This week the world’s finest golfers will compete for one of the most remarkable trophies in sport – the treasured Claret Jug which is presented to the winner of The Open.
You will notice that the competition is not the ‘British’ Open but simply The Open, a reflection of its history and supposed pre-eminence. The Open is played at courses around the UK and this year will be staged for the 15th time at Muirfield, some 20 miles from the Scottish capital Edinburgh.
Muirfield is widely regarded as one of the world’s best golf courses and the list of winners of previous Opens staged here includes Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Nick Faldo and Ernie Els. In fact the course is so highly regarded that it has been used the model for many others around the world.
But Muirfield is the home of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers and is a private members club whose rules forbid women – that’s 51 per cent of the world’s population – from becoming members. Although they are not forbidden from playing the course, the membership bar continues to enrage female players and politicians alike.
Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond – who celebrated wildly when Andy Murray won his Wimbledon crown last week – will protest by staying away from The Open while women’s golf pros like Laura Davies are incensed.
“We are in the 21s century and it is about time clubs like Muirfield caught up. Women are not second class citizens anymore,” she said.
Former winner Ernie Else was content simply to describe the policy as “weird.”
It should be pointed out that Muirfield is not alone. Of the other clubs which regularly host The Open, Royal St George’s, Royal Troon and the Royal and Ancient, St Andrews are also men-only affairs.
At a time when sport is being promoted as a means of driving gender inclusivity, the attitude of these venerable institutions actually appears beyond weird and there is a case to be made for it damaging the image of the sport. It’s not that anybody will think less of the superb players who ply their trade around the world but simply that it makes golf in its traditional heartland seem like something of a joke, a throwback to a bygone era.
Worse still is the impact it has on the brand of The Open itself. Around the wold, nations anxious to make their mark on the world stage are queuing up to host major sports events because they are a way in which they can paint a positive picture of themselves for a massive global audience.
But the reverse also applies. The Open at Muirfield will ensure that Scotland, and in fact the UK, is presented as locked in a time warp along with The Oldest Member and the rest of his Woodhousian cast. If the Opening Ceremony of last year’s Olympic Games positioned the UK as an effective, efficient and progressive modern nation, the organisers of The Open appear set on taking us all back to the 1930's or thereabouts.
This is a game which really needs to change and if the Royal and Ancient , which organises The Open and selects hosts, won’t make the changes of its own accord, perhaps there is a case for commercial partners and even the public to play a role by simply refusing to continue to play along.
In 2016 golf will make its debut as an Olympic sport and you have to wonder what the conversations about inclusivity were like when the bid was being drawn up. Maybe it’s just that not enough people care sufficiently and won’t stop buying tickets or watching TV coverage over what may seem a trivial issue to some.
But this is 2013 and the fact that Augusta National – home of The Masters – has reversed its policy on women members makes Britain’s oldest and most prestigious clubs look frankly ridiculous. Change is needed and if it won’t come from the top then commercial pressure may be the best way to ensure that no Golf club which bard women from membership will be eligible to host the most prestigious event on the sort’s calendar.
The problem is that more or less as soon as the name of the 2013 winner has been engraved on the Claret Jug sometime on Sunday evening, our attention will have turned elsewhere and the matter is likely to be forgotten…until next time.
So roll on Sandwich 2015!