A ROUND of golf still makes 95-year-old Judy McMillan feel great. “Especially when I’ve played well,” she says.
Both the oldest and longest-standing member of the Whakatane Golf Club, she is, unsurprisingly, also a life member. Sixty-five years after first picking up a club, Judy still plays the game two or three times a week.
“Just the nine holes now, but I’m still competitive,” she says. “In fact, I think I play a better game than I did 10 years ago. Without meaning to blow my own horn, I can still hit a straight ball.”
Though typically playing on different days, Judy’s sister, Kay Swanson – 10 years younger at the age of 85 – can be found on the club greens just as frequently.
Both women took up the game as adults following their emigration from Scotland decades ago. In Judy’s case, in 1945, arriving in New Zealand as a war bride after falling for the best man at her brother’s wedding. On leave from his post in the Middle East, New Zealand soldier Stan McMillan had made his way to Scotland for the wedding of the Scottish soldier who had become his great friend.
“My brother had been serving in the Middle East too, but he was wounded and had to return to Scotland.” Meeting the New Zealand soldier, Judy says she and Stan fell in love and, just four weeks later, were married.
Sailing alone to New Zealand to await her new husband’s return, she says the day her voyage departed ended up as “VH Day” – the day victory over Japan was announced, and the beginning of the end of World War II. “Stan ended up arriving in New Zealand before I did.”
Judy says she sailed to New Zealand in a boat “full of war brides” such as herself, all heading to Australia or New Zealand. “Probably around a hundred of us, all from England or Ireland or Scotland. It was a common thing at the time,” she says, with many going to America too.
“It was an exciting voyage,” Judy says. She wasn’t daunted by the solo journey at all.
“When you’re 21, and in love, nothing can scare you.”
It was 17 years later that sister Kay and her husband, Ian, arrived in New Zealand as well, having left Scotland earlier for several years in Rhodesia. Ultimately, both couples ended up in Whakatane.
For Judy, who had originally settled in Fielding where her husband’s parents farmed, life in her new country had differed vastly to what she had left. “I’d been working in a bomb factory in Scotland. For safety reasons they’d built it miles from anywhere and it was a long way from where I lived, but you couldn’t just say you didn’t want to work there. Women had little choice about where they worked during the war. You went where you were needed. It was like being conscripted,” she says.
Wearing all manner of protective clothing, she recalls everyone having to walk through water to enter the building. “It was to get rid of any static electricity, or something like that.” But she says despite the nature of the work, she had a lot of fun there, too.
Later, leaving Fielding, Judy and Stan moved to Opotiki, opening a home cookery, she says, “because I had always loved to bake”.
“Rations were still in place. It was hard to get enough of some basic ingredients.” But despite her enjoyment of the work, she says the couple later found the town a little quiet and moved to Whakatane, where a new venture would come into play.
“I’d worked in a knitting factory years ago and I knew a fair bit about knitting machines, and when I saw a couple of them for sale, we decided to buy them.” It was 1951. The purchase would mark the beginning of a business that would grow to become a manufacturer of men’s and women’s knitwear, would include a staff of 20, and one that Judy would own and operate for the following 27 years. The business was named Mac Nit.
Operations had initially started in the couple’s back bedroom, Judy says, later moving to a building behind the home before, later again, moving to much larger premises on the top floor of a building in Quay Street.
“That building (now housing the Rock Pit Gym) had a tearooms on the bottom floor, and when any of the baking burnt, the smell would rise up and float through our whole factory.”
In its final years, the business operated out of premises near the falls on Wairere Street, which previously, Judy says, housed a business known as the “the lemonade factory”. It was, in fact, a factory producing aerated waters and cordials, using water sourced from the falls.
Judy and Stan sold Mac Nit in 1978, 27 years after starting it.
It was during those busy years that Judy discovered golf. “I tried it with a friend and found
I really enjoyed it, and it was such a relaxing break from the factory. My husband was playing then, too, and I found that I just loved the game”. And that love, she says, has never disappeared.
“I’d advise anyone to play golf if they can, and that despite getting older, to keep on playing.”
Playing only nine-hole games now, Judy has taken to using a golf cart over more recent years, “though not because I was getting infirm,” she laughs. “Kay bought one a few years back and I tried it out and found it made everything much easier.” The two now share the cart, playing on different days so they can both use it.
Judy says she’s certainly seen some change in the game over the past 65 years. “There was just a little shed being used as a clubhouse back then,” she says. The existing clubhouse was built in 1960. There have been social changes too. For many years, women, “mostly the wives of men who were on the committee” would cater for the club, and Judy was a leading presence in the kitchen for many years.
These days the club has its own caterers, and others employed to do other tasks. Asked whether the newer system is preferable, Judy is undecided. “There are advantages on both sides,” she says. “We had a lot of fun in that kitchen, working away, the men trying to ply us with alcohol. There were always plenty of laughs.”
Conceding that it was mostly men on the committee back then, Judy and Kay laugh, agreeing that it was perhaps the “committee wives that were the busiest at the golf club. I think we did more work than our husbands,” they say with the infectious humour they seem to share.
The sisters are grateful to be fit and able enough to continue playing the game they’ve enjoyed for most of their lives. Coming from a large family, “none of whom lived to an old age,” Judy says she is ascribing her longevity simply to “good luck”.
“I’ve never been one of those health nuts,” she says. “I’ve always eaten what I liked and had a drink if I wanted one.”
While not revealing her current handicap, Judy says with her current nine-hole games, “it’s the same as it was when I used to play 18.”
“Maybe that means I’m half as good as I used to be”.
By Lorraine Wilson