The controversy over playing The Open at clubs such as men-only Muirfield is not an indication of golf’s need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century but a problem with society in general.
At last, that’s the view of two-time Open champion Pádraig Harrington, who sat nicely on the fence when asked about the R&A’s perceived discrimination of women and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond’s decision to boycott the hosting of golf’s oldest major by the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, aka Muirfield.
“All I can say is that I grew up at a golf course where I was not allowed to be a full member,” Harrington said of his boyhood days as a member of Garda-founded Stackstown Golf Club in the foothills of the Dublin mountains. “And I was very happy to be a member. I was never allowed to have a vote or be on the committee.
“It was owned by the police, was for the police and I was not a policeman. At that time, I couldn’t become a full member, become a member of the committee or captain but women could because they were in the police force.”
With Augusta National admitting its first two women members this year, the R&A has now found itself under pressure to remove clubs with men only membership policies from its current rota of Open courses - Muirfield, Royal St George’s, Royal Troon and the Royal and Ancient Golf Cub at St Andrews (a separate entity from R&A Championships Limited).
Believing that clubs such as Muirfield (or Portmarnock) will only become more determined to remain men only the greater the pressure that is exerted on them, Harrington believes that change will only happen when society itself changes.
“You’ve got to look at the Masters,” Harrington said. “When the pressure was taken off them, they took in lady members. None of these clubs want to be pushed.
“The perfect example in Ireland would be Portmarnock. You go out there every day there’s loads of women playing golf there. There’s plenty actively involved.
“These things are evolving. Nowadays you won’t find nearly as many husbands playing golf whose wives don’t play as well. It’s changed from 50 years ago where it was a male-dominated sport.
“Nowadays it’s not like that. It’s all evolving. The way I look at these things, letting things change at their natural pace might be the quickest way. Sometimes pushing can slow the process.
“Change came at a number of clubs in Ireland because of financial reasons. They had change in the club I’m in, by the way. (Stackstown now admits non-Garda members).
“The R&A know that coming to a club, they are availing of a golf course that has a great tradition and that’s why they are here. They know that alienating the club would only entrench them further in the position they are. By being inclusive and keeping them there, that’s the way things evolve.
“It would be very easy to say this is very representative of golf. Yet it’s not. This represents society. It’s nothing to with golf whatsoever. It represents society and the fact that there are some male only clubs in society. The majority aren’t. It is a misnomer to say it’s a golf thing. It’s a societal thing.
“It will evolve though. The club I was a member of evolved because, financially, they needed to get more members.”
Defending Ope champion Ernie Els was asked yesterday how he’d explain to his daughter Samantha why she can’t become a Muirfield member.
Els joked “She’s quite a hotheaded girl, just like my wife. I would have to choose my words carefully.”
Addressing the issue seriously, the big South African pointed out that membership policies were for the club to answer, not him.
“We play The Open Championship at this wonderful golf course, and I’m not going to miss it for the world, whether it’s got, unfortunately, the policy it has,” Els said. “It is what it is.
“But we go to play The Open Championship and I’ll go play it in the Sahara Desert if I have to…..It is what it is. And we play where we play.”