Time, they say, is a great healer. Or is it?
This summer, the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers will find out.
The East Lothian club, home to the internationally acclaimed Muirfield links, will stage the AIG Women’s Open for the first time in its history.
Until just a few years ago, such a prospect was as remote as St Kilda, a shot so long that it would make Bryson DeChambeau look short.
For almost three centuries, from its founding in 1744, the Honourable Company was a male-only club, and unapologetic about it.
As pressure to modernise mounted, the club put a proposal in front of its members in May 2016 recommending that women be allowed to join.
Despite achieving majority support, the resolution fell narrowly short of the two-thirds super-majority required by the club’s constitution in order to carry.
It was a result that echoed far behind the club’s famous wrought-iron gates.
Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, branded the outcome “simply indefensible”. Solheim Cup winner Mel Reid called it “embarrassing”. The then MP for East Lothian, George Kerevan, said he was “outraged” by the decision, adding that it “imperils the sport”. The R&A moved swiftly to remove Muirfield from The Open rota.
The Honourable Company was, in effect, ex-communicated from the sport, cut loose to live on its own little ‘island’ on the outskirts of Gullane.
Stung by the backlash, the club convened another vote on the same matter within a year. This time, in March 2017, it passed with 80% majority. Club captain Henry Fairweather hailed it a “significant decision”.
“We look forward,” he added, “to welcoming women as members who will enjoy, and benefit from, the great traditions and friendly spirit of this remarkable club.”
Cut to today.
There are now 18 female members of the Honourable Company. Each enjoys the same privileges and benefits as their male counterparts. Extensive clubhouse renovations in 2019 included the construction of a ladies’ locker room for the first time. Muirfield is also back on The Open rota, albeit a date for the 17th visit of the championship is still be confirmed.
Most significantly, the membership is happy. The mood has pivoted. A place once described by an American magazine as “quite possibly the rudest club in the world” has quantum-leaped into the twenty-first century in a way that few could have predicted.
During arguably the most turbulent decade in HCEG’s history, club secretary Stewart McEwen has had a front row seat. Formerly of Kingsbarns and Gleneagles, he joined in 2013 shortly before Muirfield staged the Open Championship.
It is a measure of the drama of the last eight years that Phil Mickelson’s victory isn’t even in the top-three of the most significant things to have happened at the club in that time.
“We’ve never tried to brush the mistakes that were made under the carpet,” McEwen told bunkered.co.uk. “It is what it is. It happened. It’s part of our history now and we can’t change that. But we’ve turned it around, we’ve changed, and we really hope people will look at us now and say, ‘Fair play’.”
Actions, of course, will speak louder than words, which is why this year’s Women’s Open will be observed to the point of scrutiny. People in golf and beyond will be keen to see just how accommodating the club is – in both a literal and a figurative sense – to the best female golfers in the world.
McEwen is confident they’ll like what they see.
“We were asked to host the Women’s Open back in 2020 and we jumped at the chance,” he says. “We recognise that this is an opportunity to showcase the course, yes, but also the club.
“As soon as we were chosen, we established our own internal working group to make sure that what we deliver is a success for everybody: for the R&A, for the sponsors, for the players and for us. We hope that people will look at us, see the changes and agree that this isn’t tokenism. We’ve gone far beyond that and will continue to go far beyond that because there is a desire and a commitment to do so.”
Also worth noting is the fact that many of those who voted against the resolution first time around have been won over.
“They have fully embraced the way things are because we haven’t ripped things up completely,” says McEwen. “Once you’re a member, you’re a member. We’re trying to avoid distinctions like ‘male members’ and ‘female members’; everybody is the same, everybody is an equal. We’re effectively a mixed club with one membership.
“The women who have joined have been warmly welcomed and they seem really comfortable. It has happened so seamlessly.
“We’re a big club with a long waiting list – around seven years or so – but, in anticipation of the constitution changing, we created 25 places which were reserved for women and, again, we made sure to follow broadly the same admissions process as we would for any male member.
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“You can’t apply to be a member of the Honourable Company. You have to be proposed, seconded and have five further referees, so you essentially need seven existing members to support you. We followed that process and here we are now with 18 women fully part of the club.
“They’ve settled in, they’re participating in events, confidence is high, everybody is mixing and mingling – it’s great to see.”
McEwen is quietly confident that this year’s AIG Women’s Open could well be one of the most successful to date. Pandemic permitting, a capacity crowd will be able to enjoy seeing the likes of Nelly Korda, pictured below, Jin Young Ko and Lexi Thompson try to navigate one of golf’s most historic and esteemed tests.
He is adamant, though, that nobody at the club is viewing this as a ‘dress rehearsal’ for any future Open Championship.
“We’re thrilled to be back on the Open rota, naturally, but our focus is very much on the Women’s Open this year. We’re channelling all our energy and our experience into making it as big a success as we know it can be and if we do a good enough job of that, we’ll see what comes from it.
“But as I say, it’s all about this year for us. We’re extremely excited to have been given this opportunity and we are looking forward to repaying that faith.”
• The 2022 AIG Women’s Open takes place from August 4-7 with adult tickets for each of the championship days priced at only £30. A four-day ticket, meanwhile, will set you back only £100. For full details and to purchase, visit the AIG Women’s Open website.