Muirfield embraces new chapter as road to gender equality accelerates
In the early morning twilight, Catriona Matthew’s tee shot to begin the AIG Women’s Open signalled a new dawn for Muirfield.
The Scot, a two-time Solheim Cup-winning captain who won the Open in 2009, grew up in North Berwick, about equivalent to the length of 18 holes from the site where the likes of Phil Mickelson, Nick Faldo, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Tom Watson, Walter Hagen and Harry Vardon were all crowned the champion golfer of the year.
Indeed, Matthew had been to a few of those 16 Opens, volunteering as a litter picker and latterly as a scorer. Up until 2017 however, despite having a LET Player of the Year title to her name, the 52-year-old could not become a member.
The journey to today’s symbolic hosting has been – like the lie of the links land – a long, rough and uneven one. For some 275 years the not so Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers forbade female membership, a stance that essentially cost what is an undeniably fine and historic golf course its place on the Open rota.
A membership that once was the subject of a Golf Digest feature ran under the headline ‘The Rudest Club in The World’ could perhaps have been expected to be, if nothing else, thick-skinned.
The level of opprobrium sent their way after their prehistoric stance was maintained in 2016, as a members’ vote that failed to get the two-thirds majority required to instigate change caused many a moment’s pause.
As such, after criticism from all and sundry including Nicola Sturgeon, when the vote was repeated a year later it passed – not unanimously but by enough of a margin to kickstart the sequence of events that led to the world’s best female players assembling this week.
In what has already been a seismic summer for women’s sport, headlined by England’s Women’s Euros Final victory over Germany which drew in more than 17 million UK viewers, the importance of what is happening on the East Lothian links over these next four days should not be lost on anyone.
That the club described by one headline this week as golf’s “last bastion of bigotry” is the site of this tournament could never have been imagined not so long ago. Nor, in truth, could the mushrooming interest in the women’s game been predicted.
It has been propelled forward by some big-name sponsors’ commitments to more equitable distribution of budgets. This has led in turn to greater purses and the biggest events being played more and more often on some of game’s most famous courses, and the success of co-sanctioned tournaments has served to transform the sport.
Plenty of recent converts have found a version of the game free from a number of the most debatable elements of the PGA Tour.
For starters, while there is still plenty of distance, it is not at the ‘bomb and gouge’ levels that have made some famous old courses seem antiquated, with a more creative selection of shots on offer as a result.
And while the five Majors have been dominated by a generation of South Korean golfers inspired by the exploits of Pak Se-Ri in the late 1990s and early 2000s, there is a real international element to a sport where three separate golfers, including Ireland’s Leona Maguire, have become the first from their country to deliver an LPGA Tour title in the past two years.
Perhaps most crucially of all in the current climate – and this may only be a temporary salve given how much louder money is talking – is that there is no LIV or equivalent at present.
Yes, for those who have grown weary of already astronomically well-remunerated individuals twisting themselves like pretzels to explain their absolutely-in-no-way financially-motivated reasons for taking part in blatant Saudi sportswashing, the women’s game remains a sphere blissfully free from Greg Norman.
All of this has added up to create a feeling of real momentum, a changing of tide that will be symbolised come Sunday by a new champion being crowned at a course where up to recently the winner wouldn’t have been permitted entry to the clubhouse.
But as Stephanie Meadow and Maguire prepare to tee it up in Scotland ahead of their appearances at the ISPS Handa World Invitational at Galgorm and Massereene next week, there remains one area where things still seem to be lagging behind.
As even Muirfield embraces its long overdue place in the 21st century, there still appears to be disparity in how the women’s game is covered.
While more and more column inches and broadcast slots are belatedly reflecting the explosion of interest in women’s football, their absence when it comes to golf remains notable.
All too often it is left with only a footnote.
Tennis has had its own struggles for equality, be it in terms of prize money or scheduling, but it would still be unfathomable to see the exploits of Serena Williams relegated to an “and meanwhile” at the end of an account on a less prestigious men’s event.
This week at Muirfield represents a giant step for the women’s game. Still, though, in one key aspect it feels like it is still struggling for par.