The doors of one of the last male-only bastions in golf are to be thrown open to women following a historic decision by the 273-year-old Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers to admit female members at Muirfield.
A “yes” vote, achieved at the second attempt after initially failing to secure sufficient support last May, saw the East Lothian venue immediately restored to the Open Championship rota by the R&A.
The decision was also welcomed by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who had described the result of the first ballot as “indefensible”, and UK sports minister Tracey Crouch, as well as Scotland’s top-ranked woman golfer and East Lothian resident Catriona Matthew.
However, it could be a six or seven-year wait before the first woman is actually admitted due to a “complicated membership admission process” and, if so, that would be cutting it fine for the venue next staging golf’s oldest major.
That door, which had been slammed shut by the R&A immediately after the first ballot fell just 14 votes short of securing the two-thirds majority required, was re-opened by 498 out of 621 Muirfield members supporting the proposal second time around.
The 80.2 per cent backing was announced in front of the iconic clubhouse – where a group of visiting women golfers had just finished a round minutes earlier in gale-force conditions – by Henry Fairweather, the captain of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, which owns and runs Muirfield.
I am delighted to hear the outcome of this second vote at Muirfield has come down in favour of embracing women members
“This is a significant decision for a club which was founded in 1744 and retains many of the values and aspirations of its founding members,” he said. “We look forward to welcoming women as members who will enjoy, and benefit from, the great traditions and friendly spirit of this remarkable club.
“We always knew that there would be a number of people who didn’t want to see any change. Our job now and in the future is to convince those people that it is not the end of the world and that women can be integrated into the club and it will not change the great things that we all love about the club.”
While the outcome of the first ballot sparked a torrent of criticism, Mr Fairweather said he did not feel that the members had been “chastened” into changing their minds in the intervening ten months over fears that the Open Championship might not be held at Muirfield ever again.
“We have the 600-plus members, all of whom are people of independent spirit and mind, and I would be reluctant to generalise about what has influenced their decisions,” he added. “To some of them, yes, the Open is a very important event and part of history, so that may have influenced them. But, as far as the committee has been concerned, our main concern has been to make a decision that we felt was the right direction for the long-term future of the club.”
Welcoming the decision, Ms Sturgeon wrote on Twitter: “Well done, Muirfield – decision to admit women members emphatic & the right one. Look forward to seeing you host the Open again in future.”
While claiming the decision had been a “long time coming”, Crouch also expressed her delight, adding: “Golf has the potential to attract a more diverse audience to the game and this decision sends out an important message. It is vital that clubs and sports organisations play their part in promoting equality.”
Scotland’s minister for sport, Aileen Campbell, described the vote as “extremely positive for equality in Scotland”, while Matthew, the long-time Scottish women’s No 1, was also supportive of the decision.
“I am delighted to hear the outcome of this second vote at Muirfield has come down in favour of embracing women members,” she said. “I think it is another positive step, both for Muirfield and for golf as a whole, and I think the progress the R&A has instigated since opening its own doors in 2014 has been very important for the game.”
Princess Anne, Scottish amateur legend Belle Robertson and two former world No 1s, Annika Sorenstam and Laura Davies, were among the first female honorary members announced by the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews a few months after it voted in favour of admitting women. However, a similar fast-track process will not be implemented by the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers.
“Our members were quite clear that they wanted women to be treated not in any artificial way and they will have the same admissions process as men,” said Fairweather. “They need to be proposed and seconded by members, then go before a candidate sub-committee and then they’ll go onto a waiting list. So it’s the same process as men.
“It’s all by proposal as is normal for a private members’ club. We’ll be looking for them [members] to come forward with proposals.
“It’s quite a complicated admissions process. There is no standard length of time, on average, it takes six-to-seven years, but the earliest point will likely be two years.”