Peter Corrigan: A diversion on the rough road to equality

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The Independent Online

If the players' ladies get any more involved with the Ryder Cup they'll end up playing. And why not? To add an extra day so that the lads can settle the cup with an exciting round of mixed foursomes would be in the finest traditions of the game.

If the players' ladies get any more involved with the Ryder Cup they'll end up playing. And why not? To add an extra day so that the lads can settle the cup with an exciting round of mixed foursomes would be in the finest traditions of the game.

A million men around the world would identify with the pleasure of playing with the missus on a Sunday, and it would add the final touch to the honeyed togetherness that the Ryder organisers seem extraordinarily determined to foster.

For the past 10 or 15 years, players' wives have been steadily increasing their profile at this particular event – they are comparatively invisible at the Majors until they and the kids appear magically beside the 18th when the winning putt drops – and their dress and glamour have added to the scene as they parade inside the ropes being cursed by the fans. They have learned not to block the view of the punters who have been standing for hours waiting to see their menfolk in action, but they are becoming a distraction that no top-class sporting contest can surely afford.

Perhaps it is believed that pushing the girls into the limelight is a way to take the edge off the fervent rivalry that has been threatening to ruin this event but, in fact, it makes it worse. In such a public place. what else can they do but over-react to every rise and fall of fortune their hubbies encounter? Hamming up the hysteria in the wives' gallery has become as competitive as the golf itself and, as ungallant as it may be to revive the memory, the American ladies were prominent among those doing the dance of disgrace at the 17th green at Brookline three years ago. Cladding them out in high-fashion uniformity adds another bizarre touch, and I much enjoyed the Radio Five Live listener who telephoned in on Friday to ask: "When the Americans come off the 18th how do they know which wife to go to?"

This frantic urge to push the other halves into prominence doesn't seem to exist in other sports. Footballers' Wives was the name of a television serial, but the real things get concentrated on only at FA Cup time. The television cameras may flash them up occasionally, but certainly with nothing like the exposure that Sky have been giving; their faces have appeared on the screen after every putt goes down and it does get tedious.

The most remarkable development in this drive to make the wives an important and integral part of the drama came at the official gala dinner in Birmingham on Wednesday. After the American captain, Curtis Strange, had introduced his players, Sam Torrance rose to call upon the European team to stand up and take a bow. In alphabetical order he intoned: "Thomas and Pernilla Bjorn, Darren and Heather Clarke, Padraig and Caroline Harrington..." introducing them as couples, and they each stood up. Nobody begrudges the women a place by their husbands when there are proud moments to be celebrated, and Torrance obviously felt that this was a way to help build team morale, but it struck an off-key note.

Strange was non-committal when he was asked for his views, but he must have been as surprised as everyone else at the dinner. He might have been bollocked by the American wives because they weren't allowed the same bowing rights as their European counterparts. Departures from the norm at official functions ought to be discussed between the two camps.

The opening ceremony, overlong and under-rehearsed, had the teams walking off hand in hand with their wives and the whole scene offered a jarring unreality for what is supposed to be a serious sporting encounter.

Some of the media have enthusiastically joined in. Sky, desperate to capture every twitch of reaction, obviously see the presence of the wives as an opportunity for some additional choreographed drama. Even The Times published large "team" pictures of the wives taken at the opening ceremony. Unfortunately, the captions were transposed in the edition that reached The Belfry: Sonya Toms became Marie Fasth and Eimar Montgomerie became Lisa Cink and so on. Curiously, it seems that The Belfry wives are enjoying more attention and publicity than the American and European women golfers who competed for the Solheim Cup in Minnesota the previous week.

In a year when women have been making determined attempts to breach some of golf's most impregnable male bastions, this promotion of the female to a supposedly important role in one of the game's biggest events might appear to be progress but, of course, it is the exact opposite. It confirms the views of the game's feminists that their role in the game is doomed to remain supportive and subservient while present attitudes remain.

As someone who has fought on the side of the traditionalists in the battle for equality in golf, and will continue to so long as I believe it serves the interest of my club, I may not be the most reliable witness on this subject. But my lengthy, and sometimes bitter, association with the argument has convinced me that women should and will play an equal role in the game, and the only question worth debating is how we are going to achieve it without damaging the game in the process.

My opinion, already expressed in this column more than once, is that we should do away with the distinction between the men's and women's games. We should play off the same tees, share the same handicapping system... just be golfers, in fact. That's what equality means, not just trying to muscle in on the male preserves. If women want to get out of their golfing ghetto they should concentrate on pulling down the ghetto instead of continually banging their heads against the brick walls that protect many of our clubs from the realities of life.

Twice this year there have been concerted attempts to break down the barriers. The issue of Muirfield's policy of not having lady members sparked off a full-scale national debate during The Open. It had no effect. Muirfield's right to have whatever membership they choose remains just as firmly embedded now as it has for over 300 years.

Recently, a similar row concerning Augusta National golf club, home of the US Masters, has been a major talking point across the Atlantic. Martha Burk, head of the National Council of Women's Organ-isations, has been campaigning hard against their failure to have a woman member. Considering that 99.999 (recurring) per cent of the world's population fall well short of whatever Augusta National require of their members, I don't know what the women are beefing about, but, apart from gaining a lot of publicity for her cause, Burk has got nowhere.

She threatened to put pressure on the companies who sponsor the Masters, so Augusta's chairman, Hootie Johnson, immediately cancelled the sponsorships and the club will bear the full expense.

Johnson says that the club refuse to be browbeaten about who they have as members, and leading lady golfers are among those who recognise that right. Besides, forcing them to elect some rich old broad as a token lady will solve nothing and lead nowhere. Burk would have been better employed persuading them to stage a women's event.

Golf women, generally, would benefit by redirecting their campaign to strictly golf strategies. It is far easier for us stubborn old sods to reject attempts to obtain clubhouse power than it would be to begrudge their golfing development.

My suggestion of a mixed foursomes element in the Ryder Cup was made tongue in cheek, but it is not that outrageous. Mixed golf is an established part of the game at club level.

Indeed, the fact that fate led to the Solheim and Ryder Cup being played in adjacent weeks for the first time ever spurs the thought that it would not be a bad idea to combine both events in the same week. What a boost that would be to the women's cause – and a high- profile female presence to which no one could object.