GOLF professionals are split over the sexism row that dogged this year’s Open Championship – and whether it will threaten the world-class tournament returning to Muirfield in future years.
A modest 142,036 visitors made the trip to Gullane over the course of the event – well down on the 170,000 targeted by governing body, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club (R&A).
The attendance figures failed to match the 160,000 people who flocked to The Open’s previous appearance at the course in 2002, despite Scotland’s east coast basking in warm, sunny weather for this year’s event.
The substantial drop-off came in the wake of First Minister Alex Salmond refusing to attend the week-long championship over his objection to Muirfield not allowing female members.
He said Muirfield’s men-only membership policy was “indefensible in the 21st century” – sparking a debate that has raged at clubhouses across the region.
Last night some were keen to attribute the fall in spectator numbers to steep ticket prices, with day passes setting back visitors £75 each at the gates.
But many fear Muirfield could struggle with its image in future and might not be chosen to host a 17th Open Championship – if it refuses to back down on its ban on female members.
Amanda Easton, secretary of East of Scotland Girls Golfing Association, said threatening the exclusive club with being barred from the Open rota could be the wake-up call it needs.
She said: “Something has to be done to open the doors of this male-only club to women.
“I think Muirfield as a club should be made aware that not being allowed to host The Open could happen and that it should move with the times.
“I cannot actually see the ban happening, but I can say that The Open should not be played on a golf course that’s barred to women. Wimbledon has moved on, hasn’t it?
“If they want The Open back, they should think about letting lady members in.”
Sheila Stuart, captain of Midlothian County Ladies’ Golf Association, said the R&A should be left to make the hard call on Muirfield’s suitability.
She said: “The Royal and Ancient could choose not to hold the Open at Muirfield if it felt things had not moved far enough. I do not have an issue with male-only clubs. If they are private and that’s how they wish to be, I do not object to that.
“But I do object to women being treated as second-class citizens, within the clubhouse area and all the rest of it.”
Ms Stuart added: “I don’t it’s going to happen that Muirfield will be barred. It’s an excellent course and progress is slowly being made in the way golf authorities think.
“The Royal and Ancient must be aware of the pressure of public opinion on the issue of holding a tournament like The Open at a male-only club.”
Nathan Free, junior coach at Longniddry Golf Club, said: “To get this tournament again, the membership policy will have to change. Some of the professionals have been talking about this and most of them agree they need to start accepting women or it won’t be back.”
Muirfield is one of three golf clubs on the Open Championship rota, along with Troon and Royal St George’s in Kent, that do not allow female members.
Alasdair Good, head PGA professional at nearby Gullane Golf Club, said he had no doubt the R&A would keep Muirfield on its list of eligible championship courses despite the row.
He said: “The membership rules are going to be considered and with the championship rotating around, by the time it returns in ten or 12 years’ time we will have moved on from this.”
Musselburgh Golf Club senior assistant professional Andrew Munro, who attended Sunday’s final day of play to witness American Phil Mickelson claim his first Claret Jug, said: “For people who love their golf, I don’t think the club’s membership rules really mattered. I can’t see it stopping The Open from coming back to Muirfield.”
R&A chief executive Peter Dawson conceded last week the gender debate was a “polarising issue”, but said it would take a “hard push” for the organisation to change its position.
“We’ve got politicians posturing, we’ve got interest groups attacking the R&A, attacking the Open and attacking Muirfield,” he said. “To be honest, our natural reaction is to resist these pressures, because we actually don’t think they have very much substance.
“But I’d like to stress we’re not so insular as to fail to recognise the potential damage that campaigns like this can do to The Open Championship.”
Major sponsor HSBC has welcomed the R&A’s public decision to review its position on men-only golf clubs.
A spokesman for the bank said: “HSBC sees golf as a universal sport, which will receive an even higher profile when it joins the Olympics.”
The R&A yesterday blamed the hot weather, rather than ticket prices, for contributing to the drop in attendances.
A spokesman said: “Advance ticket sales were very strong and we believe the extremely warm weather put off some of our pay-at-the-gate customers. A British winner of the Tour de France and Ashes cricket on television over the last few days may also have had an impact.”
North Berwick Ward Councillor David Berry said most businesses, outside of eateries, had reported a substantial fall in trade with visitors choosing to either spend all their time at the golf or steer clear of the region all together. Like Mr Salmond, Cllr Berry chose not to attend The Open because he disagreed with the course’s stance on female membership.
An East Lothian Council spokeswoman said: “We don’t have any concerns about The Open returning to Muirfield as having one of the world’s biggest sporting events in the county is a massive boost to the whole area. We note that the R&A have pledged to review their position with regard to men-only membership at golf clubs, so we await the outcome of that review with interest.”