News that the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, commonly referred to as Muirfield, formed in 1744 and 16-time host of the Open, has formally invited 12 women to join the club is quite the break with tradition, but the reality is that for female professionals and amateurs the sport remains dogged with difficulties.
Six years ago, when the course last hosted an Open, the club, the tournament’s governing body (the Royal & Ancient) and the sport itself were mired in controversy as questions were asked about the suitability of a club closed to women hosting the sport’s oldest and most prestigious championship.
In 2016 the membership fuelled the debate when voting to retain the membership restriction.
The R&A responded by removing the links from the Open rota and another vote was swiftly initiated in 2017 which reversed the previous decision, 80.2% of the votes favoring an update of the rules.
Now the first 12 women candidates, after being proposed and seconded by members, have received formal invitations to join.
Club captain Alistair Campbell said in a statement: “This marks a milestone in the club’s illustrious history, and we look forward to welcoming all of our new members to share in the great values and traditions of our club.
“This year marks the 275th anniversary of the club’s first recorded golf competition. We are proud of our rich history but equally excited for its future and the part all of our new members will play in the club’s cherished traditions.”
Whilst the move has been welcomed as another crack in golf’s sexist edifice, changes to anachronistic and high profile organizations do not necessarily solve the sport’s far-reaching problems because the ceiling for female golfers at Muirfield, and other clubs like it, was always clearly visible.
In contrast, at many other golf clubs, women have no difficulty gaining membership but thereafter face complex and unwieldy obstacles: the glass ceiling and everyday sexism.
Meghan MacLaren, currently ranked fourth on the Ladies European Tour and an advocate of equality through her blog, says: “Every move in this direction is positive and it would be wrong to criticize a club for taking steps that would never have happened a few years ago, but to praise it as game changing is wrong.
“ A club allowing female members in for the first time shouldn’t even be news. That very fact shows just how far golf has to go. This is 2019 and the world is starting to open itself up to believe in equal opportunity.
“Golf needs to realize what equal actually means. It’s not a handout. Equal means being afforded the same rights and privileges, the same access and status. How many statements with the word ‘golf’ in can you make with that?”
Lowri Roberts is an amateur player from Wales who has fought discrimination in the sport and last year campaigned to be permitted, as a full-time worker paying the same club fees as men, to have equal access to weekend tee times. She concurs with MacLaren’s assessment.
“It’s great that Muirfield will finally have women members,” she says. “At last! But what will the reality of being a member feel like for them?”
Addressing the experience of ordinary women golfers she adds: “Many clubs are embracing the Women In Golf Charter, but not all and many clubs continue to hold the majority of their competitions mid-week.
“Some have slots available for women at the weekend, but rarely during the prime time of a Saturday morning. Rarely will a woman be allowed to choose her own slot at the weekend. It will be allocated for her.
“Rarely are men and women allowed to compete against each other or even in the company of each other despite the handicap system making golf equal for one and all.
“And don’t get me started on women’s county golf associations! They choose to hold the majority of their competitions mid-week and therefore alienate those who work full time and schoolgirls! Why? Do they not want us amongst them? Are they afraid that we may start winning their prizes? Or have they just not thought about this?
“Things have certainly improved at my club after a long and traumatic battle. I can now compete at a time of my choice on a Saturday morning. Men can mark my card for me, but I can’t compete against them.
“Progress is progress and we should welcome it. However, we must not rest on our laurels. If you find that things aren’t right or that they aren’t as they should be, you really must raise your voice and speak up about it.
“We owe it to others who have fought for equality before us in so many different arenas. Golf is a wonderful sport so let’s make sure that anyone and everyone can play whenever they want with whomever they want.”