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The Loop

The long view shows the fight for female members at Muirfield isn't over

May 20, 2016

R&A via Getty Images

The first thing to understand about the already infamous vote taken by members of the … deep breath … Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers is that this was merely a battle lost, not the deciding factor in what is fast resembling a war. If the same question had been asked of the 616 jacket-and-tie wearing gentlemen 10 years ago, the 219 who this time voted “no” to the admission of female members would surely have been joined by more dissenters. So it follows, as the membership ages and inevitably passes on, that a further ballot two or three years from now will produce a result that will allow the R&A to reinstate the peerless links of Muirfield to the Open Championship rota.

If such a thing does come to pass, the good news is that Jack Nicklaus’ favorite links from a pure golf standpoint (hence “Muirfield Village” near his hometown of Columbus, Ohio) may not even miss its next Open slot. As things stood before the vote, golf’s oldest event would not have been slated for a return to East Lothian until 2022 at the earliest. So time is on the side of the 397 Muirfield members who this week cast their ballots in favor of much-needed change. Ask the same question again in, say, 2018 and the numbers on both sides are likely to be very different.

It should be noted, too, that Honourable Company is far from alone in its stubborn adherence to what most of the wider world will see as nothing more than blatant misogyny. The members of Portmarnock Golf Club, near Dublin in Ireland, have similarly closed their doors, and minds, to the concept of women members. Which is why the Irish Open currently playing out at the K Club cannot, as things stand, return to what is widely recognized as the best course in the Republic.

“I’d love Portmarnock to change its rules and we could have the Irish Open there,” says World No. 3 Rory McIlroy, whose charitable foundation hosts the Belfast native’s national championship. “But it never will until they change their rules. They will never get any tournament. Maybe they don’t want it, of course.”

McIlroy makes a good point and asks a pertinent question. A sizeable, albeit diminishing, number of Muirfield members will care not a jot about the absence of the Open, which they see as nothing more than a tiresome and disruptive interruption to their otherwise peaceful lives behind the wrought-iron gates that encloses their magnificent course.

Then there is Royal Troon, where the Open Championship returns this July. It will be a historic occasion: the last Open hosted by a club with a single-sex membership policy (Troon was allocated the event at a time when the R&A was still an all-male club). It is to be hoped that the mere thought of losing the Open will be enough to persuade the hearts and minds of the Royal Troon membership when their own vote takes place, hopefully before the end of this year.

Why such a ballot could not be taken before July remains a mystery. Something about “processes” and “better understanding the views of the members,” apparently. Whatever, it all sounds like mere prevarication to this observer.

Anyway, the strong desire here is that, even in their own good time, both the Honourable Company and Royal Troon will join every other Open venue in welcoming members of both genders to their clubs.

Yes, the oldest members have been victorious this week. Yes, their already sizeable egos will have been boosted by their collective ability to thumb their noses at the changing attitudes of society at large. But all is not lost, the closeness of the Muirfield vote being the biggest indication of progress down the correct path.

Just as Seve Ballesteros marched into the locker room at PGA National after the European squad had lost the 1983 Ryder Cup by one point and announced they must celebrate what the great Spaniard called “a victory,” so the HCEG members who already live in the real world must bide their time. Two years on from that agonizing defeat, Europe whipped the United States at The Belfry. A similar scenario is just as likely to come to pass at Muirfield.