TROON, SCOTLAND—There’s an old golf expression when two golf balls are near to one another on the putting surface. The ball furthest from the hole plays first. Usually the other player will then observe the putt and see which way the ball rolls as it nears the hole. In golf speak — such a situation is called “going to school.” In essence the second player attempts to gain knowledge before his stroke by watching what happens to the first player’s ball.
This is what happened when Royal Troon opted to join the 21st century and permit females to join the historically men’s only club. The decision — made on the eve of this year’s Open Championship — which Troon is hosting for the 9th time did not come necessarily about because of altruistic desires. The leaders at Troon observed what happened to The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers (HCEG) — also know as Muirfield — when the membership there — by a narrow margin but less than two-thirds in the affirmative — opted to remain a men’s only bastion although women can play the course as guests.
Soon after that vote happened — the R&A — the group that runs The Open — swiftly declared no future Opens would be going to Muirfield because of their cave man attitude. Clearly, the Troon leadership realized failure to comply would result in this year’s Championship likely being the last one for the Ayrshire-based club.
The issue in having “open” memberships is critical to major golf associations that handle national championships. Golfers of all races are eligible to participate and any association that is connected to a sexist or racist club would clearly undercut its legitimacy as a welcoming golf association of note. In years past — the sport could get away in having it’s marquee events hosted by facilities that for the most part were extremely particular on who could be a member. Those days — thankfully — are now in the rear view mirror.
What motivated Troon to open its doors?
The Open Championship is clearly one of golf’s most significant events. Not only from the resulting publicity but the money generated is a prime motivator and likely influenced Troon’s leadership to see the light — albeit reluctantly. The same situation has become clearly evident for the leaders at Muirfield who are now pressing for a second vote on the matter. The HCEG realized clinging to the past might open the possibility for another facility in the immediate East Lothian area to present their case in staging the event. The Renaissance Club — immediately adjoining to Muirfield — has expressed an interest to the R&A on possibly being considered for a future event.
The issue of club memberships has clearly accelerated and much of that has come from the immediacy of social media. The impact of communications in 2016 is clearly far beyond what it was not even 5-10 years ago. Key clubs that wish to host major championships understand that being able to show a legitimate “welcome mat” is a needed item — not just for the responsibilities tied to championship week but throughout the daily operations of the club itself.
Credit the R&A for drawing a clear and unmistakable line in the sand. The days of the past are indeed moving to where they belong — in the past. One can only hope the members at HCEG will revote and this time show they understand what needs to be done and do so in a resounding manner. Muirfield is one of the game’s great courses — but it is not immune from being sacked because of internal dinosaur thinking. Golf is in need of players and women play a leading role in resurrecting a game clearly in need of a boost. Golf’s future can only be truly bright when those hosting such “open” competitions are indeed open to all.
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.