Muirfield decision puts focus on Royal Dublin and Portmarnock

Two Dublin clubs continue to stick to outdated policy of male-only membership

Some things can be swept under the carpet (of manicured turf) only so long, hidden from view.

But, eventually, someone will open the can of worms and – with the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers finally, if belatedly, doing the honourable thing of admitting women members – there is again a spotlight shining directly on the two golf clubs on this island that persist in having a male-only membership, Portmarnock and The Royal Dublin.

That Muirfield in Scotland has turned with all the cumbersome manoeuvring of a juggernaut getting itself out of a tight space proves, perhaps, there is hope for a change of policy at the two north Dublin clubs.

Don’t hold your breath, though.


Let’s look at what has been happening across the Irish Sea, just to get a broader picture of how times have changed.

In recent years, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, based at St Andrews, voted in 2014 to end its 260 years old policy of barring women members. That sea change was followed, in turn, by clubs on the Open Championship rota doing likewise, Royal St Georges (in 2015) and Royal Troon (in 2016).

Across the Atlantic, in the United States, Augusta National Golf Club – founded by the legendary golfer Bobby Jones in the 1930s, which had adopted a male-only membership policy from its foundation – allowed women members to join in 2012.

Muirfield, let’s recall, continued to dig its head in the sand when initially voting last year to retain its men-only membership policy. That stubborn refusal to allow women to join was decided on in the belief – apparently – that the course, consistently rated among the finest links in the world, was too good to be taken off the R&A’s rota for the British Open.

In fairness to the R&A, their response was swift and firm on hearing of Muirfield’s initial rebuttal. The governing body informed the club they were no longer on the rota. Hence the decision for a second vote at Muirfield and the about-turn by the members: following this latest vote, which got an 80 per cent affirmation to allow women, the R&A moved equally quickly to return Muirfield to the rota.

British Open

In effect, the R&A could use playing host to the British Open as the incentive – or, if you like, the big stick to beat them with – to force the change of mind in what, after all is, 2017. Given the membership application policy and the waiting list, it could be up to two years before a woman actually becomes membership at Muirfield. But the door has been opened.

No such stick as the one used by the R&A can be used to force a change of mind here, on this side of the sea, because – under a Supreme Court judgment – neither Portmarnock nor The Royal Dublin are breaking the law by not allowing women members.

Technically and legally that might be the case but what about moral considerations? Does the morality of such a stance in this day and age matter?

Portmarnock will actually play host to the (British) Amateur Championship in 2019, a rather big deal in the golfing world. If it seems a contradiction that Portmarnock would get the Amateur at a time when the R&A were denying others the Open, the reason is the R&A granted the event to the club because it had made the commitment prior to adopting its get tough policy.

In effect, Portmarnock dodged a bullet, one rule for the Open and another for the Amateur. Luckily, for them.

Unlucky for the rest of us, though, is that Portmarnock – unquestionably a world class links – is deprived of playing host to the Irish Open, the very tournament it instigated back in 1927.

Even Rory McIlroy, the tournament host for the Irish Open, has acknowledged there is no possibility of taking the event back to its origins whilst the men-only membership policy is in place. That’s the reality. But it’s also a side issue. Because the bigger part of the jigsaw comes back to the single-gender membership policy.

A consultation process with members in Portmarnock was instigated in 2015 to determine the feasibility of admitting women members. Almost two years on, and the silence is rather deafening which, in a way, tells its own story of how it is evolving. Slowly! If it hasn’t already died a death!

Equal rights

Portmarnock and The Royal Dublin are alone in adopting the single-gender, male-only membership policies on this island. Each policy is slightly different, but with the same end result. Portmarnock don’t allow women members, Royal Dublin just haven’t admitted any.

Can the fact that historic clubs like Muirfield, Troon, Royal St Georges and Augusta National have all moved with the times influence them? Any peer pressure to promote change?

It’s interesting to observe some of the comments that greeted Muirfield’s change of mind.

One from Martin Slumbers, the chief executive of the R&A: "Muirfield has a long and important history of hosting The Open and with today's announcement that will continue."

Another from Ivan Khodabakhsh, Ladies European Tour Chief Executive Officer: "Sports reflect the values of the society in which we live and today men and women have equal rights. We believe this should be reflected not only in top level international tournaments but also at club level."

Whether they like it or not, Portmarnock and The Royal Dublin are in the spotlight. Again. It’s a question of them digging their heads out of the sand to experience its full glare.