Catriona Matthew, Muirfield and a morning that nearly never was

Catriona Matthew Aig Womens Open Tee Shot

Catriona Matthew arrives on the first tee at the AIG Women’s Open as she has done so many times before.

She shares a joke with starter Alastair Scott. She takes a couple of practice swings and addresses the ball, just like the thousands upon thousands of shots she has hit over the last 27 years.

To observe the 52-year-old, it could be any tee shot at any tournament. That's how relaxed she is. But this isn’t any tee shot at any tournament. It’s different.

For a start, it’s 6.30am. Matthew has been handed the honour of hitting the opening drive at her home major, a relatively recent addition to R&A-organised events and recognition for her stellar contribution to the game over three decades.

It’s also taking place at Muirfield, unthinkable just six years ago. In 2016, the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers’ vote to admit women failed, sparking a chain of events that saw what R&A chief Martin Slumbers describes as “one of the finest, if not the finest links we have” struck from the Open rota.

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Matthew grew up just a stone’s throw away, and her mother has made the short journey round the corner to watch this morning.

She worked as a litter-picker at the Open here. She was a scorer in 1992. But the prospect of playing major golf here herself seemed unlikely – if not impossible – half a decade ago. 

Yet here she is. A second vote a year after the first righted the wrongs, and contrition has been the order of the day since. This week marks Muirfield’s return to the major championship calendar.

It’s an understated affair. Matthew, arguably Scotland’s greatest-ever female golfer, a major champion and a Solheim Cup legend, has never hogged the limelight and so remains strangely underrated by many. That’s not the case for everyone, though.

“It is game-changing,” one marshal says to another. He’s not wrong.

Catriona Matthew Aig Womens Open Tee Shot 5

As the clock ticks past 6am, drops of rain begin to fall, turning to full-blown drizzle.

The first spectators, a father and his two boys no more than eight years old, shelter under an umbrella which dwarfs the youngsters. More filter into the grandstand which boxes in the first tee on three sides. Their number includes a sizeable proportion of women.

The game’s bosses know the significance of this occasion. Slumbers appears, along with other R&A executives. For them, too, this is a moment which seemed like it would never come. It marks the continuation of a shift in tone, one of empowerment and inclusion. Who, and where, better to make such a statement? 

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Conversation is subdued. It is, after all, still early, and most seem more concerned with keeping warm and dry. What chatter there is revolves around the promise of a hot coffee and shelter.

At 6.22am, Matthew arrives on the tee. As ever, her husband Graeme is by her side on the bag, beanie hat pulled down over his TaylorMade cap. It might be August 4 but it’s bitterly cold. 

Evian Championship runner-up Sophia Schubert is close behind. Fittingly, completing the opening trio is Louise Duncan, Scotland’s next great hope who is playing in just her second professional event.

The atmosphere is relaxed. Graeme shares a joke with Scott, who shows off his new electric pencil sharpener.

Catriona Matthew Aig Womens Open Tee Shot 4

6.29am. It’s almost time. Matthew pulls out her driver with its distinctive pink shaft and has a couple of practice swings. Her move has barely changed down the years.

She steps up, pushing a tee into the ground. The trophy she lifted 13 years ago sits on a plinth less than two club-lengths away.

It’s Scott’s time to shine.

“This is game number one,” he proclaims. “On the tee from Scotland, Catriona Matthew.”

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There are only 50 or so spectators in the grandstand, others put off by a combination of the early start and the elements. But the applause is rapturous.

Now come the first sign of nerves. As she addresses the ball, Matthew’s left leg twitches several times. It’s the only indication she has given of the magnitude of the occasion. 

Bang. She makes good contact, but it’s going right. Her ball has gone a decent distance, but nestles in the rough near the top of a mound. It’s in play, though it will be difficult.  

Catriona Matthew Aig Womens Open Tee Shot 2

Schubert next. The outcome is almost identical. Duncan, however, rips one down the middle. She’s one to watch, and this feels like a passing of the baton.

Matthew leads the trio off the tee. The applause follows her. A number of those in the grandstand have come to follow this group and rush down the steps to take up their positions just outside the ropes.

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She pays the price for the drive with a double-bogey six. Not the start she wanted, but pars at two and three steady the ship. The 2009 champion eventually signs for a five-over 76.

“It was great,” Matthew said, reflecting on the opening shot. 

“There was plenty of room right, so I used it all. 

“Coming from here, it was a nice moment to hit the first shot. 

“When you’re there, you’re just trying to hit good shots but being the first women’s pro event to be held here, it was great. It was a huge honour to hit the first tee shot.” 

Matthew may not contend this week. She may watch the weekend with the rest of us. But this was as much about the symbolism as it was the golf itself.

A week which never seemed possible has begun. A new era – an inclusive, welcoming era - has dawned.

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