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Jenny Lee Smith


We celebrate an historic Championship victory in 1976

Two former winners, Jenny Lee Smith (left) and Lilia Vu pose with the AIG Women

There can never be another maiden winner of the AIG Women’s Open.

However many golfers have been hailed as pioneers for the women’s game – and there have been many – only one will be remembered as the first victor of this prestigious Championship; Jenny Lee Smith.

“I really do feel very proud,” Lee Smith said of her landmark achievement, which took place at Fulford Golf Club in York in 1976.

“Golf has been my life. Golf has given me so much and I just feel blessed to have been there.

“To do what I did at the time that I did it – it is important to me.

“My son Ben is very keen on golf and it’s something that he likes to tell people.

“My mother always told me to never boast and just let my scores speak for themselves, so I suppose I’ve never been the best at blowing my own trumpet. But Ben does it for me!

“But I have to admit that I do sit back and think of it sometimes and I can get a bit tearful. But they are definitely happy tears.”


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Even though the AIG Women’s Open had evolved from the Ladies Amateur Stroke Play Championship to allow the inclusion of professional players, Lee Smith [pictured above left with 2023 Champion Lilia Vu] arrived in Yorkshire still an amateur, struggling with illness and close to withdrawing.

“I’d had a bad chest infection the week before and was on antibiotics,” she explained. “But thankfully I started to feel better, and after a couple of rounds I really did believe I could win it.

“I went into the last round two or three shots behind. There were no leaderboards on the course back then and I thought I needed a birdie four on the 18th to win. I made the four but I actually won by two.

“It was an amazing experience and it changed my life.”

John Jacobs (left) at Carnoustie in 1975.

John Jacobs (left): One of golf's most influential figures

Lee Smith grew up in a bungalow next to Dunstanburgh Castle Golf Course in Embleton, Northumberland.

Her father, who tragically died of cancer when she was 12, cut down a set of Slazenger clubs when she was just three years old and Lee Smith would eventually join a host of other children in playing at the local links.

“It was just something that was very natural for us,” she said.

Lee Smith – who was a guest of The R&A at last year’s AIG Women’s Open at Walton Heath – found she had a natural flair for golf and had her first lesson aged 14, before a chance meeting with the founding father of the European Tour would ultimately alter the course of her life.

“John Jacobs [above] opened a golf range in Gosforth when I was 17,” she explained. “I was fortunate enough to get a job at the range and for him to coach me.

“I think my handicap at that point was 28. But he watched me hit some balls on the range and he said: ‘You’ll play for England one day.’

“When I won the British Open he wrote me a really lovely letter to remind me of that, but he also said: ‘Now you’ve gone one step further.’”

Like many successful sportspeople, Lee Smith had an aptitude for more than one sport and after trying tennis, hockey and netball she found that she was a particularly strong swimmer, eventually representing her county (in individual medley relay and freestyle) and having trials for England.

“I just feel blessed for having this game in my life because it has given me so much.” Jenny Lee Smith

But golf was her number one passion – and Lee Smith went from strength to strength after winning her first tournament in her native Northumberland.

“I’d played in a few girls’ events and didn’t do very well, but then I won the County Championship and went from there I guess,” she said.

“I didn’t really believe in myself at the time, I just happened to do well in the events I was required to in order to get into teams. I think I was quite fortunate.

“The more pressure I felt, the better I seemed to do. It made me concentrate harder and focus more. The pressure worked well for me.

“I think my swimming helped with quite a few things; co-ordination, muscle tone and breathing. Whenever I got a bit nervous I would do the breathing exercises that I used to do in the pool.

“I just feel blessed for having this game in my life because it has given me so much.”

Lee Smith turned professional the year after her victory at Fulford and came close to collecting a second AIG Women’s Open title on four occasions, finishing as runner-up at Royal Birkdale in 1982 as well as a third-place finish in 1981 and fifth-place finishes in 1979 and 1980.

But Lee Smith’s influence on golf stretches far beyond the inspirational nature of her historic success as she was an influential member of a 30-strong group of women who helped establish the Women’s PGA (now the Ladies European Tour) in 1979.

The first four winners of the British Open (l-r) Vivienne Saunders, Trish Wilson, Janet Melville and Jenny Lee Smith.

The first three winners of the AIG Women's Open: Vivienne Saunders (l), Janet Melville (third from left) and Jenny Lee Smith (r)

She said: “I have read articles about me and the girls, calling us trailblazers, and that is lovely I suppose.

“I feel very proud. In a way, we led the way for golf to be where it is today. There are so many more girls now playing the sport and competing at such a fantastic level.

“I possibly hoped for that sort of progress, but I don’t suppose I could have dreamt that it would get to this stage. It was fantastic seeing the crowds at Walton Heath, seeing the players and the fans all enjoying themselves. It really was just fantastic.

“The game has grown immensely and I’m very proud that I was there at the beginning.

“Things have come on so much from when we were playing and that is fantastic. But women’s sport still has a long way to go.”

It is almost 50 years since Lee Smith broke new ground by winning what is now one of the five major championships in women’s golf.

The Swilcan Bridge at St Andrews

St Andrews' famous Swilcan Bridge

The next edition will be another special occasion as the AIG Women’s Open returns to St Andrews for the first time in 11 years when the Old Course stages the Championship in August.

“I’d love to go to St Andrews,” said Lee Smith.

“It’s a great course, a great venue, the home of golf. Hopefully I’ll be able to get there and keep track of the golf in a tighter way than I’ve been able to do in the past.

“Being on site and being a part of it is great. You can watch a tournament on television, but it’s not the same as watching it in real life.

“Quite a few of the girls are still in touch. The likes of Denise Hastings, Maxine Burton, Sandra Mackenzie, Jane Denman. We’re all on a WhatsApp group.

“Maybe we’ll get together and get a bus up to St Andrews!”