In 1974 a small, grey-haired grandmother became the first woman in Rhodesia to be awarded the Quail s Trophy for the individual making the most outstanding contribution to golf. The award came from the all-male Rhodesia Golf Union and was a fitting honour for the well-loved Gaby Tomlinson and a deserved tribute to her outstanding golfing career.
Although, by her own admission, never a world-beater, she was in Southern African terms, a golfer extraordinaire over three decades.
Gabrielle Eckersley was born at Johannesburg on 16 March 1910. but was educated in Rhodesia at the Girls High School at Salisbury, in which town she lived from the age of six. She was married on her twenty-fourth birthday to one of Rhodesia's best known sportsmen, Raymond Tomlinson, who was a national representative in hockey and cricket.
Gaby's golfing career was launched in 1944 when she was holidaying at Isipingo in Natal, and her husband was with the Gold Coast Regiment in West Africa. He wrote saying he was playing golf, so Gaby decided to have a bash too'. An Indian professional — Singh — gave her her first lesson at 2s. 6d. for half an hour, and it was soon apparent that she was a natural, starting with a 24 handicap instead of the customary 36 for women.
It was not long before she was down to single figures and within four years of picking up her first club. Gaby
Tomlinson was champion of her country — Rhodesia. Titles and honours rolled her way in a ceaseless stream and she reigned supreme for more than two decades.
When, at the age of sixty-eight in 1978, the 'First Lady of golf left Rhodesia with her husband Ray to live in South Africa, she had acquired an impressive honours list She had won the Rhodesian title an astonishing 13 times, plus every provincial title — the Mashonaland (15 times); Matabeleland (7); Manicaland (13) and Midlands (2). She was club champion at Royal Salisbury 18 times in 20 years and champion at Chapman Club 22 times in 24 years.
Twice Gaby reached the final of the South African match play championships, and each time she went down to her good friend and rival Rita Easton — first in 1950, when Rita (then Levitan) beat her 4 and 3, then five years later when she lost 5 and 4.
At her peak in 1957, Gaby was a plus one handicap — a rare accomplishment for a woman in Rhodesia — and her greatest individual achievement as a golfer occurred in May 1962, when she scorched round Royal Salisbury's second nine holes in 31 strokes with 6 birdies and 3 pars.
That was her emphatic answer to the critics who, at this stage, were beginning to suggest that Gaby was getting past it. Her magnificent feat gave her the Royal championship for the 11th time in 13 years, her rounds of 71 and 79 putting her 13 strokes ahead of her nearest rival. She remembers that 31 as "the best golf I ever played. I was hitting them straight down the middle and I only had to make one recovery shot and that was on the last hole."
She had been out of touch for several months, but responded to the challenge with a feat that must rank as one of the best nine holes played by a woman on a championship course during a tournament.
Before taking to golf at the age of thirty, Gaby had played hockey for Rhodesia at two South African inter-provincial tournaments (1930 and 1933), and had been Rhodesian doubles tennis-champion in 1936 with Miss M. Morphew.
But it is as a golfer that her name will be remembered. She first won the Rhodesian title in 1948, the year after she had joined Royal Salisbury, where professional Dick Morley moulded her game. Her fourteenth and final national title was to come exactly twenty years later when she shot 79-76-82-237 at Gwelo at the age of fifty-eight to beat S. Andrews by three strokes.
In 1974, at the age of sixty-four, the quiet lady with the infectious smile had her name engraved on the Mashonaland championship trophy for the fifteenth time when she tied with the then national champion, Nancy Walker of Umtali, at Royal Salisbury with rounds of 81 and 85.
Gaby Tomlinson proved almost invincible at her home club. Royal during her peak years, and in 1961 beat South African champion Jean Tindall two up at the club course. This was the first women's golf team to visit Rhodesia, though the visitors only met Mashonaland.
Her biggest disappointment was that she could never become a Springbok as the Rhodesia Ladies Golf Union players were not eligible. Another major setback came in 1968, when Gaby was chosen as captain of the national team to go play in Australia — a tour that was prevented by political intrusion during Rhodesia's isolated years following the Unilateral Declaration of Independence.
Thus it is incredible that Gaby never earned official Rhodesian colours for golf, though she did play against a team of British golfers who visited this country in 1951, and played two matches against a Rhodesian team at Umtali and at Salisbury. It seems no colours were awarded for these matches.
One of her earliest rivals was Mrs. Else Jephcott who took the national title from Gaby Tomlinson in 1950 (after winning it four years previously), and went on to beat Miss Levitan one up in the final. Another bad year for Gaby was 1954 when she lost her Rhodesian crown to Nancy Rohm of Johannesburg by a shattering 7 and 6.
But her setbacks were few over the years and a showcase full of cups, medals and trophies from almost a hundred national, provincial and club triumphs reflects a magnificent golfing career.
Had Gaby of the twinkling eyes lived in another country, she might well have become an international figure, but this did not frustrate her. "I like playing golf just for the fun," she would always say. However, her pleasant personality and attitude belied a fierce competitive spirit and tremendous powers of concentration which were perhaps the key to her success.
When she was awarded the Quail's Trophy in 1974 — it had until then been an all-male preserve - she not only had carved out a nine fine playing career, but had been vice-president of the Rhodesia Ladies' Golf Union for more than a dozen years, had served on the executive of the Mashonaland Ladies Golf Association and had captained Royal Salisbury's ladies' golf section.
Else Jephcott (the first plus one lady golfer in the country and later a plus two), Fiona Parham and Margaret Davy were other memorable personalities from the past in Rhodesian women's golf.
Mrs Davy, who died in 1969 at the age of ninety, played her last game of golf when aged eighty two - "drat it, a wretched car accident prevented my playing any more." Standing only 4ft. 10in. but giant spirited, she had to have clubs specially made for her. She had her last lesson at the age of eighty-two when she sought to add twenty yards to her accurate drives.
"The pro complimented me on my shots but said 1 wouldn't hit them any further because 1 was too near the ground." Such was the vivid personality of the lady widely known as 'Little Humph' who presented a cup to Royal Salisbury in 1939 which is still played for today.
But for sheer achievement in the history of Rhodesian women's golf, none can top Gaby Tomlinson, whose son, Des, played hockey for Rhodesia and went to the Olympic Games at Tokyo in 1964.
GABY TOMLINSON'S CAREER
- 1948, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1955, 1956, 1958. 1959, 1960, 1962, 1966, 1967, 1968.
Royal Salisbury titles
- 1950.1951,1952,1953,1954.1955,1956,1958, 1959, 1961,1962,1963,1964,1965, 1966,1967,1968.1969, (beaten in '57 by E. Jephcott and '60 by N. Elcombe).
1947,1948,1949,1950,1951,1952.1954,1955,1956, 1957, 1958,1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1964, 1965,1966, 1967, 1968 1969, 1970.
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Labels: Gabrielle Eckersley, golf