How Muirfield – the last bastion of bigotry – landed the Women’s Open

How Muirfield – the last bastion of bigotry – landed the Women’s Open - National Club Golfer
How Muirfield – the last bastion of bigotry – landed the Women’s Open - National Club Golfer

In June, 2016, Elon Musk caused a mass raising of eyebrows on Planet Earth with the claims that SpaceX would put humans on Mars by 2022. But at that moment in history even Musk’s audacious pledge would have seemed more realistic than the R&A putting a Women’s Open on at Muirfield in the same timeframe.

Except, as mankind continues to look up at the stars and wonders, Martin Slumbers has somehow managed the latter feat and as the best females in the world are at last handed the chance to do battle on what many consider to be the game’s finest links, it is worth charting the East Lothians club’s remarkable metamorphosis, if only to prove wrong the theory that in golf everything automatically takes a long time.

Six years ago, on May 19, the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers voted to retain its policy of only admitting males as members. Granted, the majority of the membership sided with the committee’s desire for change, but it still fell short of the requisite two-thirds.

And so, after 272 years of single-sex existence, poor Henry Fairweather, the enlightened captain who had spearheaded the campaign for inclusion, was forced to face the TV cameras outside the gates and announce that this lady-free zone is not for turning.

In his office in St Andrews the recently installed chief executive of the R&A, knew he had to act quickly and decisively. Golf was at a crossroads, the headlines were horrific.

“Yes, you could say that was an interesting and tricky period,” Slumbers told Telegraph Sport on Tuesday. The Brighton-born former banker had only been in the role eight months and although the Royal and Ancient - the club from whom the governing body was ultimately formed - had, itself, allowed females to join only 18 months before, this ran contrary to the vision he had sold his board.

While his predecessor, Peter Dawson, had defended Muirfield’s right to be the standard bearers of gender inquality - “single-sex clubs are perfectly legal and in our view, don’t do anyone any harm,” Dawson said at the 2013 Open - and refused to contemplate R&A recrimination, Slumbers saw it differently.

Within two hours of red-faced Fairweather revealing the bad news, the R&A released a statement declaring that “going forward we will not stage the Open at a venue that does not admit women as members”. Muirfield was off the roster. Sixteen times it had hosted the British major, but, unless it reformed, never again. Ballsy barely began to describe Slumbers’s move.

“It was difficult because while I had my view about equality and that being central to our mission to promote growth in the sport, it wasn't up to us to tell any golf club what to do,” he said. “But what I think our statement did was bring the debate into sharp focus and allow Muirfield to understand exactly where the R&A stood. They had clarity from us and that was important.

“We were in the process of merging with the Ladies Golf Union and it was a binary decision that was done with the knowledge of the captain of the Honourable Company at the time.”

How Muirfield - the last bastion of bigotry - landed the Women’s Open - GETTY IMAGES
How Muirfield - the last bastion of bigotry - landed the Women’s Open - GETTY IMAGES

Slumbers admits to “being in coordination with the club”  and the next March - the earliest date the dusty constitution would permit a re-vote - the ayes were more than 80 percent in favour.

“I make no bones about how pleased I was, because this is a wonderful course, with so much history and, as a golf fan, to have lost it as a platform would have been a huge shame,” he said from Muirfield. “But when I joined, one of the things I really pushed with my executive team was a five-year strategy with equality at its heart.

“It was very clear in my own mind. I care deeply about the game and genuinely believe it should be the biggest participation sport in the world and that it should be a game for the people. So it was very consistent with what I believed in.”

Muirfield was welcomed back into the fold and now this is a Muirfield almost unrecognisable to the place American magazine Golf Digest once referred to as  “quite possibly the rudest club in the world”.

Then it was the course which denied newly-crowed US Open champion Payne Stewart, to play in 1999, which asked Tom Watson to leave the premises a few hours after winning the 1980 Open, which would not allow King Edward VIII a round when he was the lowly Duke of Windsor.

And when a Muirfield official was asked what would happen if the Queen, herself, asked to play, he replied: "We would go down to the gate and express our loyalty to her - but she wouldn't come in."

Back then it actually seemed to rejoice in its bigotry. It is apocryphal that there was a Muirfield sign that read “No Dogs, No Ladies”, but there was a “No Ladies” notice that took pride of place on the clubhouse door during tournaments. Females could play as guests, but in truth, Muirfield was to women’s golf what Athens was to Spartans.

How Muirfield - the last bastion of bigotry - landed the Women’s Open - HeartScotNews
How Muirfield - the last bastion of bigotry - landed the Women’s Open - HeartScotNews

“Let’s face it, nobody ever envisaged a Women’s Open being staged there - nobody,” Colin Montgomerie said last week. “But there they will be and they’ll love it.”

Slumbers concurs. The 62-year-old points out that there are 20 women members at Muirfield, with five more soon to join. The females have been fast-tracked to ensure there is a healthy, meaningful quorum. The majority are at this championship, helping to make it “a special experience” for the contestants

“Of course the players are excited - it’s the AIG Women’s Open. But the excitement seems to be ramped up. They are standing on the first tee and saying, ‘right we actually get the chance to play a major at Muirfield’ and in the week that England Women won the Euros, I am sure they will put on a show to highlight how great the female game is.

“I played in this morning’s pro-am with Atthaya Thitikul, who is 19 and sixth in the world having come through our pathway. She won one of our events as a 14-year-old and then went and won a professional tournament a few weeks later. How good is she? She played the front nine today in 30 shots. Magical. There is a special atmosphere here. The club is really embracing this event, seeing it as an opportunity to showcase their links. No-one is forgetting history, but history is history.

“You know, there is a perception about golf that is a game played by middle-aged white men and, in part, that perception is true because they form the most dominant section of golf membership.

“But I’ve always felt that we have a difference in this game, which is about values, and that if we can get better diversity in gender and better diversity in race, then it will work with these values to change the perception of the game to being one for the people and the community. This week is another step towards that.”