarn and Muirfield — in 10 days while in Scotland, mostly with her friends.
“Every occasion (to play in St. Andrews) is special, but that’s just sacred ground,” Austin said. “You look at that city, the background and the water …
“I don’t know if I’ll get over there every year, but the golf is unique, the people are unique (and) it’s a really great experience. I know I’ll be back as soon as I can get over there, but it’s a long trip.”
Just after coming back from her journey to Scotland, Austin traveled to a national board and trustee meeting of The First Tee and worked in rounds of golf at Pebble Beach and Cypress Point.
“My elbow hurt. It was a lot of golf in a few weeks,” Austin said with a laugh. “But I feel pretty lucky right now.”