The news last week that Muirfield Golf Club in Gullane, Scotland had voted not to admit women members had one enormous consequence: the R&A removed the Club from the Open Championship rota.
Just a few years ago, the R&A itself had been under enormous pressure to admit women and after much debate, the members voted to change. As the governing body for golf in most of the world, the R&A has a responsibility to take a leadership position in eliminating discrimination and to use that position to influence others in the same direction.
That influence obviously extended to the Open Championship and the R&A was quick to advise clubs in the rota that they too would be expected to change their bylaws if necessary to allow women to become members. So, it’s not like Muirfield didn’t have advance warning.
Muirfield is reputed to be the oldest golf club in the world. Its official name is The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers and the Club dates back to 1744 when initial golfing competitions were conducted in the City of Edinburgh. The initial Thirteen Rules of Golf were developed in conjunction with those competitions and for over a century, The Honourable Company was the primary arbiter for all rules decisions before handing that authority to the R&A.
Shortly after moving to their current site in 1890, the Company hosted its first British Open Championship on a unique layout designed by Old Tom Morris. The Club has hosted a total of sixteen Open Championships, the last in 2013, which was won by Phil Mickelson. It has also hosted Ryder Cup, Walker Cup and Curtis Cup championships as well as many other international competitions.
It’s important to mention the Club’s history because it shows an ongoing commitment to be part of the larger world of golf. This isn’t a group of guys that beetled off to some remote site, designed a golf course and put up a “Keep Out” sign.
In fact, the Club knows its position and takes that responsibility seriously. Here’s a paragraph from the Club’s own website that sets out some of its objectives:
The Honourable Company has always had at heart the interest and well-being of the game and has been an innovator when hosting tournaments. This was evidenced, initially, by the creation of the original 13 Rules and later by convening and chairing the 1919 meeting at which the R&A were asked to take over the administration of the Open and Amateur Championships from the individual host clubs which had previously run them. The Club’s social conscience is demonstrated by the number of charity events that are hosted or organised at Muirfield and the willingness with which the Club plays host to local and national tournaments.
The “interest and well-being of the game” and “social conscience” are powerful phrases. Not many golf clubs today would include words like that in their statement of guiding principles.
So, how does all the history and good intention fit with a NO vote on allowing women to become members in 2016? Especially when the Honourable Company knew that not complying with the R&A’s mandate would mean losing the Open Championship?
Most people under a certain age are scratching their heads and asking, “Why?” The golf world they know is one of political correctness where, for the most part, discrimination and gender bias are not tolerated.
Older golfers certainly will be more familiar with male only golf clubs and policies at mixed clubs that discriminated against women with respect to tee times and using parts of the clubhouse.
The first private club I joined had a magnificent covered porch that wrapped around the back of the clubhouse and overlooked the 18th green. One of the Club rules stated that women were not allowed on a certain portion of the porch “except during inclement weather, when they were permitted to cross but not stay on that portion of the porch”. That was in the mid 80’s!
At another club I know quite well, it took the members three years, starting in 1994, to debate and finally eliminate a rule that mandated the wearing of knee socks with shorts.
All of that to point out how reluctant to change clubs can be. And to most readers today, those issues would be silly no-brainers.
This is not to suggest that allowing women members at Muirfield after 250 years is silly or trivial. Currently, women are permitted to play there as guests, so it’s not like the Club is some remote bastion of testosterone. Adding women as members instead of being guests seems like a small step and for 64% of the membership, that’s the way they saw it too. But to pass, the Club needs a 2/3 majority.
Augusta National made the change to admit women members in 2012 and many other traditional clubs have followed suit before and since. Some did it quietly, while others were dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century.
It’s expected that Muirfield too will eventually get the required votes to finally admit women as members but it probably won’t be without a fight.
Ironically, there is a dedicated group of NO members that remain steadfast in their opposition to women members. Recently, they wrote a letter to The Scotsman newspaper to explain why they thought the Club should continue to vote no, “A traditional resistance to change is one of the foundations of our unique position in golf and our reputation.”
I wonder what their position is on knee socks.