The 142nd British Open tees off today at the home of Scotland’s Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, Muirfield. But rather than celebrating the display of the world’s oldest golfing club hosting golf’s oldest major, media attention has focused on Muirfield’s membership policy: females are not allowed.
Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond confirmed over the weekend that he would not be attending the tournament, saying that “it’s just indefensible in the 21st century not to have golf clubs open to both males and females.” He insisted back in June that the sport’s governing body, the Royal and Ancient, should pressure Muirfield to change its rules in time for the tournament, a suggestion that Peter Dawson, R&A’s chief executive, said would amount to “bullying” of clubs.
The club itself has stayed fairly quiet on the matter. It issued a statement through a public relations agency saying that it “welcomes women to play either as visitors or guests year round”. Muirfield has also pointed out that it has played host to many women’s tournaments, including the Curtis Cup.
In a press conference on Wednesday Dawson promised that the R&A will take a look at the issue. Dawson stated that attempts to draw a comparison between men-only clubs and clubs organized by race were “absurd.”
“I don’t really think, to be honest, that a golf club, which has a policy of being a place where like-minded men or, indeed, like-minded women, go and want to play golf together and do their thing together ranks up against some of these other forms of discrimination,” said Dawson. “I really just don’t think they’re comparable, and I don’t think they’re damaging.”
Dawson defended the 269-year-old club’s right as a private-members organization to limit membership by gender—a choice that around thirty golf clubs in the U.K. have chosen to do, half of which are for only women, says Dawson. Muirfield is not the only club on the Open’s rota of nine venues that denies membership to women: both Royal St. George’s and Royal Troon are also all-male clubs.
The pressure on the R&A to act on discrimination is stronger after Augusta National, home of the Masters tournament, made history last year when it admitted its first female members to its inner sanctum: Condoleeza Rice and Darla Moore. It’s unclear whether the 80-year-old club has decided to extend invitations to any more female members as it does not reveal information about new members (despite its very public exception for Rice and Moore). Though the club’s move to accept female members has been widely applauded, it does send out mixed messages that only women as powerful as a former U.S. Secretary of State and billionaire could make the cut for an all-boys club.
For women in the sport, the issue of all-male clubs hosting tournaments such as the Open is not necessarily among their first priorities. Shona Malcolm, the chief executive of the Ladies Golf Union, is more concerned with lack of media coverage of the women’s game. And that sadly, is a charge that can be leveled against sports journalism as a whole, not just golf.