Wonderful mix of sport and family poignancy

As a six-year-old in the 1950s Jenny Lee Smith used to pop next door and sneak on to the links of Dunstanburgh Castle

Jenny Lee Smith
Jenny Lee Smith

As a six-year-old in the 1950s Jenny Lee Smith used to pop next door and sneak on to the links of Dunstanburgh Castle after dark to practise pitching and chipping bare-footed under the seaside moonlight.

By the time injuries cut short her career in the mid 1980s, she had become the first winner of the (Ricoh) Women’s British Open, won 11 titles on the Ladies European Tour and had led the Order of Merit two years running, making her the North East’s most successful female golfer ever.

Jenny won the Newcastle Sports Personality Award in 1982, presenting the award a year later to Kevin Keegan, the first of three such honours for Keegan as a Newcastle United player and manager.

This year, Jenny, now 64, has become the co-author of My Secret Sister , a book so gripping I read it from cover to cover in one sitting. Far more than a tale about Jenny’s golf, as productive as her career was, it transcends the sport by such a distance it has been the top-selling non-fiction ebook for more than three months and, as a top 10 best-selling paperback, reached No 3 in the Sunday Times chart.

The 2013 Women’s Open starts today at St Andrews, and if the publishers have not stocked up every bookshop in the Home of Golf with this masterpiece, then they have missed a trick.

Jenny and her sister, Helen Lumsden, were two little girls who grew up unaware of each other’s existence, despite living only a few miles apart on Tyneside.

The only child of later-life parents in Jesmond, Jenny was loved and cherished. She was taught golf by Sid, a father she adored, using three cutdown clubs as a three-year-old.

In Seghill and later Whitley Bay, Helen was traumatised by her father, a tyrannical monster who subjected her to brutal beatings and relentless psychological torment, his own mind having been scarred by the horrors of a Japanese Prisoner of War camp during the Second World War. There was no protection offered to Helen by an inadequate and narcissistic mother who, un-known to either sister, had given away Jenny for adoption at birth. Incredibly, the sisters did not meet until Jenny was 59 and Helen 57. Or rather those were the ages they thought they were at the time.

Eventually, they discovered they are twins, after using DNA tests to finally pick their way through a tissue of lies propagated by their immediate family, all now dead. The later life revelations were the result of relentless detective work by the sisters and it is that, above all, which has made the book so fascinating and such an out-standing commercial success. Miss Marple eat your heart out!

The golf yarns involving Jenny and the interesting life she has led on her own account hold their own appeal. At 13, she made such an impact on the then professional at Foxton Hall, Eddie Fernie, he refused to charge her for golf lessons; Jenny’s mother repaying that kindness by baking cakes for the pro and taking him eggs. Jenny played her first club tournament at Dunstanburgh, near the family’s weekend home in Embleton.

Having been used to playing the links in bare feet, she was relieved to discover she could compete wearing golf shoes and finished runner-up to her mother.

Around this time John Jacobs, who twice captained Europe in the Ryder Cup, (just before Tony Jacklin took over), was running The John Jacobs Golf Centre alongside Newcastle racecourse, at what is now the Parklands club.

Jacobs, the UK’s “Dr Golf” of his era, took one look at Jenny’s swing and told her: “You will play for England”, a forecast which although accurately prophetic only served at the time to reduce Jenny and her mother to giggles.

Jenny, who worked as a receptionist at the Jacobs centre, joined Ponteland, where she won her first competition, the ladies club championship, during her mid teens, with only four clubs in her bag! She carried an old fashioned brassie (honed by Eddie Fernie into a 1h-wood) , a 5-iron, a 7-iron and a putter and represented Gosforth as an amateur in national amateur tournaments, by now carrying a full set of clubs.

Logically, the book narrates the sisters’ stories in chronological order, updating each in turn.

Jenny reveals how a chest infection almost forced her to withdraw from her victorious Women’s Open at Fulford in 1976, when she was still an amateur. This year, Fulford honoured her with a plaque to mark her success in that inaugural tournament.

Then there is the story behind a rare blazing row with her adoptive mother, Connie, once Jenny had won enough prize money as a golf professional to buy her own house, no mean feat at a time when women’s prize money was pitifully low.

Jenny met her charismatic husband Sam Lucas in Tenerife in highly unusual circumstances, endured two miscarriages before having two children Katie and Ben, adopted a Romanian orphan, Josh, and moved to Florida for seven years, making friends with a neighbour, tennis star Monica Seles.

It’s a rare book that can mix a highly emotional family story with sport and make such a fine fist of it.

I would defy anybody to read the passage which describes the only occasion on which Jenny, then 55, met her real mother, Mercia, taking her husband and three children to her birth mother’s home in Whitley Bay, and not become a tad moist eyed.

Inevitably there are harrowing sections, but the book is authentic and uplifting. The people behind the website Genes Reunited, who helped the sisters with their detective work, like it enough to have placed two films about it on YouTube.

For eight years, Jenny and Sam have lived in Kent; Helen lives with her husband Dennis in Morpeth. Jenny and Helen who email or text most days, meet when they can.

My Secret Sister by Helen Edwards and Jenny Lee Smith (Pan Macmillan, £7.99)


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