Muirfield branded laughing stock as women members rejected

Muirfield has closed its gates to women members. Picture: Jon Savage
Muirfield has closed its gates to women members. Picture: Jon Savage
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MUIRFIELD Golf Club is facing a massive backlash after it was announced the East Lothian institution would continue with its male-only membership policy.

A vote failed to generate a two-thirds majority behind allowing women to join.

The majority of members actually voted in favour of admitting women, which is encouraging, but I sincerely hope those who didn’t now reconsider and that the club as a whole revisits the issue.

Nicola Sturgeon

Confirmed yesterday, the result has sparked anger and concern among political leaders, business owners, celebrities and event management experts, with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon branding it “indefensible”.

The Royal and Ancient (R&A), golf’s governing body, has also decided that Muirfield will be removed from the rota for hosting the Open Championship – leading to warnings of a multi-million pound hit for the East Lothian economy.

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Club bosses, who had recommended admitting women, said they were “disappointed” but insisted members had been “thoroughly engaged” in the process. Women are able to play at Muirfield, but only as guests or visitors.

Calling for yesterday’s result to be overturned, Ms Sturgeon said maintaining the club’s gender barrier ran counter to moves aimed at making Scottish society more equal.

She said: “We live in a country where women inhabit the offices of First Minister, the leaders of opposition parties, where we have a woman Lord Justice Clerk, one of our most senior judges, a woman law officer and women lead businesses the length and breadth of this country.

“The majority of members actually voted in favour of admitting women, which is encouraging, but I sincerely hope those who didn’t now reconsider and that the club as a whole revisits the issue.”

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Prime Minister David Cameron also expressed concern.

He told LBC Radio: “My general rule is that sports clubs should be totally open to both sexes, and it’s outdated not to do that, particularly if you think that you’re up to hosting important championships.”

Members took part in a postal vote, the results of which were announced by Henry Fairweather, captain of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, which owns and runs Muirfield.

Of the 648 individuals eligible to vote, 616 participated, with 397 coming out in favour of women members and 219 against. A total of 411 yes votes would have secured the two-thirds majority required.

TV personality Piers Morgan urged those signed up at Muirfield to leave.

He tweeted: “Shame on any male member of Muirfield who doesn’t immediately resign. You’re as sexist as your ghastly, dinosaur-ridden golf club.”

Political leaders in the Capital said the club should be “ashamed”, adding that the outcome would leave it open to ridicule.

Alex Cole-Hamilton, Liberal Democrat MSP for Edinburgh Western, said: “The club has made itself a laughing stock and received national condemnation on the floor of the Scottish Parliament from the First Minister herself this afternoon. And rightly so – this is the action of a gentleman’s club stuck in the 19th century and flies in the face of decades of progressive movement towards equality. They should be ashamed of themselves.”

Muirfield has staged the Open 16 times, producing champions such as Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Nick Faldo, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson.

However, before Mickelson lifted the Claret Jug in 2013, the club came under sustained scrutiny because of its membership rules.

In March last year, Royal St George’s voted to admit women, leaving Muirfield and Troon as the last two on the Open rota to be male-only.

Experts said the vote and the R&A’s decision to stop bringing the Open to Muirfield would damage the East Lothian economy and its image as a golf tourism destination. Gordon Henderson, of the Federation of Small Businesses, said it was estimated the championship generated £70 million when it was held there in 2013.

“Muirfield might not care if it is not on the Open roster but the other clubs will no longer have the world’s biggest golf tournament coming to their area,” he added.

“The golf clubs in East Lothian got together and established a brand, Scotland’s Golf Coast, which is promoted worldwide. Their marketing push has been fantastic. But this is not helpful. We need a rethink.”

Elaine Ramanauskas, owner of the Merrygoround boutique in Gullane, said she was worried. “Obviously, we are very disappointed that both Gullane and East Lothian are going to lose this prestigious golf event,” she said. “We have it here on our doorstep and it has brought in hundreds of thousands OF visitors. It has brought in a lot of money. The impact is huge.

“It helps put your business on the map because people come to Muirfield for the golf and they come along the street and see the businesses. I’ve had some repeat business from people who have previously come to the Open.”

Experts expressed contrasting views on whether the vote’s impact would be limited to Muirfield. Andrew Burnett, an online media consultant based in Edinburgh, said reaction to the vote had been “almost universally negative”.

But he added: “I don’t see the decision having a geographical impact. I think it’s recognised Muirfield is an institution as opposed to an area.”

However, Professor Joe Goldblatt, executive director at Queen Margaret University’s international centre for the study of planned events, warned that the effect would be wide-ranging.

He said: “These things become viral very quickly. Muirfield is a private club but that makes little difference in other parts of the world where they will go online and see the words ‘Scotland’ and ‘discrimination’.

“The way brands work is that the larger brand is the one that suffers the most. When you think of Scotland, you think of the home of golf. Muirfield is about three steps down the rank. The brand that’s going to be damaged is the country – Scotland.”

johnpaul.holden@edinburghnews.com