100 YEARS: Women’s Amateur Started in 1914 With Golf in Long Dresses

Pictured: This version of the Detroit Golf Club clubhouse was
used from 1907 to 1915 and was the golf home to Bess Case, the first champion of the
Michigan Women’s Amateur Championship.


 100 Years, A GAM Special Series: This is the first of 10 stories leading up to the 100th Michigan Women’s Amateur, Aug. 8-12, at Spring Meadows Country Club in Linden.

   DETROIT – In 1964, for a Women’s Michigan Golf Association history book eventually published in 1973, Alleen Sell of Detroit contacted via a letter, Mrs. John W. Case, the winner in 1914 of the very first of what has become the Michigan Women’s Amateur Championship.

  Mrs. John W. Case, known as Bess, was 91 and living in a nursing home in Rochester. Sell recalled in her writings that in a return letter, Bess’ response was quite remarkable given her advanced age.

  “She recalled having to play golf in very long, full dresses, and that at times her dress would fly up and stop her swing at the ball,” Sell wrote.

  Bess helped Sell to name some of the pioneers of women’s golf in Michigan, including Elizabeth Livsey, Anna Fisher, Minerva Rackham, Louise Hamilton, Alice Wilson, Elizabeth Lorimer, Sallie Sheridan, Nita Alexander, Grace Connor, a Mrs. Alex Dow and a Miss Muir.

  The women, in the custom of the time in our history, were commonly listed as Mrs. Hal Livsey, Mrs. Fred Fisher and so on, and early tournament records list them that way as well. Sell didn’t produce the name Bess for Mrs. Case in her writings. It was John King, current heritage and legacy committee chairman at Detroit Golf Club, who found the reference to Bess in his research.

  “All I’ve found is Bess with no indication if that is short for Elizabeth or something else,” King said recently.

  Records are
incomplete and at times conflicting in regard to the first tournament. Most
indicate it was played at Country Club of Detroit, others Detroit Golf Club.
King’s records don’t include it being played at Detroit GC, and he said it was
not uncommon for many years for media accounts to mix up the two clubs or refer
to either of them as a club that didn’t exist – Detroit Country Club.

   Bess passed away in October of 1966 at the age of 93, and a Mrs. William J. Chesbrough, who was a niece of Bess, brought her aunt’s trophy from the 1914 championship to the 50th Anniversary Celebration of the WMGA, Sell reported. That was held at Farmington Country Club in 1966. A 100th anniversary celebration is planned for Aug. 8 at Spring Meadows Country Club.

  The championship has been played annually since 1914, missing only 1943-’45 because of World War II. Bess Case was the first winner at CC of Detroit, and Elizabeth Livsey, also a Detroit Golf Club member, was the runner-up.

  Madge Miller of Kent Country Club in Grand Rapids won the second championship hosted at Bloomfield Hills Country Club. Anna Fisher of Oakland Hills Country Club was the runner-up. The third championship was hosted across the state by Kalamazoo Country Club in 1916 and won by Dorothy Hutchinson of Country Club of Detroit, who was later known as Mrs. William L. McGiverin and cited by Sell as the First Lady of Women’s Golf in Michigan for her later dedication and service as a MWGA board member and president.

  In 1917, Lucille Desenberg of Kalamazoo Country Club defeated Ann Donnelly of Country Club of Detroit in the finals and the first dominant player in the tournament’s history emerged.

  Desenberg went on to win in 1918, ’19 and again in ’21, claiming four championships in a five-year span. Desenberg, per WMGA tradition in the early years, was the first champion to retire the trophy by winning a third championship.

  Her Feb. 24, 1966 obituary in the Owosso Argus Press noted she was 69 at the time of her death, and was Kalamazoo All-City Women’s Golf Champion consecutively from 1932 to 1940.

  The obituary also reported she gave up golf in 1942 to work for the Red Cross where she again made a name for herself. She is listed on the National Red Cross Roll of Honor in Washington D.C. for her distinguished service during World War II.

-Greg Johnson