R&A will be coursed over ‘elephant in the room’
All-male club a contentious choice to host British Open
Ernie Els makes a remarkable save from a bunker on the 13th green during the final round of his British Open win at Muirfield in 2002. Photograph: Andrew Redington/Getty Images.
Every so often, as the rota winds its way from one famed links to another, The Open – i.e. the British Open to those who prefer a geographical distinction from its brother competition on the other side of the Atlantic – opens a can of worms for itself, caused by visiting a course where an all-male club membership policy is in play.
This year, it is the turn of Muirfield, home to the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, which will stage the Major for a 16th time. To a man, the players actually competing for the Claret Jug – the most famed piece of silverware in the sport – will get on with it. That old, well-worn cliché of “ it is what it is” will be thrown out with the consensus being that the course is what matters and, on that front, there is none better than the examination presented here on this links on Scotland’s east coast, close to Edinburgh.
Things aren’t quite so simple, however. The stance adopted by Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond, for one, in refusing to attend next week’s championship because of the club’s single-sex membership policy is viewed as opportunistic politicking, a form of grandstanding, by many; and alternatively as an honourable, principled stand by others. The fact remains, though, that he won’t attend and, even if he won’t be missed, his absence has again raised the question of what R&A chief executive Peter Dawson has called “the elephant in the room.”
There are currently three clubs on the British Open rota which continue to operate an all-male membership policy: Muirfield, Royal St Georges (otherwise known as Sandwich, where Darren Clarke won two years ago) and Royal Troon.
The single-sex issue has been given fresh impetus, in a way, by the decision of Augusta National Golf Club – which plays host to the Masters – to bring Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore into the fold as the club’s first women members. It was generally viewed favourably and seen as a sign of the changing times and a measure of progress.
However, the R&A, also a male-only membership organisation based at St Andrews and which runs the British Open, isn’t inclined to follow the move made by Augusta National. “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,” acknowledged Dawson.
As Dawson noted, “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,” adding: “Muirfield has a huge history when it comes to the Open championship . . . . who are we to say what they should do as they are behaving perfectly legally.”
The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers is, in fact, one of the oldest golf clubs in the world and the source of the earliest written rules of golf, which date back to 1744. The links – which this year will play 158 yards longer at 7,192 than it did when Ernie Els won on the championship’s last visit in 2002 – has, over time, produced one great champion after another.
The biggest difference since Els’ win is on the ninth hole, where a land swap deal with the neighbouring Renaissance Club has allowed the tee to be moved back almost 50 yards – extending the par five to 554 yards – with new bunkering on the approach to the green.