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Tea time? Not for McIlroy at Muirfield

By Steve Elling

ORLANDO, Fla. – As far as his personal perception goes, the so-called Muirfield mulligan didn’t make much difference to former world No. 1 Rory McIlroy.

The members of the centuries-old Scottish club, formally known as The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, finally decided this week to accept female members, a notion that had been shot down during the organization’s first balloting on the topic last year.

Grudgingly accepted, no doubt.

McIlroy not only didn’t applaud the reversed decision but thumbed his nose, eviscerating the club for living in golf’s stone age and characterizing gender-specific clubs as relics that don’t belong in the modern game. 

Muirfield changed its tone on the admission of female members only after the R&A removed the club from the British Open rotation after last spring’s nay vote. McIlroy applied his own brand of arm-twisting Wednesday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, alternately describing Muirfield’s sexist sentiments as “obscene,” “ridiculous” and “horrendous.”

Amen, brother, if not hallelujah, sister.

What century is this, anyway? The club changed its tack only when economic sanctions of a sort were imposed. So, hold the huzzahs, please.

“Obviously, I was outspoken about this before, whenever the vote went the first time around,” he said. “In this day and age, where you've got women that are the leaders of certain industries and women that are heads of state, and to not to be able to join a golf course?”

He was just getting warmed up. If the microphone had been his driver, he was gripping down on the handle and letting it fly – and given’s golf’s exclusionary policies in some quarters, deservedly so. In the ultimate irony, Muirfield had to be coerced into doing the right thing by the R&A, which runs the Open and has a regrettable history with regard to females, too.

“So, they sort of saw sense,” McIlroy said of the Muirfield re-vote, which was announced Tuesday in Scotland. “I still think, that it got to the stage, this stage, is horrendous. 

“We'll go back and we'll play the Open Championship, because they will let women members in, but every time I go to Muirfield now, I won't have a great taste in my mouth.”

It won’t be from any post-round parties in the club dining room, either. According to reports, approximately 20 percent of the club again voted to exclude women on the re-vote, which probably speaks to the underlying current of resentment over being forced to take a second balloting.

It’s a pity that McIlroy didn’t display such unreserved candor in 2013, when Muirfield last hosted the Open and legions of professionals trod the politically correct line on the gender issue. Then again, the noise emanating from the top echelons of the game at the event was just as disappointing.

Former R&A chief executive Peter Dawson, facing a deluge of questions in 2013 about staging such an important event at a club that openly discriminates against half of the world population, did everything but serve as an advocate for the Muirfield membership. He drew a convenient line between sexism and racism, though most would argue that it’s a purely semantic distinction. 

“I don't really think, to be honest, that a golf club, which has a policy of being a place where like-minded men or, indeed, like-minded women, go and want to play golf together and do their thing together ranks up against some of these other forms of discrimination,” Dawson said at the time. “I really just don't think they’re comparable, and I don't think they're damaging. 

“It's just kind of, for some people, a way of life that they rather like. I don't think in doing that they're intending to do others down or intending to do others any harm. It's just a way of life that some of these people like."

Segregated drinking fountains were in parts of the United States until the 1960s, too. That didn’t make it right. Though McIlroy drew plenty of criticism when he elected to play a round of golf with U.S. President Donald Trump a few weeks ago, he seemed to be speaking straight from the heart. 

Belatedly, perhaps.

“It's horrendous,” he said. “I mean, I just don't get it. So, anyway, look, we'll go back there for the Open Championship at some point, and I won't be having many cups of tea with the members afterward.”

For the progressive thinkers in the game who contend that this sort of sentiment is long overdue, feel free to hoist a stronger libation in McIlroy's honor. It's doubtlessly deserved.

Steve Elling has covered golf for the Orlando Sentinel, CBSSports.com and numerous other global print and online outlets. Email: ellingink@gmail.com; Twitter: @EllingYelling