GOLF CHIEFS have stripped course Muirfield of the The Open Championship after its members threw out a proposal for women to join the East Lothian club in a move branded “simply indefensible” by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
The decision by members of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, which owns and runs the club, also drew the ire of Prime Minister David Cameron who said the move was “outdated.”
It also led to Scottish No 1 Catriona Matthew saying she was “embarrassed to be a Scottish woman golfer from East Lothian after that decision”.
A two-thirds majority of those who voted – 616 out of the 648 who were eligible to take part in a postal ballot from a total membership of 750 – was required to change the club’s membership policy, but 64 per cent voted in favour and 36 per cent against.
Henry Fairweather, the club captain, and his committee had recommended that women should be offered membership on the same terms as the men at the 272-year-old allowed in the club. However they were left to rue the decision of a minority of fellow members as the proposal failed by just 16 votes at the end of a two-year review of the membership.
Within minutes of Mr Fairweather announcing the result of the vote in front of the Muirfield clubhouse, the R&A announced it would not be taking The Open back there under the current membership set-up.
“The R&A has considered today’s decision with respect to The Open Championship,” said Martin Slumbers, chief executive of the St Andrews-based organisation that runs golf’s oldest major, which has been staged 16 times at Muirfield, most recently in 2013, when American Phil Mickelson claimed the Claret Jug. “The Open is one of the world’s great sporting events and going forward we will not stage the championship at a venue that does not admit women as members.
“If the policy at the club should change we would reconsider Muirfield as a venue for The Open in future.”
The Equality and Human Rights Commission said the decision could cost the Scottish economy £100 million.
“Crushing is a pretty strong word. But The Open does deliver a boost to the local economy every ten or 12 years and we saw that in 2013,” admitted Fairweather, who lives in East Lothian. He admitted to being both “disappointed” and “frustrated” by the decision, which was clearly influenced by a 33-strong No group sending a letter out to fellow members outlining “risks” they felt were likely if women members were admitted at a club that laid down its roots at Leith Links in 1744 before moving to Muirfield in 1891.
Ironically, the decision was made just before 117 women descend on Muirfield on Monday to play the course in a mixed event as part of the ‘Captain’s Weekend’. The club also plans to press ahead with providing an upgraded ladies’ locker-room but those using that will have to be content with visits as a member’s guest.
Unless, of course, the matter is put to the vote again, with Alex Salmond, who boycotted the 2013 Open when he was First Minister, insisting that needs to happen. “Muirfield almost joined the rest of us in the 21st century today,” he wrote on Twitter. “They need to look at this issue again and quickly. So near, yet so far.”
According to Peter Alliss, the BBC’s ‘voice of golf’, the vote was influenced by wives of members who are happy playing the course for free at the moment as guests.
“I am not sure how many members whose wives would control their thoughts, but I would think they have a great interest in it. Wouldn’t you? Would you be happy to pay £10,000-£12,000 the first year if you could keep playing for nothing?”
Royal Troon, where this year’s Open Championship is being held in July, is also undertaking a membership review and, based on the R&A’s reaction to this decision, it will also be dropped from the rota unless women members are admitted.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon 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 (Lady Dorrian), a woman law officer (solicitor general Lesley Thomson) 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.”
Prime Minister David Cameron backed the decision to bar Muirfield from hosting the Open.
A Downing Street spokesman said: “His general rule is that sports clubs should be open to both sexes and that it is outdated not to do that, particularly if you think you are up to hosting a major championship.”
George Kerevan, MP for East Lothian, has written to the club and urged it to hold a second ballot.
He said: “This utterly selfish move sends entirely the wrong message to the rest of the world about our county, as well as undermining years of collective effort and public support to attract visitors to Scotland’s historic ‘golf coast’ in East Lothian.
“It also tells young women in our schools that their interest in the sport is being discouraged by some, and it sends a very wrong message to young men about treating women as equals.
“The negative impact on the reputation of East Lothian cannot be overstated and it certainly threatens the ability of the county to attract major golfing events in the future.”
East Lothian MSP Iain Gray described the decision and subsequent loss of future Open Championships as a “disaster” for the area.
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