Portmarnock’s decision could lead to future hosting of Open Championship

After 127 years an overwhelming majority vote in favour of opening membership to women

Crowds at the 2019 R&A Amateur Championship at Portmarnock Golf Club. Photograph:   Luke Walker/R&A/R&A via Getty Images

Crowds at the 2019 R&A Amateur Championship at Portmarnock Golf Club. Photograph: Luke Walker/R&A/R&A via Getty Images

 

Not a golfer, but a genius nonetheless, it was Albert Einstein who remarked, “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”

And, although 127 years in coming to a decision to end its men-only membership policy and to open up membership to women, Portmarnock Golf Club – by a clear majority of 83.4 percent in favour of amending Rule 3 of its constitution to become “gender-neutral” to 16.6 percent against – has finally, many would argue belatedly, moved for change.

In so doing, the famed north county Dublin club – which has played host to 19 Irish Opens, as well as the Canada Cup (which became the World Cup) and to the Walker Cup and, most recently, to the 2019 Amateur Championship – will likely return as a chosen championship venue, certainly for the Irish Open but, perhaps, at some future stage, for The Open, golf’s oldest Major championship, itself.

The short statement issued by Portmarnock Golf Club – numbering just 103 words to signify a rather historic change in its 127 years history – hailed the vote as marking “a positive development in the Club’s long and distinguished history” and thanked the membership for their “constructive contributions” and to looking forward to new women members.

Just as Augusta National in the United States did, and so too other famous clubs – among them Royal Troon and Muirfield in Scotland and Royal St George’s in England – found the need for change, with those Open rota venues influenced by the R&A’s decision not to host any of its championships at single-gender clubs, Portmarnock’s move is likely to be widely welcomed.

Indeed, among those on the record in the past about advocating change were Rory McIlroy and Pádraig Harrington, an honorary (non-voting) member. It was back in 2016 that Harrington remarked, “If I had a vote, I would be voting for lady members, absolutely.”

The journey to this point has been far from a smooth one, however.

Phil Mickelson playing for the United States during the 1991 Walker Cup at Portmarnock Golf Club. Photograph: David Cannon/Getty Images
Phil Mickelson playing for the United States during the 1991 Walker Cup at Portmarnock Golf Club. Photograph: David Cannon/Getty Images

While the male-only membership was enshrined in the club’s constitution, a legal challenge from the Equality Authority that Portmarnock Golf Club was “discriminatory” and not exempt under Section 9 of the legislation on the basis that its primary purpose was to play golf and not to cater for the needs of male golfers worked its way through the system for five years, from the District Court and the High Court, before the Supreme Court in 2009 ruled three-two in the golf club’s favour that it was “not discriminatory”.

And while the judgment gave the club a solid legal footing for its men-only membership policy, the moral high ground was a different matter. Indeed, a growing number of club members were shifting away from the historically male-only policy and, while previous consultation processes failed to get over the line, a rather more concerted one of the past couple of years saw the landslide vote in favour of change.

Other factors, too, came into play. Portmarnock Golf Club – seen as the “home” of the Irish Open, with 19 stagings of the championship from its inaugural one in 1927, last held the championship (one of the premier tournaments on the PGA European Tour) in 2003. It was after that event, won by New Zealander Michael Campbell, that the Government decreed it would not allow public funding to go towards staging any event in a single-sex membership club.

But so too, the intriguing possibility that the R&A – who run The Open Championship – were not adverse to holding golf’s oldest Major outside of the UK and with Portmarnock, potentially, as one of the links courses able to stage it. The R&A’s decision not to award The Open to any club who conducted a male-only membership policy led to clubs like Muirfield, Royal St George’s and Royal Troon to change their policies. Now, Portmarnock Golf Club, have done so.

Whether or not big championships return to the links by the Velvet Strand remains very much to be seen, but at least the club has opened up that possibility. Most importantly of all, though, is that it has made the seismic change to allow women members . . . after 127 years!

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