The clubhouse and 18th green at Muirfield, host of this year's British Open. (Ross Kinnaird/Getty) A decade ago, we had Martha Burk against the boys at Augusta.
This time around, we’ve got Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond against the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers.
Different countries. Different characters.
Similar conflict at the core.
With the 2013 British Open on its way to Muirfield next month, Salmond announced this week that he would not attend the event, a decision linked to Muirfield’s all-male membership rules.
Unlike Burk at the Masters, Salmond, an avid golfer, insisted that he is not boycotting the event.
But you know how that goes: it depends on what your definition of “is” is.
In an interview with the Scottish news agency, Forth News, Salmond said that golf’s future in the country “must be based on equality and access for all.”
He added that the R&A should have “a good think” about staging an Open at a venue with no women in its membership ranks.
“I don’t think it helps the game to have the suggestion of a bias against women and the greatest tournament on the planet played on arguably the greatest links golf course should have the impression that ladies, women should be second-class citizens.”
In addition to Muirfield, two others clubs in the British Open rota----Royal Troon and Royal St. George’s---have no women members (the R&A itself, which makes its home in St. Andrews, is also an all-male organization).
R&A chief executive Peter Dawson has gone on record saying that British golf’s governing body would never issue an ultimatum requiring an Open venue to change its membership rules.
“There is nothing wrong under UK legistlation 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. He said that forcing a club to change its membership polices would amount to “bullying” and that the R&A would have no part in that.
The Salmond administration has adopted a different stance.
In a recent letter to Muirfield, Salmond and his First Sports Minister, Shona Robinson, objected to the club’s ban on female members.
The letter reportedly pointed to the example of Augusta National, which admitted its first female members last year, and asked why Muirfield couldn’t follow suit.
Like Burk in the midst of her Augusta protests, Salmond has taken heat for speaking out.
Jackson Carlaw, deputy of the opposition Tory party, is among those to criticize the First Minister, claiming that Salmond’s actions are driven by politics, not principles.
“We know Alex Salmond polls badly with women and if this is an alarmingly naked grab for female approval I’m sure it will be spurned.”
Pushing the naked imagery an unflattering step further, Carlaw added: “At least we will all be spared more photographs of him sprawled like a beached whale beside the Muirfield greens.”
Well, at least it’s not getting personal.
Feisty broadsides notwithstanding, it will be interesting to see how the conversation plays out.
Former Masters chairman Hootie Johnson always insisted that Augusta would make changes on its own time frame, and not “at the point of a bayonet.” That time frame turned out to be about a decade. In the interim, Augusta lost two members to resignation over its male-only policy: then-U.S. Treasury Secretary nominee John Snow, and former CBS chief executive Thomas Wyman.
Augusta may not have responded to a bayonet, but it seems clear that the club was prodded along.
Will the same eventually apply to Muirfield?
For all the traits they share (prestigious reputations; rich histories of exclusion), Augusta and Muirfield are different animals, inhabitants of different sporting cultures. Augusta finds itself in the spotlight every year, while Muirfield takes its turn roughly once a decade, a tweedy time capsule left largely by the public to its own throwback ways until its turn in the Open rota rolls around.
Whoever hoists the claret jug in 2013 will do so at a club that admits no female members.
What’s your wager? Will that be the case the next time the Open comes to Muirfield’s gated grounds?