The 21st century officially has arrived in Scotland, a place where traditionalistic sensibilities ÷ change = resistance, at least until financial gain enters the equation. Last week’s announcement that 16-time British Open host Muirfield will admit 12 women to its previously all-male membership is more than just a sign of the times. A reluctant concession, perhaps, in that the famed links was bumped from the British Open rota by the R&A almost immediately after failing to approve female inclusion in May 2016.
Ten months later, that same group of gents, known as the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, reconvened to vote on the issue again. Having fallen just short of the required two-thirds majority the previous spring, the pro-women constituency suddenly grew from 64 percent to 80.2 percent, meaning Muirfield is off the R&A’s shinola list and is likely to get another British Open in the mid-2020s.
What’s the big deal, you ask? Well, maybe there isn’t one, to be honest. One of the world’s great golf establishments chose to revise a 275-year-old “policy” so it could continue staging what some consider the game’s most prestigious tournament. Not only that, but Muirfield apparently expedited its selection process in regard to prospective female members, as if to prove it was serious about boarding the battleship of political correctness.
Those 12 women are expected to join the club this month. Five quid says the HCEG formally publicizes the completion of that procedure during British Open week, the perfect time to let the entire universe know that even the stodgiest collection of cigar-chompers will cave to external pressure if it ensures the same reliable revenue stream to which they’ve grown so accustomed.
It’s funny how principle often comes with a price. Or how progress is now measured by parameters of pragmatism, which has become a convenient synonym for fairness, which is why every kid on the swim team gets a trophy instead of those who finish first, second or third. Am I the only old-school knucklehead who thinks the R&A crossed the line by dropping the hammer on a club that for decades on end has remained a loyal and consistently superb host of its biggest championship?
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Muirfield has played host to 16 British Opens, including the most recent edition, in 2013, with Phil Mickelson raising the Claret Jug.
Without question, Muirfield and the Old Course at St. Andrews are the most highly regarded venues in the British Open rota. The notion that the R&A was willing to compromise the standards of its best product, if only slightly, in the interest of making a political statement is somewhat disheartening. Especially in golf, a game that has bent over backwards to accommodate people of any race, gender or nationality, in this case by making an example of a private organization by issuing an ultimatum based on some governing body’s version of right and wrong.
In America, the freedom of association is protected by the U.S. Constitution, albeit somewhat vaguely, although numerous legal cases over the years have upheld the rights of private entities to conduct business as they see fit. Before extending invitations to Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore in August 2012, Augusta National GC clearly bore the brunt of criticism regarding men-only memberships. This despite the fact that several ultra-prominent clubs such as Pine Valley, Burning Tree and Garden City adhered to the same policy.
“It’s just an embarrassment that it’s still all-male,” said Debora Spar, who at the time was president of Barnard College, an all-women’s institution in New York. “Any argument made for male-only recreational sites is just kind of past its day.”
A decade earlier, Martha Burk had emerged as Augusta National’s primary antagonist. With substantial assistance from The New York Times, Burk’s much-publicized spat with club chairman Hootie Johnson turned into a tireless crusade thinly disguised as a charade, as Burk herself noted, perhaps unwittingly, many years later.
“The Augusta fight was really never about golf,” she told Newsday in 2018. “It was about access to the halls of power to business.”
To which one might respond in kind: It’s really not about women, either. What do you suppose would happen if a struggling young male tour pro decided to pursue a livelihood on the LPGA? How would the public react if that same player were to win three of his first five starts? There have been at least two such related attempts in the past 40 years – one by a man, the other by a transgender female – both of which were shot down by the legal system.
Such a precedent, however, hardly seems like enough to prevent others from making the same challenge. In 2010, LPGA players voted to eliminate the tour’s requirement that all participants be female at birth, which is far less of an invitation than an acknowledgement. The perils of gender-based exclusion apply in both directions. Otherwise, it’s a form of discrimination founded by a contradiction. The mere thought of men playing on the women’s tour conjures visions of chaos and competitive anarchy. To think that it never could happen in an all-is-fair world is a bit myopic.
Furthermore, does even a single female-only private club exist in the United States? In all my years of covering golf, the only such establishment I’ve encountered was when I played a round at the Formby Ladies Golf Club in England long ago. I did not have to present myself in drag, and the course was terrific, one of a handful still operating in the United Kingdom.
And without further ado, we’ve arrived at the proverbial water under the bridge. Muirfield was quick to amend its membership standards when faced with losing its status as a major-championship host, not for reasons involving social respectability nor its longtime reputation as a superb test of golf. Augusta National now hosts a women’s amateur tournament the week before the Masters in addition to the Drive, Chip and Putt contest for kids.
Any old-timers out there who saw that coming to fruition?
Evolution and modernization are two different things, easily confused by those who assume that change automatically perpetuates improvement. And just as you have the right to condemn any number of golf’s most hallowed institutions for what you consider sexist or discriminatory behavior, they reserve the same opportunity to move at their own pace, on their own terms, and deal with the consequences as they arise.
In this day and age, that’s a true sign of progress.
John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: email@example.com