‘Big-time’ Muirfield shakes off men-only past with hosting of Women’s Open

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when the notion of a women’s major championship at Muirfield would have caused cardiac arrest among the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers. It took until 2017, and only at the second time of asking, for Muirfield to decide that admitting female members was appropriate. The R&A had removed Muirfield from its pool of Open venues due to the male-only stance.

The Open has not returned to East Lothian but the Women’s Open takes centre stage at Muirfield this week. The R&A presides over this major, which has been elevated to the point where $7.3m (£6m) will be distributed on Sunday. The bigger picture relates to the landmark staging of such a significant women’s competition at a course once infamous for its gender policy.

Martin Slumbers, the R&A’s chief executive, replied with “absolutely not” when asked whether this event had to be held at Muirfield before a men’s Open to make a broader point. “They are two very independent decisions,” Slumbers said. “The R&A had no responsibility to this championship until 2016, and, in fact, we only got full control of it two years ago.

“We thought: ‘How do we present it in a way that we think is world class and then move it in a way that the rest of the world thinks it’s world class, including the talent who are playing?’ Big-time sport needs big-time crowds. But big-time sport also needs big-time venues. We were absolutely focused on how do we get the best venues that we can get that mean the most to golf and stage the championship there.

“When you look at the history of our game over here, there is no more important golf course other than perhaps the Old Course in St Andrews if you want to achieve that purpose. I think you only have to walk around and listen to some of the athletes playing; this is something special. So this was all about platform. It’s all about elevation.”

Muirfield’s reputation has always preceded it. There are stories upon stories, many of which are presumably apocryphal but add to the legend of the club. There was, for example, the man who casually remarked on a particularly gusty day when ordering a drink in the clubhouse. “Bartender,” said a member sitting at the counter, “there is a gentleman here who wishes to discuss the weather.” In another oft-spoken-about instance, local constabulary pulled over a Muirfield member who had indulged in multiple gin and tonics over lunch. After said individual passed a breathalyser test, he came rampaging back into the clubhouse demanding to know who was watering down the club’s spirits.

Tom Watson, in the company of Ben Crenshaw, was kicked off the course after attempting to play just two holes with hickory clubs. “What are you doing?” barked Paddy Hamner, the club secretary. “The course is closed. You’re not allowed here. Leave immediately.” Watson had won the 1980 Open there just hours earlier. And yet, for all the background nonsense, this is arguably the finest golf course in the world. It is certainly in the conversation. HCEG officials of old could also say with a degree of justification that they took the brunt of the criticism for a misogyny problem that reverberated across the sport.

The Royal & Ancient Club of St Andrews waited until 2014 to admit women. Even now, it is assumed there are just a handful of female members at Augusta National. The famed Pine Valley in New Jersey announced a first batch of women among its number in 2021. Only last May did Portmarnock end a 127-year male-only membership position.

“It’s so important that the women are here this week,” said England’s Georgia Hall. “It makes such a mark on women’s golf. AIG [the tournament sponsors] and the R&A have done a fantastic job working together to get the championship here.

“It just keeps elevating this tournament to what is needed. Walton Heath next year and St Andrews coming up soon plus Pebble Beach for the US Open next year. I think the women’s game is definitely in the best position it ever has been and I’m very happy to be in the middle of my career.”

Hall, 26 and a winner of this event four years ago, will have legitimate aspirations of a second Women’s Open title. This looks an ideal opportunity for Leona Maguire to claim a maiden major. South Korea’s Ko Jin-young has established a strong lead at the summit of the world rankings. Ko believes a level-par aggregate could be sufficient to collect the trophy and cheque for $1.1m on Sunday. This champion will own a special piece of golfing history.