THREE former Open winners have refused to criticise golf’s governing body, the R&A, over its decision to host this week’s championship on a course run by a club with a men-only members policy.
First Minister Alex Salmond is not attending the Open, which starts on Thursday, because of the ban on female members at Muirfield.
But when asked directly about the rights and wrongs of the historic East Lothian club’s policy, several top players refused to be drawn on the issue – although reigning champion Ernie Els admitted the situation was “unfortunate”.
The club, which is hosting the Open for the 16th time, insists the men-only policy conforms with the Equality Act 2010, and that “any change in the membership would for the members to decide”. It does allow women to play as visitors or guests – but not to become members.
Els, who was the winner when the Open was last held at Muirfield in 2002, admitted the issue was a “hard one”.
He said: “The club’s been like this for many years. It’s been around for, I would imagine, at least 150 years, and they’ve never thought about changing their policy.
“We play the Open Championship at this wonderful golf course, and I’m not going to miss it for the world, whether it’s got, unfortunately, the policy it has. It is what it is.”
He said he would play the Open “in the Sahara desert” if he had to.
The South African went on: “You can ask the chairman why the policy is in place. It is what it is. And we play were we can play.”
English golfer Nick Faldo, a three-time Open winner, sidestepped the issue, saying: “That’s for the club to decide.”
Speaking during a practice day at Muirfield, Scots golfer Paul Lawrie, the Open winner in 1999, said: “It does not concern me. I just play the golf course – I’m not here to meet the membership.”
Muirfield, home to the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, is one of a few clubs in the UK that still refuses to admit women members, though it is not the only Open venue that still does so. Royal Troon and Royal St George’s maintain a men-only policy, as does the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, the members’ club attached to the R&A.
R&A chief executive Peter Dawson has previously defended the decision to take the Open Championship to all-male clubs.
In April, he said that for the R&A to insist the likes of Muirfield repealed their policies or faced not hosting the Open until they did, would place them in a “bullying position” that they could not take.