Muirfield: a poor advert for Scotland

The rolling dunes, the white sands, the breathtaking view across the firth: the BBC’s aerial shots of the local scenery of East Lothian are an ad agency’s dream.  The current heatwave just adds to the allure: this is what Scotland looks like when the sun shines and there’s none of the wet stuff.  I’d be amazed if the coverage of the Open hasn’t resulted in a mini boom of holiday bookings, for it’s providing a great advert for Scotland.

But it’s not quite picture perfect. For this Open is being played on a course that reeks of privilege and inequality. And in choosing to stage yet another championship at one of the courses on its roster which not only keep out women but also deny access to the hoi polloi, the R & A is showing how anachronistic it is.  It’s not quite true to suggest – as some have done – that the membership rules at Muirfield are an irrelevance to the thousands of golf fans who have paid handsomely to enjoy the spectacle unfolding before them this weekend.  Nor that the many millions more men, women and children watching the championship build to its crescendo on their TV screens care not a jot.

Many will be doing so with what feels like a wee pebble stuck in their shoe. It’s a guilty pleasure:  all that top class golf on offer but after the sating, a nasty taste is left in the mouth.

Which I hope Peter Dawson had after that bizarre press conference earlier this week.  There was so much wrong with what the man had to say, it’s hard to know where to begin.

Firstly, the idea that golf is and should be still largely the preserve of men, somewhere for the family breadwinner to escape to for a little R and R on a Saturday with his chums, while the “ladies” stay at home. He stopped short, thankfully, of suggesting it was somewhere to escape the nagging.

And then there is the suggestion that it is not for the R & A to bully the likes of Muirfield – or rather, the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers – to change its membership policy.  Why would one male-only bastion of privilege attempt to lay down the law to another, after all?  Which of course completely ignores the fact that the R & A as the arbiter of the rules of golf does exactly that, regularly and often, on everything from tee position to type of club allowed.

Dawson was also at pains to point out the importance of the right to freedom of association which was ironic really when how that right is interpreted by him and the R & A obviously denies it to others, mainly women.  And that he does not think that continuing the right of men to freely associate in golf institutions like his own and Muirfield has any material adverse effect on participation.

Which reinforces the realisation that here is a man so confined to a rarified atmosphere, that he hasn’t a clue at what is going on down the clubhouses all around the country.

They are dying on their feet frankly. Memberships are down, playing numbers are down and many – both public and private – are teetering on the brink of collapse.  Yet, one of the most significant people in charge of running the game is oblivious to all of this.  That’s what living in a single-sex world of wealth will do for you.

The recession has played a role, of course, with luxury items like golf memberships being struck off the list. But clubs’ failure to modernise is also a factor. Encouraged and abetted by the likes of the R & A, many local golf clubs are still run largely for men and by men:  they are places where women and weans are often barely tolerated.  And in the 21st Century, that is not a sustainable business model, ignoring as it does that women often have as much disposable income as men these days and that families might actually want to spend their free time together.

There are exemplary clubs all over Scotland where membership is equal and so are facilities.  But there are many more which while offering membership to “ladies” and “juniors” – often at reduced prices – restrict the offering accordingly.  Thus, juniors can only play at certain times and many women find their locker rooms to be a cubby hole.  Few golf clubs offer family memberships;  a mixed sex or even age competition is a rarity, a once a season event, which everyone thoroughly enjoys before going back to the established order of things.  Which is that men play men and women play women.

Leadership comes from the top and in golf, the leadership of the R & A – as Peter Dawson explicitly opined this week – wants to preserve the old ways.  According to him, it is absurd to compare sexism to racism or homophobia in one of the world’s leading sports.  Apparently, there is nothing wrong with people (sic) indulging in a way of life they rather like.  Where is the harm he muses?

The harm is everywhere. Yes, single sex clubs have the right to exist under the Equality Act. No, the R & A and Muirfield aren’t doing anything legally wrong.  But then sometimes, the law is an ass, particularly when it has been cobbled together by compromise.

Just because the law allows it doesn’t make it right. The behaviour and attitudes on display by Dawson – who is, after all, only a mouthpiece for the invisible membership of these companies – say something much more disturbing about what they think of women, their place and their status in our society.

And with the bold exception of the First Minister, our political class and public institutions are complicit.  The First Minister was absolutely right to boycott the Open because of Muirfield’s single sex membership, but it is a hollow stance if not followed through on by others.

The Minister for Tourism shouldn’t have been there either, and VisitScotland, sportscotland and any other quango in receipt of public monies and to whom the Equality Act does apply should not be spending our money on shoring up the likes of Muirfield or the R & A. His gesture should have been the start, not the end of a campaign.

The R & A might not receive government funding directly, but it is kept in the style to which it has become accustomed through the indirect benefit of public subsidy for the staging of major championships and indeed, the local courses in St Andrews and elsewhere, as well as the financial support for Scottish and British players whom we will to win in their home competitions.

Peter Dawson is dismissive of the current storm, thinking the pressures being applied lack substance.  He is right, to an extent. It is only when we make them substantive, by withdrawing all political and financial support from the R & A that change will come.

Dawson, the members of the Royal and Ancient and of the Edinburgh Company and all their ilk bank on us continuing to opt for the allure of top class sporting occasions as a price worth paying for inequality and injustice, while also allowing their power and privilege to continue unchallenged.  They won’t give it up willingly and so far, we are showing few signs of making them.  Is that really the advert 21st Century Scotland – this supposed beacon of progressive opinion – wants to display to the rest of the world?





6 thoughts on “Muirfield: a poor advert for Scotland

  1. Hi there,

    As a youngster, I was put off taking up golf by the kind of people I perceived playing it.

    In later life, I felt this was confirmed when an uncle’s “foursome”, who had played together for over fifty years, would no longer play with him when he ceased to be able to manage a full round. The three fitter “chaps” just carried on, on their own without him.

    This was in a relatively inexpensive club in the south side of Glasgow, not a championship course. And you expect them to respect women as equals?

    Lovely people.


  2. Labour are just pissed because they had the script written for an SNP accused rant about condoning the rules of Muirfield. I have started a drinking club in my workshop, men only, oh the shame the shame. FFS we need some where to escape from incessant nagging and bunny boiling old bags. Well done Muirfield stick to your guns, show them what real men are like ;o)))) The male is the dominant species on earth in 99% of the species for a very good reason.

  3. A non story, there are far greater shames in the UK, not least the sectarian monarchy and the walls that still divide Belfast, the torture flights, child poverty, the North South divide, the institutional racism in the Met that still has not sorted the Lawrence murder. If a bunch of farty old bores in Pringle wish to grunt at each other in a males only club, so what? Start a woman only club FFS. I think clubs should be allowed to make their own rules as long as they are with in the law of the land.

    • I don’t know how many people – other than Labour politicians or journos – is saying single gender clubs should be banned full stop. But this is not just a local club that men go to for a wee round of golf and then to get pissed in the bar afterwards. It is hosting a major international competition. It actually makes Scotland look backward that women are banned. That should be an issue for everyone who has Scotland’s best interests at heart really, whatever your gender.

  4. But just think what high heels would do to the greens and you’d never get a decent stance in a bunker in slingbacks (I’ve tried – you keep falling over backwards)!

  5. I agree with you though I am a bit wary of where some of this is going. For example Labour yesterday had a go at the FM because of his honorary membership of an all-male Burns club. I don’t actually think there is anything wrong with that. If a bunch of men want to drink whisky, recite Burns and eat haggis what is wrong with that? Are people going to apply the same logic to all-women readers groups and so on? That’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater to me.

    The problem with Muirfield is that it is not really a private club. Maybe it is legally but in reality it is not and that’s why the policy is unacceptable. On balance I think Fergus Ewing probably shouldn’t have gone though it is not a black and white decision. In some senses since the club is not breaking any laws, you could make an argument that the Scottish Government doesn’t have the right to object to its membership policy. Legally that would be the case, but we can’t just look at it legally. Possibly the answer is to bang some heads together at the golfing hierarchy. Alternatively the UK Government should look again at defining private members clubs under equality legislation.

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