Huggan column: What a fine mess we find ourselves in with Muirfield

by John Huggan

What you have to first get your head round is who we are dealing with here. When it comes to the membership of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, the collective label ‘wide cross-section of society’ is hardly applicable. A large number of this 650-strong body of men are from what one might call the ‘professional’ classes. A great many will have attended fee-paying schools in their youth. Almost as many will be, or were, employed as lawyers and accountants in the city of Edinburgh.

A goodly percentage of the judiciary based in Scotland’s capital play their golf on the peerless links of Muirfield. And not many will be voting for a politically left-of-centre candidate in the next General Election.

Given all of the above, is it any surprise that time is required for the fiercely dogmatic views of such a homogenous group to disappear? Are we really shocked to hear that a ballot on allowing women members into their fuddy-duddy club failed to reach the required two-thirds majority?

Not even a little bit, the most common reaction wittily summed up by Have I Got News for You on Twitter: “Despite recent controversy, Muirfield remains one of the most scenic courses in the country, with views dating back to Victorian times.”

Sadly, some of those very views were articulated by BBC commentator Peter Alliss. Appearing on Radio Five Live, the 85-year old revealed himself as part of the problem rather than the solution

“If ladies really want to play at Muirfield, then they should marry a member,” he said. “At the Open Championship three years ago, I went into the drawing room at Muirfield every morning for coffee. It was full of ladies and me in my usual jocular way suggested: ‘What great times are coming, you’ll be able to join the club.’

“There was a look of horror on their faces. I was met with: ‘If we joined, our husbands would have to pay thousands of pounds. We can come and play and do pretty much what we wish for nothing.”

Still, times are changing. If Muirfield’s old bufties had been asked a decade ago if they wanted to admit lady members, the response would have been an even louder “no!” So the closeness of last week’s vote is heartening. That the proponents of much-needed change came within 14 votes of success surely means that a further ballot will soon enough thereafter see the Open Championship back in East Lothian for a 17th time. You never know, though. The Honourable ­Company has long had a reputation for doggedness in the face of even irrefutable logic and good sense.

Consider this sorry tale: as recently as three years ago, former US Open champion Geoff Ogilvy walked off the final green at the French Open and reported to a waiting journalist that he was withdrawing from the Scottish Open in order to play some Caledonian links golf in preparation for the following week’s Open Championship.

“In fact,” he said, “I’m playing at Muirfield on Tuesday.”

That fact was duly reported in the next day’s newspapers and seen by the then-secretary of the Honourable Company. A scan of Tuesday’s drawsheet revealed no sign of ‘Ogilvy G’. so the secretary quickly – and correctly – surmised that the Australian must be playing after-hours with a member of the greens staff.

Said employee was swiftly hauled into the secretary’s office. Asked if he was indeed playing with Ogilvy, he answered in the affirmative.

“And is he a friend of yours?”

“No, he is a friend of a friend.”

“Then he cannot play.”

Come that Tuesday evening, the green-keeper, Ogilvy and myself looked down on Muirfield from the seventh tee on the nearby Gullane No. 1 course. We couldn’t see even one person playing golf. Not one. To be fair, when that display of point-missing was reported to the then-captain of the Honourable Company, he visibly winced and slowly shook his head. So there is some hope for the future.

Speaking of which, in the wake of last week’s result some commentators have called on Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, to bring in legislation banning all single-sex clubs. But such a draconian measure would – ironically – be wrong. There is nothing inherently offensive about a club that has an all-male or all-female membership. In any democracy, citizens should be free to associate as they wish, as long as the club in question remains completely private.

Should that change though, so do the rules. If such a club derives huge financial benefit from a public event like, say, the Open Championship, then they must be seen to be equally open to all. That argument is irrefutable, just as it was when The R&A eventually conceded that its rules-making responsibilities for both men and women golfers made their all-male stance untenable.

So it is that the Royal Troon membership – hosts to the Open Championship in July – eventually get round to the vexed question of women members late this year, they will ­hopefully see sense, albeit belatedly. The media storm that has surrounded the Muirfield decision is more than likely to be repeated at Troon because of the club’s inexplicable tardiness in scheduling a vote. Silly boys.

The R&A similarly stand charged. Immediately after all that went on during the 2013 Open at Muirfield, when the ‘oh-so 19th century’ attitudes and standards of both the hosts and the organisers were exposed to the full glare of the media, this whole issue could have been dealt with. As soon as it allowed women members, The R&A should have announced that any and all Open venues must follow suit if they wished to be part of the ­championship rota. Had it done so, we would have been spared last week’s circus and what will undoubtedly follow at Troon two months hence. Silly, silly boys.

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