Last Tuesday, the members of Muirfield Golf Club — the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, which owns and runs the course — voted overwhelmingly to allow lady golfers to join the oldest recorded golf club in the world.
There was a 93% turn-out for the ballot, with 80% voting in favour of allowing women to join the club.
Taken on its own, that is a resounding, if belated, endorsement for equality… but there is a longer, more complicated story behind this.
This was the second ballot in less than a year and the first ballot result, while promising, was insufficient to see women golfers being allowed to take up membership.
In May 2016, 64% of members voted to broaden membership to women, while 36% voted against. A two-thirds majority was required for the club to change its constitution, so it failed by only the tiniest of margins.
Even so, the result was ridiculed worldwide. Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, called it “indefensible”.
The decision reflected badly on a sport that for too long has been seen as elitist and stuffy, and a game for the old. This was summed up perfectly when the 85-year old Peter Alliss, whose commentary and attitudes prove wildly divisive, dug the hole even deeper by declaring: “The women who are there as wives of husbands, they get all the facilities. If somebody wants to join, well you’d better get married to somebody who’s a member.”
It typified the fuddy-duddy image.
If Muirfield thought things would calm down after that May vote, they were very much mistaken. The R&A came out with a big stick and informed the club that it would be excluded from the Open Championship rota until the club changed its rules.
It is worth noting that it was the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers who devised golf’s original rules, in 1744, so perhaps they felt they were untouchable.
However, for a club that has hosted the Open 16 times — the first in 1892, and the last in 2013, when Phil Mickelson won — this was a slap in the face. Within a matter of weeks of the Open Championship exclusion, a decision to hold a second ballot was agreed.
“By the R&A revoking the right to host the Open Championship, Muirfield’s members were forced to re-think their decision,” says Marian Riordan, the PGA Professional at Ballykisteen Golf Club.
“It was a little sad that was what had to be done but, for the greater good of the game, it was important that the R&A and top players spoke out against Muirfield.”
Jump forward 10 months to the results of the second ballot and the R&A promptly confirmed that the club was back on the Open Championship rota, alongside the nine other clubs, which now includes Royal Portrush.
Sturgeon also tweeted a quick response: “Well done, Muirfield — decision to admit women members emphatic & the right one. Look forward to seeing you host the Open again in future.”
The obvious question is: without the loss of the Open, would Muirfield have seen sense? It certainly seems to have been the swing factor, although 123 of the 621 Muirfield members still voted against the motion. No doubt there are other golfers out there who see nothing wrong with a men-only club and see this as political correctness gone mad… probably the same men who shudder at the thought of playing golf with women, or playing behind them.
Equal rights on a golf course — is that really too much to ask? Certainly not as far as UK sport minister, Tracey Crouch, was concerned. “Golf has the potential to attract a more diverse audience to the game and this decision sends out an important message. It is vital that clubs and sports organisations play their part in promoting equality.”
The reactions worldwide were obviously positive but there were still barbed comments as to why it had taken so long. Rory McIlroy, never shy of expressing an opinion, had this to say at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, the day after the Muirfield announcement: “In this day and age, where you’ve got women that are like the leaders of certain industries and women that are heads of state and not to be able to join a golf course? I mean, it’s obscene. Like, it’s ridiculous. We’ll go back and we’ll play the Open Championship, because they will let women members in, but every time I go to Muirfield now I won’t have a great taste in my mouth.”
But what about the reactions from female golfers?
Annika Sorenstam took to Twitter: “Glad to see that #MuirfieldGolfClub changed their view on admitting women to join their club”.
Chloe Ryan, a leading Irish amateur from Castletroy Golf Club, focused more on the positives for the up-and- coming generation. “I’m really happy with Muirfield’s decision to allow lady membership. I think it has been a long time coming, and I’m glad they have finally come to their senses. It sends a positive message to young girls starting out in the game and shows that everybody should be entitled to membership of a golf club whether they are male or female. It can only be a good thing for the equality of the game going forward.”
Another Irish golfer, Siobhan Cullen, is a frequent rater for Irish golf course rankings. “They have very begrudgingly let ladies in, more for the PR exercise than with open arms,” she says. “I can only imagine the bastion of men that any ladies’ section would be up against. I would love to play the course but I certainly wouldn’t be interested in joining until I knew there was 100% parity between both sections in the club.
“In order to encourage young girls to take up the game and to keep them interested and playing when they reach their teenage years, they need a club which openly welcomes them and runs many social events — golf and non-golf related — with the young boys to keep everyone interested. I cannot see Muirfield doing either in my lifetime.”
Marian Riordan explains further: “The decision last May by Muirfield’s members to refuse female members created headlines for all the wrong reasons. Equality between both men and women should be expected as the norm in the 21st century. Muirfield’s decision sent out all the wrong signals.
For such a prestigious club, this backwards attitude towards female members, especially at a time when golf participation is decreasing, reflected poorly on the game of golf.
“As a PGA professional, promoting golf as a game for everyone is a major part of my role. Golf and clubs must be family friendly and accessible to all.”
Following the second vote, Henry Fairweather, Captain of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, said: “This is a significant decision for a club founded in 1744 and which retains many of the values and aspirations of its founding members. We look forward to welcoming women as members who will enjoy, and benefit from, the great traditions and friendly spirit of this remarkable club.”
Now that Muirfield has stepped into the 21st century, one wonders how many women will actually want to join?
It’s not as if they are going to feel welcomed and, based on the club’s waiting list, there will be a three to four-year delay before a woman’s name appears amongst Muirfield’s membership.
In 2012, Augusta National invited former Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, and South Carolina financier Darla Moore, to become the first female members in the club’s 80-year history.
Perhaps Muirfield should be equally magnanimous to show that they really are opening the door.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved