In 1985, Jill Thornhill experienced what the top of the game of golf feels like, winning the Smyth Salver at Moor Park in the Championship now known as the AIG Women’s Open.
Now, 38 years later, Thornhill will be serving as the President of Walton Heath Golf Club when it hosts the Championship for the first time in its history. Thornhill, who has played at Walton Heath for most of her life, was elected as President last February.
“It was a very big thrill for me and a great honour,” Thornhill said. “I’ve been a member here for a very long time, over 60 years, and owe a lot of the success I had in amateur golf to playing on these two great golf courses. So to be made the President has been a great honour. The club has been so good to me, and this role gives me a chance to repay the club for all that they have done for me in the past.”
Thornhill, who turned 80 last year, has had a celebrated amateur career, winning the Women’s Amateur Championship in 1983 and the English Women’s Amateur in 1986, as well as playing in three consecutive Curtis Cups from 1984 to 1988 before captaining the GB&I side in 1990.
One of Thornhill’s biggest highlights as an amateur, however, came at Moor Park in 1985, when she won the Smyth Salver for low amateur in what was then the Women's British Open, a Championship she played in four times in the 1980s. Betsy King, one of the world's best at the time, took the trophy home with her to the United States.
“Playing alongside these American players that I had seen and read about was fantastic,” Thornhill said of playing alongside the likes of King. “I hadn’t seen very many of them (in person) in those days, but to actually compete with them was awesome really. And I was lucky enough to be leading amateur one year, and that was a great thrill.
“To go to the practice ground, and see these people practicing alongside me was incredible. It was sort of like I couldn’t believe I was really doing it, and I loved every minute of it.”
Thornhill has seen the changes and development of the Championship over the years, and will see it up close at her home club in 2023 when the AIG Women’s Open is held inside of the M25 for the first time since Moor Park in 1985.
“Absolutely, it’s completely different," Thornhill said. "I was playing at the time before the major sponsorship. Yes we had big sponsorship, but nothing on the scale that there is now. And all the infrastructure, and opportunities for young players to get involved with a professional and have a go and hit shots. Yes it’s a huge event and its wonderful to watch. It’s very exciting that we have it south of London, hopefully a lot of people will come and watch which is great. So I’m hoping that the crowds will be good, so they can see first class, world class women playing on this golf course.”
In terms of the course itself, few know Walton Heath better than Thornhill, and the legendary amateur expects that it will take great skill and aptitude to master the test the layout will present.
“So much here depends on the weather," Thornhill said. "But the (players have) got to keep the ball straight here, and keep out of the heather. Sometimes the heather, you can get in a really thick place, and you can only actually see the ball if you’re standing over it, and even for the strongest players the best thing is to get it back into play as soon as possible.
“Definitely a good putter will do well and somebody that has sussed the greens out, because we have very big greens here. It will be interesting to see where the pin placements are, because they can be quite difficult and so yes, clubbing into the greens and putting will be important. (They’re) not hugely slopy greens, but subtle, and they’ll be quick…”
As for Thornhill’s pick for the 2023 Champion? A fellow player whose name is engraved on the Smyth Salver twice.
“One of the people that I really enjoy watching is Lydia Ko. I love the way she goes about her golf on the golf course, and her attitude to the game, and I’d really like to see her doing well.”