From a reluctant start, Mary became SA’s gracious champion

She was most comfortable in her youth as a hockey or netball player, but a plea to “make up the numbers” for a country-based team set Mary Ormsby on the path to world fame in lawn bowls. Now, she has been elevated to the SA Sport Hall of Fame.

Feb 09, 2023, updated Feb 10, 2023
Mary Ormsby was a highly skilled and gracious champion. Supplied image

Mary Ormsby was a highly skilled and gracious champion. Supplied image

Mary Ormsby came to lawn bowls as a reluctant fill-in. She left the sport as a club, state and Australian champion and an international master and with a legacy that lives on in the competitive spirit her sons and grandsons take to golf courses.

“They named a green at the Grange club after Mary … you have to be pretty bloody good for that,” says fellow club legend and former Australian representative Errol Bungey.

Even the most chauvinistic stalwarts of lawn bowls’ old guard would struggle to ignore all the gold lettering dedicated to Ormsby’s achievements in the sport as recorded on the honour boards at Grange. On home greens, Ormsby won 14 club single titles and eight in pairs. Nationally, Ormsby stands alone for her grand slam at the 1969 national championships where she won the singles, pairs and fours titles. She won six state singles titles, the first in 1961-62 and the last in 1986-87.

“Magnificent player,” adds Bungey. “Beautiful draw on her hand … and lovely lady, a lovely lady.”

Indeed, there is much to admire in how Ormsby never put a limit on her competitive drive to succeed, but knew exactly where to draw the line on being a good sport. In 1967, while triumphing as the best singles player in the Australia-South Africa Test series in Johannesburg, the South African media marvelled at how such a driven achiever as Ormsby could still stand at the edge of the green applauding South African rival Marche Paterson for taking shots from her.

“The sunniest loser we’ve ever seen,” wrote the South Africans admiring Ormsby for her sportsmanship and hailing her as a “gracious champion”.

Ormsby knew nothing of the bias of a bowl, the speed of the greens nor the draw that her bowling hand could swing in 1952 when there was a plea in a telephone call from the Minlaton Bowls Club. She was needed – even as an untried player – to make up the numbers after a regular player was made housebound by the absence of a babysitter.

“I was thinking,” Ormsby later recalled, “I am not playing that old girls’ game.”

Ormsby’s reluctance was swept away by her husband Alan with his subtle encouragement and astute coaching. Three decades later, Ormsby stood alone as a bowls champion – and as a mentor in a sport where she also dedicated her energy as an administrator. She was a State selector for 29 consecutive years.

Born in Peterborough in 1928, as the youngest of five, Ormsby was quick to find her love for lawn bowls after pushing aside the perception it was a game for the elderly. She was hooked by her early experiences on the greens of the Upper Murray association. At 26, Ormsby started her first job – at Woolworths at Murray Bridge – with the condition she was off the roster on Tuesdays and Thursdays so she could play lawn bowls.

The theme continued from 1960 when Ormsby moved to the city where she worked at the Woolworths at Findon and joined the Grange Lawn Bowls Club while setting up the family home at Jetty Road, Grange.

Son Peter Ormsby recalls the rise of his mother from club to state and national teams as the moments that inspired Mary Ormsby and charged her with the confidence to rewrite the record books. She represented South Australia 167 times and Australia in 16 international contests.

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“It was obvious her ability was very special,” Peter Ormsby said. “I recall times when Mary would claim the shot by drawing her last bowl to rest on the kitty in a packed head or take the opposition’s shot bowl out to leave her own there with shot.

“To do that under pressure to win a championship was amazing. As a kid, I would proudly say, ‘That’s my mum!’ As a young golg professional, I wished I could take mum’s record onto the golf course.”

Ormsby became a “full-time” sportsperson in 1963 when golfing professional Murray Crafter asked Ormsby to join him in the pro shop at the Glenelg Golf Club. Tuesdays and Thursdays were rostered days off for bowls.

A decade later, Ormsby took her experiences from golf to give lawn bowls its first emporium at Torrensville.

“The shop was well located and was stocked with everything for the male and female player,” recalls son Peter Ormsby. “But there was one real drawcard to the shop – Mary.

“She had great pride in her business skills.

“Mary was very driven. She was very organised, dividing her time to a wife, mother, businesswoman and sportsperson. She taught us good core values in life – respect, a strong work ethic, manners and the value in helping others.”

Ormsby died in 2019 with her spirit and values carried to the gold course by her two sons Peter and David and her grandsons with Jordan and Wade Ormsby, the latter making his mark today on the LIV professional circuit.

Ormsby was among the inaugural Inductees to the Bowls Australia Hall of Fame in 2011.

The latest inductees to the 2023 South Australian Sport Hall of Fame will be celebrated at a gala event at Adelaide Oval on March 3. Go here for tickets and more information.

InDaily is the media partner of the South Australian Sport Hall of Fame.

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