Peter Corrigan: Why a Tigress can one day win The Open

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Open is much more than one of our greatest sporting occasions. It is a history lesson; and whoever wins the 131st Open this afternoon will feel the weight of the championship's glorious past settle on his shoulders long before he senses the warmth of the £700,000 winner's cheque seeping into his soul via his back pocket.

The Open is much more than one of our greatest sporting occasions. It is a history lesson; and whoever wins the 131st Open this afternoon will feel the weight of the championship's glorious past settle on his shoulders long before he senses the warmth of the £700,000 winner's cheque seeping into his soul via his back pocket.

In this context, Muirfield should be regarded as a museum – the clubhouse certainly feels like one – and the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers its curators. That image may go a little way towards placating all those who have been getting their knickers in a twist – I apologise for the unfortunate phraseology – over the club's attitude to women.

The outrage such discrimination incited through the nation tended to dominate the lead-up to the tournament and forced the golfing fraternity into a defensive mode when they should have been concentrating on whom they were going to bet on to win.

Golf is accustomed to closing ranks when this subject crops up, but as a long-serving campaigner on behalf of the old order, I can see signs that the game should prepare itself for changes to occur at a more rapid rate than they have over the last 100 years or so.

I doubt if the Honourable Company will be at the forefront of any revolution. Founded in 1744, they are fiercely jealous of their standing in the game and are unlikely to yield to any modern thinking that they see as a challenge to the preservation of their club, its standards and traditions, and the husbandry of a course that is a national treasure.

This exclusiveness does not apply just to women. They discriminate against a vast swathe of humankind. As long as they don't break the law of the land, they share the right of every private club to admit who they want.

In the wider world, women in golf clubs – or, rather, women only halfway in golf clubs – have been the subject of more durable controversies than Muirfield experiences every now and then.

Having been the captain of a club where this row is still simmering, I know the problem not to be straightforward. Many of the clubs in this country date from the 19th century and are still governed by constitutions written many years before women even got the vote. The large majority required in a vote to change those constitutions makes reform a very slow process.

Most clubs allowed ladies' sections at a reduced subscription on the understanding that they would use the course during the week but make way for the men at weekends. For many women that is now an outdated concept, but the restrictions on their playing at weekends still remain. With clubs enjoying full memberships, for the men to allow women full membership and, therefore, equal playing rights would have been tantamount to asking them to vote for their own playing opportunities to be restricted. It is a sacrifice not many are keen to make, and so the status quo remains at many clubs. But there are clear signs that this picture is changing.

The magazine Golf Monthly recently revealed a decline in the popularity of golf. The boom of the 1980s and 1990s is well and truly over. The English Golf Union report that 75 per cent of private member clubs are actively seeking new members. The same trend has appeared where I play in South Wales. Long waiting lists for club membership have virtually disappeared, and this applies to ladies' sections, too.

The introduction of new, proprietary clubs 10 or 15 years ago and the increase in municipal courses helped to satisfy the golfing appetites, but the clamour has died away. In 1990, the average number of rounds played over Britain's municipal courses was 65,000. Last year, that figure dropped to 35,000.

This decline in interest could have its roots in the lack of British stars competing at the top world level compared to the heydays of Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam. Another reason could be the cost of club membership for the younger players and the image of stuffiness that the clubs, even those who deserve to, find hard to shake off.

If the trend continues, clubs will no longer have the excuse that there is no room to accommodate women at the weekends. Indeed, they will need the extra revenue that will come from making women full members.

As for the youngsters, they will be vital to the future. The average age of club members is very high and there is no sign that kids are flocking to the game. It is too expensive and they, too, are restricted as to when they can play. Golfers loathe change, because they feel that golf has flourished at all levels in this country, and is better regulated and self-disciplined than any other sport, because of strictly applied rules, no matter how quirky.

Golf clubs can be infuriating places, but they work. It seems inevitable that such a claim will be severely tested in the future.

There is another eventuality that will lead to all the old divisions being put to one side – that is for men's and women's golf to unite into one game with us all playing the same courses, from the same tees, with the same handicapping system; sharing everything, in fact, apart from the locker rooms and showers.

This would put most women golfers at a disadvantage when it comes to the monthly medals and other club competitions, and they would need to be handicapped accordingly. But if it is genuine equality they want this is the one sure way they are going to achieve it and, although it would be tough at first, in decades to come the quality of women's golf would be bound to improve.

I have previously offered the opinion, and have been regularly scoffed at for it, that one day a woman will win The Open. We will probably all be dead and forgotten before it happens but, given the startling progress that women have made in sport and in life generally over the past 20 years, it is not an outrageous suggestion.

Not being a contact sport, golf's requirements of its champions, such as skill, balance, timing and physical and mental stamina, could be found in a woman. There would need to be prolonged exposure to playing the men's game over generations for such females to emerge but they would, and the progress of club and ball technology would hardly hinder them.

For this to happen, of course, we would require even more of a substantial change in attitude by the women's game than by the men's. It is strange that last week's burst of outrage against women not being allowed to enter the Honourable Company was not accompanied by any questioning of why women were not allowed to enter The Open.

Since most of those who dived head- first into the controversy do not have the faintest knowledge of golf, it would have seemed a sensible enquiry. The answer would have been that an amalgamation of the two games has never been contemplated, least of all by the women.

The women are happy enough in their ghetto and want nothing more than greater access to the course and a bigger say in the running of the clubs, and I do not blame them for that.

To take it the whole hog, and make it one game, would require a massive compromise that many from both sexes would find it very difficult to contemplate. It may be the best route to salvation.

In the meantime, women will continue to be seen as a downtrodden underclass in the game, and to a certain extent this is true. But anyone who believes that women do not have any influence knows nothing about golf clubs and even less about women.