White smoke at Muirfield as club votes to join 21st century

Women were playing the famous links at Muirfield as the result of a vote on female members at the club was announced. Picture: Jon Savage
Women were playing the famous links at Muirfield as the result of a vote on female members at the club was announced. Picture: Jon Savage
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It was one of Henry Fairweather’s final tasks as captain of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers – his stint ends in six weeks’ time – and he can bow out with his head held high. While not standing in exactly the same spot as last May – a ferocious wind whipping down the Firth of Forth from the west forced this announcement to be made in shelter a few yards away around a corner – he deserved to be the one delivering good news.

Fairweather, after all, had also been the man who’d faced the cameras the last time in front of Muirfield’s iconic clubhouse to deliver a “no” vote on the club’s initial bid to convince the male-only membership to admit women. It was probably one of his darkest days and, despite subsequent events, he will never deny that the reputation of a club that has been in existence since 1744 was damaged considerably that day. Criticism of the decision was widespread and rightly so.

Even now, he’s not trying to claim that will all be forgotten – and he can’t, of course, when more than 120 members still refused to support the admission of women to their club.

But Fairweather, with the support of his committee, including incoming captain Peter Arthur and Douglas Connon, a well-kent face in Scottish golfing circles, got the result they were looking for in a second ballot and now hope a healing procedure is underway.

“I think this has started the process,” replied Fairweather to being asked if members voting 80.2 per cent in favour of the proposal, 10 months after it had fallen just 14 votes short of the necessary 75 per cent, was a case of a damaged reputation being repaired.

“I don’t think we can ignore the fact that last year’s vote happened and that did some damage to the club’s reputation. In my view, it’s not irreparable and I hope we will go forward from here.”

It has to be said that the omens were good on this occasion. Unlike first time around, there seemed to be no opposition group beavering away in the background trying to drum up support. The arrival of sandwiches and cakes in the room set aside for the media shortly after the massive wrought-iron gates had swung open at 10.30am also signalled a celebratory mood rather than a second dose of disappointing news. Shortly before the announcement was due, white smoke billowed into the air from close to the greenkeeping compound. This may not have been to signal a papal appointment, but it certainly seemed somewhat apt. As did the sight a few minutes afterwards of three visiting women golfers heading up the 18th after braving the elements on the toughest of days, even by East Lothian standards.

If that had been orchestrated, then good on Fairweather & Co for showing that women can already play the course, although they obviously didn’t factor in a gaggle
of photographers chasing after the said females to get their picture taken beside the club sign on such a historic day at the same time as Fairweather was starting to make his announcement at the other end of the clubhouse.

Later, escaping from the wind, the captain insisted the decision to open the doors to women members is the “right way forward for the club”. He admitted that “a lot of members were slightly taken aback by the reaction and the strength” of the reaction to the first ballot. “Many others were not totally surprised, but some people certainly were,” he said, revealing that a number of those who had “expressed concerns last time have been supportive this time”. He claimed that no-one had intimated they might resign over the result of the second ballot.

Admitting he felt relieved that the process had come to an end, Fairweather was asked if he felt his club had been demonised along the way. “I suppose we are an easy target,” he replied. “We are a club that consists entirely of men at the moment, so we are a bit of an easy target in some ways. I don’t think these criticisms are unfair; they are just a fact of life.”

In preparation for the first female member being admitted, the focus will now turn to improving facilities. “We have plans for developing the clubhouse which we have put on hold while we’ve been conducting this ballot,” revealed Fairweather. “We do need to improve facilities for ladies. The ladies’ locker room at the moment is not adequate either for visitors or for members so we have plans to improve that.”

To its credit, the R&A reacted with the same speed to this vote as the first one. “In light of today’s decision by the Honourable Company we can confirm that Muirfield will become a venue for The Open once again. Muirfield has a long and important history of hosting The Open and with today’s announcement that will continue,” said chief executive Martin Slumbers. “It is extremely important for us in staging one of the world’s great sporting events that women can become members at all of our host clubs. Muirfield is a truly outstanding Open venue and we very much look forward to taking the championship back there in future.”

The earliest slot is likely to be 2022 and either then or 2023 will see Muirfield where it belongs – staging the game’s greatest event.