Kevin Garside: Men-only club Muirfield’s place as Open host sends all the wrong signals

The offence is institutional and as such far more pernicious

Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond will not be at the global golf event taking place in his country next week. This is a man who loves his golf and who splashed £470,000 of the public purse in taking a delegation to the Ryder Cup in Chicago last year to promote Gleneagles, host of the biannual tournament in 2014.

Salmond is also the author of a letter, co-signed by Scotland’s minister for sport, Shona Robison, sent to the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers at Muirfield protesting against their continued bar on women members. Salmond believes golf’s ruling body, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, is wrong to take the Open to a club that continues its single sex policy. He insists his absence next week is not a boycott. Let us call it a coincidence then that by staying away he raises the temperature around an issue certain to catch fire when the world’s best golfers arrive in East Lothian.

A judgmental remark about the appearance of Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli by BBC broadcaster John Inverdale brought the roof in on Auntie’s house and highlighted our intolerance of sexism. The BBC rebuked their man and Inverdale dashed off an apologetic letter. It did not contain the damage but it did contain the blame, pinning it entirely on Inverdale.  The offence at Muirfield is institutional and as such far more pernicious. The club defends its right to organise as it pleases. Since it breaks no law and is not exclusive in its arrangements – indeed there are all-women clubs, too – it might almost claim victim status as the furore encroaches. But this won’t do since it fails to address the historical antecedents which govern their policy.

The club was formed in 1744 and moved to Muirfield in 1891. It would be almost three decades before women were considered worthy of the vote. They certainly had no business at a gentleman’s club. While the world has moved on, Muirfield remains stuck in Victorian Britain, allowing women only conditional access to its facilities. It permits participation on the course, and provides changing facilities but women are not welcome as members.

In the message this sends, not only to women and young girls with golfing ambitions, but to men, too, in terms of how the male of the species values womankind, this anachronistic warp is indefensible. It is legitimised only in the ancient attitudes of elite, white males, and unfortunately in law. But as Salmond argues, this does not compel the R&A to award the oldest major in the world to the club.

Peter Dawson, chief executive of the R&A, talks about a “direction of travel”, a kind of societal shift that he hopes will force a rethink around the Muirfield bridge tables. He might find the patience of the public will not allow him that luxury. Inverdale might never recover from his grim wisecrack about Bartoli and her not being “a looker”. By persisting with Muirfield’s inclusion on the Open rota Dawson is endorsing its policy against women. It might as well be his.

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