The Open: Cameron leads Muirfield criticism

The Open got underway at Muirfield, East Lothian earlier today. Picture: PA
The Open got underway at Muirfield, East Lothian earlier today. Picture: PA
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THE Prime Minister has waded into the row over men- only golf clubs, leading senior politicians in condemning Muirfield’s membership policy as the Open Championship got under way at the course.

David Cameron’s spokesman said the Prime Minister believed the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers’ membership rules, which exclude women, “look more to the past than they do to the future”.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said the club’s membership policy was “anachronistic” and Commons leader Andrew Lansley said it was “reprehensible”.

Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Maria Miller said she was boycotting the Open in protest at Muirfield’s stance and her

Labour shadow Harriet Harman called for a ban on male-only clubs.

The row is overshadowing the championship, where competition began yesterday after four days of practice.

Mr Cameron’s spokesman said the Prime Minister “entirely understands” why Ms Miller would not attend the event.

“The Prime Minister has a great deal of sympathy with the view that exclusive memberships of this sort look more to the past than they do to the future,” he said.

His deputy, Mr Clegg, said: “I was just dismayed and incredibly surprised to hear this still goes on in this day and age.

“I find it so out of step with everything else that’s happening in the rest of society. It just seems so old fashioned and so anachronistic to just have a golf club saying that just because you are a woman you can’t be a member of that club.”

Ms Harman, the deputy Labour leader, said: “It’s time that Muirfield dragged itself into the 21st century and let women in. It’s time to ban men-only sport clubs.”

The issue came to the fore after The Scotsman revealed First Minister Alex Salmond would not attend the event in Gullane in protest at the membership rules.

On Wednesday, golf’s governing body the R&A said it would consider its position on men-only clubs in response to the backlash against the Open’s host venue.

Muirfield is one of three all-male clubs on the nine-course Open rota, along with Troon in Ayrshire and Royal St George’s in Kent.

As private clubs they can decide their own membership rules, although the R&A could put them under pressure to change by barring them from staging the world’s most prestigious golfing tournament.

Muirfield, which has a history dating back to 1891 and is home to the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers – one of the oldest golf clubs in the world – has insisted it has no plans to change its policy.

During questions in the Commons yesterday, Labour MP Diana Johnson said: “We would be outraged if a black person was refused membership of a sports club based on their skin colour.

“So can we please have a debate for why it’s acceptable for Muirfield to ban people from joining their club and doesn’t that bigoted bunker mentality make the British Open less than open and less than British?”

Leader of the House Mr Lansley replied: “I entirely agree with you. I think it’s entirely reprehensible. We may not be able to have a debate about it, but you’ve raised the issue and you’re right to do so.”

Meanwhile, the head of the body that governs women’s amateur golf said the issue of single-sex clubs would be addressed “in time”. Shona Malcolm, chief executive of the Ladies’ Golf Union, accepted that having men-only clubs was a “bit of an anachronism in this day and age” but said her biggest concern was with mixed clubs which continued to treat women as second class citizens.

Last year, the Augusta National Golf Club in the US, home to the Masters tournament. admitted two female members – former US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina financier, Darla Moore – for the first time.

Ms Malcolm stressed that the sport was in an “evolutionary process” and any change away from single-sex clubs had to be supported by the sport as a whole and should not be imposed from outside. “I don’t believe what they’re doing in America is the right way forward – to put two women into a club is a token gesture.”

A spokesman for the Honourable Company said: “We are disappointed that some individuals feel unable to attend this year’s Open staged by The R&A at Muirfield.

“As a club we conform to the Equality Act 2010 and any change in the membership would be for the members to decide. At this moment there are no plans to change the current membership status.“The club welcomes women to play either as visitors or guests year round with full use of the facilities as will be the case throughout the championship.

“Over the years Muirfield has hosted many women’s events including the Curtis Cup. It is a popular venue with the world’s top players and lists many of the greatest players in the game’s history as Open Champions over its course.”

A spokesman for Mr Salmond refused to comment on Mr Cameron’s involvement in the issue.