Contrary to the normal image presented of Muirfield – with discrimination against women top of the agenda in recent days – the home of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers has been instrumental in revolutionising the Open Championship with modern, forward-looking thinking. The first Open to be played at Muirfield in 1892 was the first played over four rounds and two days (instead of two rounds and one day).
The 1966 championship was the first to be played over four days (previously the last two rounds had been played on the Friday so the club professionals could return to their shops for the weekend). In 1980, the Open ended on a Sunday for the first time to maximise viewing opportunities for those on site and those in front of their television screens.
The Open Championship, as presented by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, revels in its openness. Any professional and any amateur with a low enough handicap can enter. Anybody can turn up at the gates and buy a ticket, with under-16s accompanied by an adult let in free. Television contracts are based as much on viewer reach as money, making the BBC, rather than Sky, the broadcaster of choice.
Where élitism and exclusivity creeps in is when it comes to the venues that stage the championship. Not in the sense of the membership criteria some of those clubs choose to adopt – which can appear abhorrent in the 21st century and are not reflective of the majority of clubs across the country – but in how many courses are actually capable of staging a modern, major sporting event such as the Open Championship.
Currently, the list contains only nine names and anyone who has put up with desultory accommodation in Carnoustie or tried to navigate a motorised vehicle around the medieval streets of Sandwich knows that if that list could be extended, it would be. Take out clubs that do not admit women members – such as the Honourable Company and the next two Open venues, Royal St George's and Royal Troon – and the list gets even shorter.
The right of association of private clubs is not in dispute. For such a club to benefit, both in monetary and publicity terms, from hosting the Open can be queried, but Muirfield is ranked (by Golf World magazine) as the best course in Britain and the Royal and Ancient want to test the best players on the best layouts.
It is the course, not the club, that is selected to host the Open, say the Royal and Ancient, who are not at their best when trying to justify the unjustifiable in not accepting women members themselves. "Social engineering" is not part of their remit, the club suggests.
Richard Caborn, the Sports Minister, considers it may be. "Muirfield is a private club and it can do what it is doing, but it is the governing bodies I'm appealing to," Caborn said. "It's about trying to get the governing bodies to do all they can in the 21st century to get outside participation in sport. It would be good for the governing bodies to reflect to see if they are doing everything they can."
But Peter Dawson, the secretary of the R and A, responded bullishly when he said: "The Open Championship is one of the few world-class sporting events held in this country. I find it odd that a sports minister should knock us. We're the world governing body for golf. Junior golf gets help from us through the Golf Foundation. We raise what we can by rattling tins and collecting what funds we can.
"The government hasn't helped golf in any shape or form whatsoever. Maybe the sports minister should think about funding for golf if he wants to help the grass roots. If the sports minister wants to get in touch with us then he should give us a ring. I would be delighted to talk to him."
When Caborn phones, he could mention that it might be easier to help if the game in this country was not controlled by an amalgam of around 20 different bodies. In the meantime it is a shame if any extraneous issues should overshadow what will be a superbly-run championship on a classic links with a strong field and featuring possibly the finest sports person on the planet.
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