Honourable company at Muirfield?
At Muirfield in 2002, Tiger Woods was seeking his third consecutive major championship of the year when he was barraged in a pre-tournament interview with questions about the controversy over the all-male membership at Augusta National Golf Club.
That problem was solved in August 2012, when Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore were accepted as members at the host course of the Masters.
Now the Open Championship is back at Muirfield for the 16th time, and this all-male club is at the center of its own gender war.
Run by the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, which dates to 1744, Muirfield is one of three courses on the Open rotation that have men-only memberships. Royal Troon and Royal St. George's are the other two all-male clubs. The six remaining clubs in the rota are three public courses and three private clubs that include women as members. Women are allowed to play as guests at the all-male clubs.
"I would really encourage the R&A, when they next come to allocate the Open, to look at this, simply because of the message that it sends out," Hugh Robertson, the minister of sport in Great Britain's department for culture, media and sport, said recently about Muirfield's membership. "It just looks very, very out of touch and old-fashioned in the post-Olympic era [after the 2012 London Games]."
How do you convince a club that hosted its first Open Championship in 1892 to change its membership policy as a prerequisite to continue holding golf's oldest tournament?
Muirfield isn't likely to get much nudging on the issue by R&A, the governing body that runs the Open Championship. The group hasn't had a female member, either, in its 259 years. Peter Dawson, the R&A chief, said recently that it wouldn't bully these clubs to change their policies.
"There is nothing wrong under the UK legislation with a single-sex club as long as they behave under the Equality Act as far as guest access is concerned, which Muirfield certainly does," Dawson said in April. "To think that the R&A might say to a club like Muirfield, 'You are not going to have the Open anymore unless you change your policy' is frankly a bullying position that we would never take."
Is this form of exclusion a reflection of the sexism that pervades the game and many aspects of society? Do the all-male clubs make the game look old-fashioned and out of touch with the 21st century, as some have suggested?
Sure, golf has racism, sexism, ageism, classism and just about any other -ism that one could imagine, but so does just about every other sport and major institution.
Too often in our culture of instant gratification, we want largely symbolic moments, like the election of a black president or the integration of women into a male club, to stand in for the work of truly making society an equitable place for all of its people.
When Rice and Moore were accepted into the membership at Augusta, it was viewed widely as a victory for golf and women. I wrote that Rice and Moore would fit right in with the ultra-successful, male-dominated culture at Augusta, because they had very tactfully navigated that world throughout their professional careers.
Yet having them at the Masters in their green jackets didn't mean that opportunities were going to open miraculously for many other highly accomplished women, or that little girls were going to watch the Masters every year now with new hope that inclusion there would secure them equal access to power and capital.
Those kinds of requests for equality aren't made at the front door of the Augusta National clubhouse.
The efforts of African-American golfers such as Charlie Sifford and Lee Elder to get on the PGA Tour in the 1960s didn't begin on the professional circuit, but with the work of black recreational golfers across the U.S. to integrate their local municipal courses. That marked a golf revolution when you started seeing brown faces, male and female, regularly at formerly all-white facilities.
In April at the Masters, Rice and Moore made no appreciable difference to the proceedings of the tournament. They could have an impact in time, but their goals aren't to change the club or create a women's movement.
Furthermore, Augusta National, the R&A and Muirfield are not going to be undone as all-male clubs by the acceptance of women into their ranks. Their roots as masculine enclaves are too important to their history and culture. Some traditions should die, but these rituals shouldn't come down just because it's not in step with the present tenor of the cultural wars or not politically correct.
As Dawson pointed out in April, you can be for women and want to see all-men's organizations flourish.
"My personal position is that I totally believe in equality, but I do also believe that there are times when men need to socialize with men and women need to socialize with women," he said.
In early August at St. Andrews, the home of golf, a young South Korean woman named Inbee Park will have a chance to win her fourth consecutive major of the year. It will be a tribute, a celebration of the women's game, a time to praise women that will bear dividends for the entire sport. Ultimately, it's more important that the R&A support the women's game than it is to have a few token female members.
Muirfield might have a female member when the Open comes around there in another decade, but a few women won't undo its deeply ingrained roots as a place ruled by men.