Walking back through the wrought-iron gates at Muirfield yesterday morning gave me the heebie jeebies. It was there, after all, that I had a fresh air shot on the first tee at the media day for the 2013 Open Championship. Thanks to George Smillie, the affable starter at the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, news of that embarrassing episode quickly spread through East Lothian and he didn’t miss the chance to remind me of it on this return visit.
Heading back through those gates a couple of hours later on the way out, my feeling had changed to sadness. Because, unless the vote by the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers to block women joining the historic East Lothian club, I might never be back there again and neither will the world’s top players and, of course, the Open Championship’s loyal army of fans.
Quite simply, it’s a shocking scenario but one, sadly, which was inevitable as soon as the “No” campaigners influenced a vote, a hugely important one for golf and Scotland, sufficiently to stop Muirfield joining modern society instead of giving the impression it is still living in 1744, when the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers was formed.
The R&A may have put up with the Claret Jug joust being held there in 2013 and will do so at Royal Troon, where a similar membership review is currently being undertaken, as well this summer. But it simply cannot allow itself to be associated with a club which has had an opportunity to introduce mixed membership yet has let that opportunity slip by.
Yes, of course, Muirfield should remain on the R&A’s rota in terms of the outstanding test its links, made up of two concentric circles, provides. It’s probably in the top three of every leading player’s list, hence it will be a crying shame if the 16th Open Championship held there, the 2013 event won by Phil Mickelson thanks to a back-nine masterclass in the final round, proves to be the last.
The R&A, however, would be doing themselves, their patrons and, most importantly, the game as a whole a huge injustice if it turned a blind eye to yesterday’s vote and tried to pretend that it would still be acceptable to host the season’s third major at the East Lothian venue.
“The R&A are right to do what they’ve done,” admitted Paul Lawrie, the 1999 Open champion. “How can you not let ladies be a member of a golf club? It just doesn’t make any sense. Imagine not being able to take your wife into the golf club. It’s just not right.”
Muirfield members, of course, will point out that they can take their wife into the iconic clubhouse . They will also point out that women can play on their course. Indeed, 117 will be doing just that on Monday in a mixed event. How ironic. The crux of this matter, though, is that a section of the Muirfield membership don’t want women to be afforded the ultimate privilege of being, well, one of the boys.
“The R&A have done the right thing for the bigger picture,” said three-time Open champion Padraig Harrington, concurring with Lawrie. “They lead golf on a world stage and they have a responsibility to general society not to condone it or to drift along as if it’s not happening. Muirfield may go ahead and say we want to just be a small golf club and mind their own business and that’s fine, but minding their own business isn’t holding the Open is it?”
Henry Fairweather, the club captain, and an outstanding one to boot based on his performance yesterday in the most uncomfortable situation you could imagine, is confident the vote will not create a divide behind those gates. “We’ve got a club with differing views. The members here have differing views on many things and they are all quite capable of expressing them. But I do believe we will put this behind us as a club,” he insisted.
With all due respect, I doubt that. In fact, it needs things to turn ugly for the right and proper outcome to eventually be arrived at. Let’s get this mess sorted, boys.