Christine Jardine: Salmond’s unsportsmanlike conduct

Alex Salmond chats to Phil Mickelson during a round at Castle Stuart. Picture: Getty
Alex Salmond chats to Phil Mickelson during a round at Castle Stuart. Picture: Getty
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We should be thankful that the First Minister will not be attending the Open, writes Christine Jardine

It was almost a surprise when Rihanna was allowed to take her applause and depart T in the Park without being photobombed by the First Minister.

And what about Emeli Sandé? Is she not a Scottish success story worth an Eck moment?

Where was he? Has T offended him? Has he run out of Saltires? I’m sure he could have borrowed one from the crowd.

Seriously though, the way he has performed this summer, I can’t be the only person relieved that Alex Salmond has decided against going to the Open at Muirfield.

Officials of the R&A who were watching last weekend’s ceremonies at the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart could be forgiven for feeling relieved that they are spared the threat of similar shenanigans on Sunday.

Or is his bungled boycott of arguably the most treasured sporting event in Scotland’s calendar actually his clumsiest attempt yet to muscle his way into the spotlight?

This year is turning into something of a summer of cringe if you are a Scot and not a fully paid-up member of the Alex Salmond fan club.

The flag in Moira’s handbag at Wimbledon was bad enough. We were all excited, so you could almost believe he just got a little carried away. Almost.

But why did nobody from his entourage advise him to stay out of Phil Mickelson’s shared moment of victory with his family at the Scottish Open?

Suddenly Alex Salmond is beginning to remind me of the man in the multi-coloured wig who used to pop up in shot behind the world’s sports stars waving a placard bearing the biblical reference John 3:16.

But the question is: why is the First Minister doing this?

Perhaps the answer lies in the astonishing success of last year’s great British summer of sport.

As we all got swept along in the tide of celebrations and national pride, we were quite happy to let our politicians share the moment.

There was no shortage of opportunities for Boris Johnson, David Cameron, Cabinet ministers and politicians of all parties to associate themselves with the athletes’ success and our goodwill.

Except that is for Alex Salmond, whose most memorable contribution was probably the toe-curling “Scolympians” remark.

It’s not hard to imagine that in the depths of winter in Bute House, Team Salmond decided this summer would be different.

With the Open at Muirfield as its centrepiece, this could be the perfect profile-building prologue to Glasgow 2014 and the Ryder Cup.

A well-positioned seat in the Royal Box at Wimbledon and then presenting the Scottish Open trophy in Inverness should have presented few PR problems.

But the Open at Muirfield and the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers is a more difficult prospect.

Traditionally the Open does not make much of a fuss of visiting dignitaries, and presentations of the Claret Jug are the preserve of the Royal & Ancient.

Viewed in that light, the First Minister’s protestations about the all-male nature of Muirfield begin to present a different picture.

Add to the mix the fact that the First Minister has attended the championships at another all-male club, that a senior Scottish Cabinet minister will represent the government at the Open anyway, and finally the news that the First Minister has not actually raised the issue with R&A officials, and you could be forgiven for suspecting another stunt. And not a very good one.

Certainly the issue of all-male clubs is one that can cause an argument in any locker room.

Leading Scottish golfer Catriona Matthew has said that she feels uncomfortable that the Open could be staged at a men-only club in this day and age.

The ruling body has also said it will look at the issue again after this week’s championship.

Like many people, I would welcome a genuine government attempt to tackle sexism in sport – all sport.

In golf’s defence, it is not the worst offender. Like most sports, golf does not normally pit men against women in top-level competition, but it can happen.

As far back as the 1940s, Babe Didrikson Zaharias competed in PGA Tour events. Laura Davies has played in a men’s European Tour event, and in 2003 Annika Sorenstam took part in the Bank of America Colonial.

Many in the sport believe it is only a matter of time before the leading women golfers compete head-on with the men in the biggest events.

It will not, however, happen this week, and certainly not because the First Minister won’t be at Muirfield.

The Open Championship is one of a handful of events – like Wimbledon – that draw us together in admiration of athletes’ sporting achievements.

While we don’t mind our politicians passing on the nation’s congratulations to our winners, we don’t like them muscling in on our heroes’ big moment for their own benefit. And we certainly don’t like them taking pot shots to gain publicity.

Perhaps if Mr Salmond had handled it differently we might all be applauding his principled stance.

But as it is, with his government represented at Muirfield, apparently no complaint raised with the R&A, and a history of inaction on the issue, he just looks like someone trying to sneak into the spotlight. Hopefully Team Salmond will come up with a more statesman-like approach before the Ryder Cup and Commonwealth Games arrive in Scotland.