Wrong to force clubs to discard men-only membership – Harrington
IT casts a pall over the British Open. It was recently described by defending champion Ernie Els as "weird in this day and age" and has led Scotland's golf-mad First Minister Alex Salmond to boycott this week's tournament.
Along with their world-renowned golf course at Murfield, the fairest links by far on the British Open roster, the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers have employed a strict men-only membership policy since their foundation in 1744.
Staging one of golf's Major championships at clubs that refuse membership to women inevitably paints the ancient game in a poor light.
Yet Padraig Harrington, a two-time winner of the Claret Jug, has leapt to the defence of his sport, insisting that it is a "societal" problem, suggesting a solution will "evolve" and cannot be forced.
"You've got to look at the Masters," said Harrington, pointing to the decision of Augusta National last year to admit two women members for the first time.
This came nine years after former club chairman Hootie Johnson famously responded to a vociferous campaign by women's rights activist Martha Burk to change their membership policies by insisting it would not happen "at the point of a bayonet".
"When the pressure was taken off them, Augusta National took in lady members. None of these clubs want to be pushed," added Harrington.
"These things are evolving. Nowadays you won't find nearly as many husbands playing golf whose wives don't play as well. It's changed from 50 years ago where it was a male-dominated sport. Nowadays it's not like that.
"Letting things change at their natural pace might be the quickest way. Sometimes pushing can slow down the process.
"I grew up at a golf course (Stackstown, Co Dublin) where I was not allowed be a full member (a privilege enjoyed only by members of An Garda Siochana, male or female, until 2010).
"They've since changed. Like a number of other clubs in Ireland, it came because of financial reasons – they needed to get more members."
Three courses on the British Open rota do not accept women members: Muirfield, Royal Troon and Royal St George's, while the R&A, of which Harrington is a playing ambassador, also has a long male-only tradition.
"The R&A wishes to avail of courses with great tradition and that's why we're here," Harrington said. "They know that alienating the club would only entrench them further."
In Ireland, Portmarnock Golf Club's inalienable right to have a male-only membership was upheld by the courts. Yet the Irish Open, an event supported by government funding, is unlikely to revisit while this policy applies.
Asked if people's perception of his sport might be coloured by these traditions, Harrington admitted: "It'd be very easy for people with limited knowledge to say this is representative of golf, yet it's not. No way.
"It's nothing whatsoever got to do with golf. It merely reflects the fact that there are some male-only clubs in society. It is a misnomer to say it's a golf thing. It's a societal thing and, as such, it will evolve."
Els, who handed back the gleaming Claret Jug to the R&A yesterday, was asked what he'd tell his daughter if she asked him to explain why women could not be members.
"She's quite a hot-headed girl, just like my wife, so I'd have to choose my words carefully," replied the South African, winner of the British Open when it last visited Muirfield in 2002.
"It's a hard one. We play the Open at this wonderful course and I'm not going to miss it for the world whether it's got, unfortunately, the policy it has.
"I'd go play the Open in the Sahara desert if I had to."
Meanwhile, Tiger Woods today refused to be drawn into the debate surrounding this year's Open Championship at Muirfield, which is one of the three courses on the Open rota not to allow women members.
Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond is among the political figures who have said they will not attend the event in protest, describing the policy as "indefensible in the 21st century".
However, when asked if he felt there was a moral difference between a golf club excluding members based on their gender or their race, Woods said: "I don't make the policies here. I'm not a member so I'm not going to speak for the club."
Pressed on whether he was comfortable playing at Muirfield, the world number one added: "We've played the Masters, we've played here and I don't know of any other places."
Muirfield, Royal St George's and Troon are the three courses on the nine-strong Open rota which remain men-only.
Former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and business executive Darla Moore became Augusta National's first female members in August last year, almost a decade after activist Martha Burk stepped up pressure on the club to admit women, to which then chairman Hootie Johnson responded that they would not be forced to change "at the point of a bayonet".
That position softened over the years and current chairman Billy Payne described Rice and Moore's membership as a "joyous occasion", but Open organisers the R&A remain men-only and said at the time: "We read the announcement from Augusta National with great interest and we congratulate Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore on their membership.
"The rules of The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews specify a male membership and this policy remains a matter for our members to determine."
Salmond did attend the Open at Royal St George's in 2011, but claimed he was unaware they shared the same approach as Muirfield.
"I didn't know actually Royal St George's had that policy and learned of the controversy the day I was there," Salmond said last week. "I could list the clubs in Scotland that have that policy but I didn't know about Royal St George's."
Muirfield is formally known as the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers and Salmond added: "I would be delighted if Muirfield decided to set up the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Lady Golfers and have playing rights to the course. What I object to is where people can't be members of the course."
Chief executive Peter Dawson re-iterated the R&A's stance on taking the Open to clubs like Muirfield in April, saying courses would not be bullied into changing their policies by the threat of losing the Open.
"We come for the golf course," he said. "To think we would not come to a course as wonderful as this (Muirfield) is something we could not countenance. It's like taking the Boat Race to the Humber if you did not like (mayor of London) Boris (Johnson's) policies."