Muirfield may admit women but why should they be praised?

After members voted against motion, the club have back-tracked and want a new ballot

We should hang fire with lavish congratulations towards The Royal Troon Golf Club. Admission of female members in 2016, after all, is akin to adults learning how to use cutlery properly.

Still, there was an admirable level of pace with which Troon both made certain that any objections regarding a change of membership policy would not hold any sway and completed a vote over the very subject. This year’s Open Championship thereby will not be disrupted by the kind of debate on discrimination which has haunted the R&A in recent times.

On Friday evening, a show of hands among 360 attending members paved the way for the entry of women to the Troon roll. Martin Cheyne, Troon’s captain, was also impressive in acknowledging a wider point. “The focus was on all categories of membership and how we could become more involved in promoting golf, a sport which is currently declining,” he said. “Declining in male, female and junior membership.

“What we did was focus on the single issue of women’s members but we need to focus on how we can encourage young people to play this game.”

As Cheyne noted, even the perception of golf as prejudiced is highly damaging.

Which brings us neatly to Muirfield. Last week, the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, which runs the East Lothian venue, suggested there would be a change of heart regarding their own, unsuccessful, bid to permit female members. Another vote before 2016 is out, perhaps.

“We welcome this development,” said the R&A, which had booted Muirfield into Open quarantine when May’s ballot failed to reach the required two-thirds majority.

Welcome? The R&A should not be so hasty, nor should the rest of us if Muirfield belatedly manages to haul itself into the 20th Century. Historical evidence tells us Muirfield has been routinely detached from reality but even the club itself must have been stunned by the scale of fallout from their indefensible voting outcome.

“The club committee believes that a clear and decisive vote in favour of admitting women as members is required to enable us to begin the task of restoring the reputation of the club that has been damaged by the earlier ballot outcome,” said Henry Fairweather, Muirfield’s captain. To be fair, this was his position all along; but, crucially, he couldn’t enforce it.

There has been a lingering suspicion that Muirfield would sort itself out before being handed the Open in 2023 – 10 years since the championship’s previous visit. The course would, therefore, not lose its standard place on the Open rotation, despite the addition of Royal Portrush as a widely-anticipated and valued host site.

Here is the point though: for Muirfield to have a policy which excluded women as members in the first place was ridiculous. Upon being afforded scope to change that status quo, for the move to be voted down by 219 individuals is not something that should be subsequently forgiven and forgotten. Serious penance is necessary for an embarrassment not only caused to golf but to Scotland. Yes, Muirfield is an outstanding golf course but that isn’t an excuse to abandon all sense of principle.

Muirfield takes seriously, very seriously, a role at the heart of the establishment of this sport. Why should golf return to Muirfield while in a grateful and jubilant state after its global reputation was previously trashed by the same? For a start, a total Muirfield commitment to growing the game and vociferously denouncing prejudice should be insisted upon. Otherwise this will be seen as a cynical, commercial U-turn.

The HCEG did not even have the wherewithal to constitutionally alter the level of vote needed for women to join or, indeed, to recognise the scale of objection to their membership plan. To praise them now seems odd.

Here is a reminder of the stance of the key group of “no” Muirfield voters. They proposed a second, “lady friendly” golf course be constructed. A letter from this barmy group to fellow members read: “A traditional resistance to change is one of the foundations of our unique position in golf and our reputation.

“Our special nature; ‘a gentleman’s club where golf is played’ is quite unique with its fraternity built inter alia on foursomes play with a round taking only the same time as lunch and leaving enough time for a further round after lunch (even in mid winter). This is one of the miracles in modern day play and is much admired. Our foursomes and speedy play would be endangered.

“The introduction of lady members is bound to create difficulties. Regardless of the conventions when they first join they are likely over time to question our foursomes play, our match system, the uncompromising challenge our fine links present, our lunch arrangements. It will take a very special lady golfer to be able to do all the things that are expected of them in the template which is suggested and the ladies’ membership as a whole may not meet this standard.”

This was not a spoof letter; it was serious. So, too, should be consideration of whether Muirfield should simply be reinstated at the earliest Open opportunity if a change of voting heart prevails later in the year. It would be something of a letdown if the R&A behaves as if nothing had happened.

(Guardian service)