Muirfield British Open Returns All-Male Golf Clubs to Spotlight

Less than a year after Augusta National Golf Club admitted its first female members, the subject of all-male clubs hosting major tournaments has resurfaced at the British Open.

Golf’s oldest championship begins in two days at Muirfield in Gullane, Scotland, one of three courses in the Open rotation that don’t allow women members, a stance Scotland’s highest-ranked government official labeled “indefensible in the 21st century.”

Augusta National, home of the Masters Tournament each April in Augusta, Georgia, invited former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore, a Rainwater Inc. financier, to join its ranks in August, ending almost a decade of scrutiny over its all-male membership. The move was lauded by many, including Tiger Woods, the first black golfer to win the Masters, who said it was “the right timing.”

Woods refused to discuss Muirfield’s membership at a news conference today, where he was asked if there was any moral difference between clubs that exclude people for gender rather than for race.

“I don’t make the policies here,” the 14-time major champion said. “I’m not a member, so I’m not going to speak for the club.”

The Royal & Ancient Golf Club, which runs the British Open and also has a men-only membership policy, has defended the decision to return to Muirfield for the 16th time. Peter Dawson, chief executive of the R&A, cited U.K. law allowing for single-sex clubs, as long as they abide by the equality act in relation to access for all guests.

‘Bullying Position’

“To think that the R&A might say to a club like Muirfield, ‘You’re not going to have the Open any more unless you change your policy,’ frankly is a bullying position that we would never take,” Dawson said in a meeting with reporters in April.

Muirfield, formally known as the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, issued a statement yesterday saying it welcomes women to play “year round with full use of the facilities as will be the case throughout the championship.” It also noted it’s hosted many women’s events.

“As a club we conform to the Equality Act 2010 and any change in the membership would be for the members to decide,” the club said in the statement. “At this moment there are no plans to change the current membership status.”

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond won’t be attending the Open this year to protest Muirfield’s membership. Salmond, who played with Phil Mickelson at last week’s Scottish Open pro-am, said it was “indefensible in the 21st century not to have a golf club that’s open to all.”

“We want to see golf as an open, accessible game, open to all, male, female, young, middle-aged, old, geriatric, infants,” Salmond said during a press conference at the Scottish Open.

Other Clubs

Salmond did attend the 2011 Open at Royal St. George’s in England, which, along with Royal Troon in Scotland, are the other all-male clubs in the championship rotation. He said he wasn’t aware of that club’s membership policy.

The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers was founded in 1744 and moved to Muirfield in 1891. It’s one of the most exclusive clubs in the world, where major champions even have a hard time finding a game outside of tournaments.

“It’s probably more difficult to get a round of golf at Muirfield than any place in the world,” Paul Azinger, the 1993 U.S. PGA Championship winner who will work as a commentator for ESPN’s Open telecasts in the U.S., said on a conference call last week. “I don’t think I can play there unless a member invited me specifically.”

Andy North, a two-time U.S. Open champion, said he’s experienced that exclusivity first-hand.

After Hours

In 1980, hours after Tom Watson won the third of his five Claret Jugs at Muirfield, North was in a group of golfers who went back onto the course, where Ben Crenshaw challenged the new champion to a competition.

“After two holes the secretary of the club found out we were out there, came out and kicked us all off the golf course,” North said on the ESPN conference call. “And this is somebody who had won the championship there.”

Dawson and fellow R&A members will hold their annual Open press conference tomorrow and probably face more questions on the membership. It’s not one of his favorite topics.

“I don’t deny my job would be made a lot easier if this issue didn’t exist,” Dawson said in April. “But one might choose to respect the wishes of members of these clubs, which are virtually unanimous in a place like St. Andrews, that the status quo works extremely well for them.”

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