Clubs cannot be forced to accept women as members, says Padraig Harrington
It casts a pall over the British Open. It was recently described by defending champion Ernie Els as "weird in this day and age" and has led Scotland's golf-mad First Minister Alex Salmond to boycott this week's tournament.
Along with their world-renowned golf course at Murfield, the fairest links by far on the British Open roster, the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers have employed a strict men-only membership policy since their foundation in 1744.
Staging one of golf's Major championships at clubs that refuse membership to women inevitably paints the ancient game in a poor light.
Yet Padraig Harrington, a two-time winner of the Claret Jug, has leapt to the defence of his sport, insisting that it is a "societal" problem, suggesting a solution will "evolve" and cannot be forced.
"You've got to look at the Masters," said Harrington, pointing to the decision of Augusta National last year to admit two women members for the first time.
This came nine years after former club chairman Hootie Johnson famously responded to a vociferous campaign by women's rights activist Martha Burk to change their membership policies by insisting it would not happen "at the point of a bayonet".
"When the pressure was taken off them, Augusta National took in lady members. None of these clubs want to be pushed," added Harrington.
"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.
"Letting things change at their natural pace might be the quickest way. Sometimes pushing can slow down the process.
"I grew up at a golf course (Stackstown, Co Dublin) where I was not allowed be a full member (a privilege enjoyed only by members of An Garda Siochana, male or female, until 2010).
"They've since changed. Like a number of other clubs in Ireland, it came because of financial reasons – they needed to get more members."
Three courses on the British Open rota do not accept women members: Muirfield, Royal Troon and Royal St George's, while the R&A, of which Harrington is a playing ambassador, also has a long male-only tradition.
"The R&A wishes to avail of courses with great tradition and that's why we're here," Harrington said. "They know that alienating the club would only entrench them further."
In Ireland, Portmarnock Golf Club's inalienable right to have a male-only membership was upheld by the courts. Yet the Irish Open, an event supported by government funding, is unlikely to revisit while this policy applies.
Asked if people's perception of his sport might be coloured by these traditions, Harrington admitted: "It'd be very easy for people with limited knowledge to say this is representative of golf, yet it's not. No way.
"It's nothing whatsoever got to do with golf. It merely reflects the fact that there are some male-only clubs in society. It is a misnomer to say it's a golf thing. It's a societal thing and, as such, it will evolve."
Els, who handed back the gleaming Claret Jug to the R&A yesterday, was asked what he'd tell his daughter if she asked him to explain why women could not be members.
"She's quite a hot-headed girl, just like my wife, so I'd have to choose my words carefully," replied the South African, winner of the British Open when it last visited Muirfield in 2002.
"It's a hard one. We play the Open at this wonderful course and I'm not going to miss it for the world whether it's got, unfortunately, the policy it has.
"I'd go play the Open in the Sahara desert if I had to."