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.

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.”

All-male membership
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.

As Jack Nicklaus once put it, “what you see is what you get.” And the two circuits of nine holes rotate in opposite directions, the back nine looping inside the front nine, so that players are never faced with the same wind direction on two consecutive holes. It has been the scene of triumph for, among others, Nicklaus, Ernie Els, Nick Faldo, Tom Watson, Gary Player, Walter Hagen and Harry Vardon.

Career Grand Slam
It was at Muirfield in 1966 that Nicklaus completed his first career Grand Slam. “Almost from the moment I started playing golf I had heard a message, first from history conscious Scioto members, then from my Dad and Jack Grout, then from Bob Jones and many other friends in the upper echelons of the game.

“It was that if you wanted to be remembered as a complete champion, you must win all the great championships. That meant there would be a question mark against your name unless you crossed the water and added the British Open to your name,” Nicklaus wrote his autobiography, My Story.

The roll-of-honour of champions on the links speaks for itself. Some 170,000 spectators will attend the championship – where it is possible to pay at the gate and with Under-16s admitted free when with an adult – and, yet, despite such accessibility for such a major sporting event, such an all-inclusive approach isn’t part of the host club’s ethos.

In making his stay-away stance, Salmond informed the BBC: “I just think it’s indefensible in the 21st century not to have a club that’s open to all . . . . if Muirfield had the Honourable Company of Women Golfers as well and had a women’s company who played the course, some clubs do that and that’s pretty acceptable.

“But to have the message that women are not welcome as members, can’t be members, can’t have playing rights over the course on the same basis as men, seems to send out entirely the wrong message about the future of golf.”

The simple fact of the matter is that the R&A need courses like Muirfield, Troon and Sandwich on the rota. As Dawson admitted, “to be quite honest, our primary duty I think as far as the Open championship is concerned, is to do what’s good for the Open championship. To kick out venues like Royal St Geroge’s, Troon and Muirfield would not be good for the Open and we wouldn’t think of doing it. Also, having six venues left behind (on the rota) isn’t actually enough.”

Freedom of speech
He added: “I just go back to the fact that I think private clubs can determine their own destiny. It’s like freedom of speech. I may disagree with what someone says but I will defend their right to say it. I feel similarly about this, especially as it’s such a small number (of clubs).”

It is estimated one in 100 clubs in Britain is single-sex, almost half of which are women-only.

“We borrow Muirfield’s golf course for two or three weeks every ten years. That’s what we do. They allow us to stage the Open championship . . . . personally I think this idea that it sends out a dreadful message to the world is considerably overblown, but that’s my own opinion,” said Dawson.

It is what it is.