“No. Nobody did. Nobody ever thought that would happen,” replied the eight-time European No 1 and Ryder Cup legend to being asked if he’d ever thought he’d see the AIG Women’s Open being hosted by the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers at Muirfield, as is the case this week.
That the final women’s major of the season is being staged at what was once a celebrated bastion of men-only golf clubs is testament to a welcome sea change in attitude among the members.
Yes, it required two attempts to bring the historic club into the modern world, but, along with the likes of The Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, Royal Troon, Royal Burgess and Bruntsfield Links, it got there and that’s the most important thing.
The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers now has 20 women members and, according to one of them, the step has certainly not just been a token gesture.
“It was acknowledged that change had to happen,” Lindsey Garden, an Edinburgh woman who caddied for Wayne Riley when he won the Australian Open in 1991, told me in a chat in the members’ lounge overlooking the 18th green on the East Lothian course.
“There are men who would have been saying ‘I was having uncomfortable conversations with my daughters or granddaughters about why I was a member of an all-male club’ who knew it had to happen.
“Nobody likes it when it’s maybe been forced on you and we all know the history behind it all. But I think everybody recognised this had to happen and they’ve gone all in. The clubhouse has been extended, we’ve got our names on the lockers just as the men do. It’s proper, it really is.
“A lot of people have said, ‘why would you want to join?’ But why would you not want to? It’s Muirfield we are playing golf on. That was the known bit. But the added bonus has been the club. It just gets better and better.
“The more active a member you try to be, the more you get from it and the number of members who have commented on us coming to dinners and playing in matches has been pleasing. That’s what the Honourable Company is all about.”
The last men’s Open at Muirfield in 2013 was certainly an uncomfortable affair for the R&A, with Peter Dawson, the chief executive at the time, facing easily the most awkward press conference of his tenure on the eve of the event.
His successor, Martin Slumbers, then moved swiftly following a ‘no’ result in an intitial vote on admitting women by Muirfield members in 2016, saying the venue would not be considered for future R&A events until the policy changed.
That happening in 2017 has re-opened the door for the men’s event to return there, with a strong possibility of that happening in 2026, which is the next slot available, but first things first and, according to another of the club’s women members, the entire membership is embracing this week’s historic event.
“I think there’s a big change and there has been from the start as I’ve never had any murmur of ever feeling awkward,” said Barbara Biggart, a well-kent face in East Lothian golfing circles. “I’ve always felt welcome in this room (the aforementioned members’ lounge) or the dining room for dinners.
“They want us to be members and not just a lady member. The first dinner I went to it wasn’t a case of anyone saying they were pleased some women were there, it was a case of people saying ‘we’d like to welcome all our new members’ and that also included some men. I think that was very good and I do feel there is a desire to make it work.”
Douglas Connon, a former chairman of Scottish Golf, has been one of the main driving forces, as has former captain Peter Arthur, who is chairman of the club’s AIG Women’s Open championship committee, which also has both Garden and Biggart on it.
“It’s great,” said Garden of the club hosting an event that sees Swede Anna Nordqvist defending her title. “I think there is a genuine excitement, for the want of a better word, from across the membership about hosting the Women’s Open and the precursor in many ways was the success of the Solheim Cup (at Gleneagles in 2019) as I think people are now saying ‘actually women’s golf is really good and we want to see it’.”
Biggart, who is in charge of the volunteers who will be carrying scoreboards with all the matches, first played Muirfield before lots of the players in this week’s field were even born.
“I played here as a girl so that’s my first memory of what is a great course,” she said. “It’s fantastic course and that’s what these top women professionals are wanting. I also think all the courses steeped in history are moving forward as well and want to show they are inclusive.
"There have always been women playing here as visitors. It’s not as though they were banned, but I feel this event will showcase the whole area as the men’s Open does when it’s here.”
Boasting a record prize fund of £6.5 million and coming on the back of a tasty appetiser in a hugely-successful Trust Golf Women’s Scottish Open at Dundonald Links, it promises to be a memorable week for the game.
“Superb,” declared Montgomerie of the best women golfers in the game heading through those cast-iron gates for the first time. “Yes, it's well overdue, but times are changing and all the better for it. And they'll love Muirfield. I think the setup will be fantastic for them.”