The R&A will play host to its 16th British Open Championship at Muirfield next week, and the male-only club has become the new ground zero for the debate.
Scotland’s leading political figure – First Minister Alex Salmond – will boycott attending the Open in protest of Muirfield’s two centuries-old membership policy that excludes women. An avid golfer himself, Salmond set off a fresh political firestorm with his stance regarding the single-sex traditions of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, the group that originally codified golf’s rules.
“I just think it’s indefensible in the 21st century not to have a golf club that’s open to all,” Salmond told BBC Scotland recently. “If Muirfield had the Honourable Company of Women Golfers as well and had a women’s company who played the course … some clubs do that and that’s pretty acceptable. But to have the message that women are not welcome as members, can’t be members, can’t have playing rights over the course on the same basis as men, seems to send out entirely the wrong message about the future of golf.”
Salmond’s point has been picked up by many of Britain’s newspapers. A recent column by Kevin McKenna in Scotland’s The Observer took the R&A to task for still regularly staging the world’s oldest golf championship on exclusive courses. The 2010 Open was held at Royal St. Georges in England and the 2016 championship returns to Scotland’s Royal Troon – two of the three “clubs” with male-only memberships among the nine venues in the current British Open rotation.
The 2015 Open will be played at the Old Course in St. Andrews, home of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club which doesn’t count a single female among its nearly 2,500 worldwide members. The R&A, which governs the game for everyone in the world outside of the United States and Mexico, split off from the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in 2004, just a year after Martha Burk’s famous fight against Augusta National over the women’s issue.
“By allowing this club to host the Open regularly, Scotland tells the world that a significant part of it remains backward and ridiculous,” wrote McKenna. “We permit Muirfield to be Scotland for a week or so and thus we tell the world that we treat women like second-class citizens.”
Muirfield – perhaps the world’s stodgiest men’s club with strict rules regarding dress in its clubhouse – does not have a policy against women playing its course. Much like Augusta National, it plays host to female golfers regularly – only as guests of other members or during weekly tee times that the club’s sells regularly to the general public.
Peter Dawson, the chief executive of the R&A, has been frank in defending the continued use of these venues. Muirfield is considered by many to be Scotland’s finest links course, and the R&A isn’t willing to refrain from returning regularly to a venue that has delivered hall-of-fame champions like Ernie Els, Nick Faldo (twice), Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.
“There is nothing wrong under UK legislation with a single-sex club as long as they behave under the equality act as far as guest access is concerned, which Muirfield certainly does,” Dawson said in April.
“To think that the R&A might say to a club like Muirfield, ‘You are not going to have the Open any more unless you change your policy’ is frankly a bullying position that we would never take. Muirfield has a huge history of the Open championship, this will be the 16th time it has been played there and who are we to say what they should do because they are behaving perfectly legally.”
The legality of single-sex clubs has never been the issue. Augusta National was perfectly within its rights to maintain an exclusive male membership for 80 years. No golf club has exercised that right longer than the Honourable Company of Edinburgh, which was first established at Leith in 1744 making it the oldest golf club in the world. When it was originally founded, it was actually called “The Gentlemen Golfers.” The Honourable Company moved to Muirfield in 1891.
But a moral obligation is different from a legal one. Augusta National under chairman Billy Payne has made a mission of growing the game throughout the world, and that mission was undermined when half of the world’s population was symbolically excluded from being members of the club.
Officially adding two female members last summer was a symbolic step toward universal inclusion. It removed that conversation from the annual dialogue at the Masters Tournament, returning the focus to the golf and the club’s global goals.
Now that heat has transferred to the UK, where the R&A has always been standing on a much weaker leg than a private club in Georgia. Despite the transparent step of separating itself from the St. Andrews-based club that shares its name, the R&A has long been the game’s most important governing body worldwide. That constituency includes women, even if they are usually unwelcome in the iconic clubhouse that stands behind the first tee of the Old Course – the public Home of Golf.
The only time women (other than Queen Elizabeth) are granted access inside the R&A clubhouse – as guests – are for major events. For the 2007 Women’s British Open, the R&A struck a deal with the Ladies Golf Union to use the locker rooms to avoid brewing controversy. Women will be welcomed again in August when Inbee Park goes for a historic fourth consecutive major title at this year’s Women’s British Open at the Old Course.
“If we were going to stand rigidly by our principles, then we wouldn’t possibly ever go there,” said LGU chief executive Lesley Burn in 2007. “But we felt a door was being opened when the invitation was made by the R&A.”
The door was held open as a courtesy then. Now with Augusta National no longer a target, the forces of change are calling for those exclusionary doors to be permanently removed from the hinges in the places where the game first began.
“I don’t think it helps the game to have the suggestion of a bias against women and the greatest tournament on this planet played on arguably the greatest links golf course should have this impression that ladies, women should be second-class citizens,” Salmond told The Telegraph.
The last time the British Open came to Muirfield was in 2002, the week immediately after the release of Hootie Johnson’s “point of a bayonet” response to Burk. Tiger Woods was asked as many questions in his pre-tournament press conference about Augusta’s membership policy as he was for attempting to win the third leg of the Grand Slam.
Those questions will arise again next week, only this time the focus will be squarely on the UK.