Rarely is a golfer so talented and yet so charming, so strong of heart, that she has an emotional impact on her followers. The British champion Pamela Barton, who played on three Curtis Cup teams, served her country in World War II and died when she was 26, was just such a golfer.
Barton’s career was short, brilliant and finally tragic. Her death in 1943 dealt a devastating blow to British women’s golf, squelched its most popular voice and stilled its greatest inspiration.
Maureen Ruttle Garrett, who is herself an inspiration in British golf as a Curtis Cup player and captain, recognized the impact of the loss. “I read about her death in the paper,” Garrett said. “I was miserable, just the thought that you’d never see her again…I realized that there was going to be a great hole in British golf. She had been there to be measured against, which was great. Now you weren’t going to have her to try and beat.”
Garrett grew pensively sad. “So, after the war we all started with much less,” she said. “There wasn’t anybody, really.”
Pamela Espeut Barton was born March 4, 1917 in the London suburb of Barnes, the daughter of Henry Charles Johnston Barton, a tea merchant, and his wife Ethel Maude Barton. As a teenager Pam and her sister, Mervyn, were given golf lessons by the fearsome Archie Compston, a bear of a man who was a noted teacher and player.
“He told us we were the most lousy golfers he’d ever seen in his life,“ Mervyn Barton Sutherland-Pilch said, “and he worked us to death.”
Mervyn was of a gentler spirit but Pam was aggressive and brave and soon went on a romp through European women’s golf. Three-time British Open champion Henry Cotton called her the complete golfer.
She won a host of honors: Runner-up in the 1934 British Ladies Open Amateur at 17, selected as the youngest player ever for the British team that played against France, winner of the 1934 French Open, and named to the GB&I 1934 Curtis Cup team, winning a half point at the Chevy Chase (Md.) Club in a losing cause.
She beat her sister Mervyn in the semifinals of the 1935 British Amateur, and then apologized. Finally, she won the British in 1936 with the American Curtis Cup team in the field. Barton was a vivacious 19-year-old and her victory was tremendously popular.
She was selected for the 1936 Curtis Cup team and that summer, as reigning British champion, made the long voyage to the United States to play in the U.S. Women’s Amateur at Canoe Brook C.C. in Summit, N.J.
Such a trip was rare. Her English predecessor, the great Joyce Wethered, winner of four British titles, had never played in the American national championship but Barton was eager for the challenge. She had a lot going for her. A merry young woman with a wide smile, her winning ways were universally admired. And there was that golf swing. Whereas Wethered had swung so gracefully, Barton gave the ball a bash. With solid footwork, Barton’s arc had great width and power and she was one of the first women to develop a modern swing, a bit like the swing of her American contemporary, Patty Berg.
When Barton was in New Jersey, in fact, Time magazine called her “Husky, snub-nosed, 19,” and compared her to young Berg.
Barton swept through the Women’s Amateur, easily defeating an equally strong Marion Miley in the semifinals, 3 and 1, then crushing the hopes of veteran campaigner Maureen Orcutt in the final, 4 and 3. In typical fashion, Barton and a few friends sang songs to ease the tension as they trudged down the fairways in the final match.
Bernard Darwin wrote, “This last was an achievement which can perhaps only be appreciated by those who have experienced the difficulties of playing as a stranger, however hospitably received, in a strange land.”
The contest was attended by some 4,000 spectators, many of them fans of Orcutt, who was playing in her home state. Following the match, Barton thanked them for being so friendly and caused a delay in the presentation ceremony when she spent more than an hour with the gallery and photographers.
“Pam was thrilled, she was over the moon,” her sister recalled. “Maureen was a wonderful sport and the crowds absolutely staggered Pam.”
Barton was acclaimed for her generous, sporting spirit. Garrett recalled once being defeated by her in an afternoon match, after which they shared tea. “She said that she had only won because I must have been tired having had a game in the morning, whereas she had come in fresh,” Garrett said. “It was just her nice way of trying to soften the blow.”
Garrett, who would win the USGA’s Bob Jones Award for distinguished sportsmanship, said Barton’s sporting attitude would influence her throughout her life.
When Pam won the British in 1939 for a second time at the age of 22, she again made the long trip to the U.S. Women’s Amateur. At Wee Burn C.C. in Darien, Conn., she ran into Charlotte Glutting in the third round and was retired early, losing on the 19th hole.
But soon the world was at war and golf championships were suspended on both sides of the sea. Life was suddenly more serious and the seemingly carefree Pam Barton joined a larger cause, signing up for the London Ambulance Services, which had sent out an appeal for women drivers. Barton served through some of the most brutal combat of the war, whipping her ambulance through the streets of London in the Battle of Britain and The Blitz.
By invitation, she played a few exhibition matches to raise money for war relief, but generally her golf was forgotten – although with the suspension of the British championship she remained the reigning champion.
In 1941, Barton transferred to the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, which was recruiting at the rate of 2,000 a month. She was sent to radio operator training and in August was commissioned as an assistant section officer and transferred to the Administrative Duties Branch.
Pam was sent to RAF Manston, in Kent, where she met a dashing young pilot, Flight Lieutenant Angus Ruffhead. His squadron arrived in October 1943 and, according to Robert A.P. Burt, M.D., who recounted Pam’s military activities and first identified Ruffhead in his excellent article in Through The Green, sometime during that period “the Flight Lieutenant and the Flight Officer had become ‘unofficially’ engaged to each other.”
On Saturday, Nov. 12, Pam and Angus attended a dinner-dance at RAF Detling, but Pam had to be back on duty at RAF Manston on Sunday morning. Heavy weather had created dangerous flying conditions. When the dance ended, conditions had improved and Ruffhead prepared to fly his fianceé back to Marston.
In the dark they prepared to take off from the soggy, slippery grass. One eyewitness saw the plane struggling to leave the ground. Just as it became airborne, the plane struck an aviation fuel tank and was engulfed in flames. Angus was pulled out of the burning wreckage. Pam was killed instantly.
The Times carried two obituaries for Barton in the Monday morning edition. On Tuesday, Nov. 16, Pam’s funeral was conducted at the airfield church she had attended, St. John’s in Margate.
Pam’s life was celebrated with military honors. “…her coffin, draped in the Union Flag, was borne by six RAF Sergeants with RAF Officers as pallbearers,” Burt wrote. “The aisle was lined by 200 WAAF on one side and on the other, 200 men from the different national Air Forces serving in Britain.” She was buried in the church cemetery, her grave marked by a white military headstone. Three volleys were fired.
Wanda Morgan, who had defeated Pam in the final of the 1935 British Ladies Open Amateur, said, “Why should the best of us all be taken?”
Because she won the 1936 U.S. Women’s Amateur, Pam Barton was our champion as well as theirs and the impact of her death was felt nearly as much here as abroad. The Curtis Cup resumed in 1948 at Royal Birkdale and the American players brought their own food to England, which had been ravaged by the war. Margaret Curtis was inspired to start a “Pam Barton Fund” to help bring the struggling 1950 GB&I Curtis Cup team to the United States for the first match in this country after the war. At Curtis’ urging, Francis Ouimet and Bob Jones joined the committee and in this way, American women held a series of “Pam Barton Days,” one-day tournaments to raise money for the GB&I team. The Cleveland District Women’s Golf Association alone forwarded nearly $500 to England in Barton’s name.
In the fatal crash, Flight Lieutenant Ruffhead had suffered minor injuries and shock. He was exonerated at a court martial and returned to his squadron where he continued his RAF missions. On Jan. 5, 1944, not quite two months after the accident, he led a mission resulting in six successful hits on the enemy. On Jan. 6, he led four planes over Le Touquet, where they met intense fire. Ruffhead took a direct hit and was last seen by two fellow pilots going down into the dunes in flames. He was officially killed in action and was buried in Boulogne Eastern Cemetery.
Barton was not forgotten. The Ladies Golf Union named its championship trophy the Pam Barton Memorial Salver and it is inscribed, “In Affectionate Memory of Pam Barton.”
Enid Wilson wrote, “Miss Barton had the happy knack of being able to say and do the right things in whatever company she found herself… she was most popular with the old people and a favorite with the young… a splendid sportswoman, modest, unassuming and thoughtful of others.”
The life of Pamela Barton was greatly honored by golfers in the United States but the news of her death at an RAF field in England took time to filter through. It was a time of war. Communications were poor. And so many had died.
Rhonda Glenn is the manager of communications for the USGA. E-mail her with question or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.