GULLANE, Scotland – The question couldn’t have caught Rory McIlroy by surprise because almost every player preceding him in the interview room at the British Open had already been asked for his thoughts on the hot issue of the day.
When the tabloids collide, as they tend to do at major events in Britain, themes emerge. One this week was how 77-year-old Gary Player looked in the ESPN Magazine body issue, and most players agreed that the three-time Open champion looked pretty good.
But this was a little more socially significant than body tone on an aging golfer. This was about equality and golf, and why the people who run it in the British Isles are even more stubborn than the green jackets at Augusta used to be when it comes to clubs like Muirfield and its men-only policy.
McIlroy smiled nervously, looking around the room for what seemed like minutes before finally answering.
“Muirfield is a great golf course,” he said.
Little debate there. Scotland is the home of golf, and the links course that sits across the Firth of Forth from the Old Course at St. Andrews is a gem with some pedigree of its own. Old Tom Morris laid it out on an old horse racing track in 1891, and members of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers have made it their home ever since.
That those members are all men is no accident. It may be that the policy is as out of place today as hickory shafts and gutta percha balls, but it’s still as firmly entrenched now as it was 122 years ago.
There’s no rationale for it in today’s world, and no real way to defend it. When British golf officials try — as the head of the Royal & Ancient did once again Wednesday on the eve of the British Open — they babble on about things like getting out of the marital bed for Saturday golf rounds with the chums as though it was an ancient birthright reserved for the men of the United Kingdom.
“It’s just what people kind of do,” said R&A chief executive Peter Dawson.
Not that the 156 players teeing it up Thursday in the first round of the Open needed to hear that. They were going to play if they had to swim the Firth of Forth to get here, and none seemed terribly concerned that the club — which allows women to play golf — doesn’t allow them to become members.
Equal rights for women golfers? Not sure about that, but did you see that rough on the 18th hole?
“I don’t make the policies here,” Tiger Woods said. “I’m not a member, so I’m not going to speak for the club.”
Dawson did enough of that Wednesday, launching a spirited defense of the ways of private clubs much like Hootie Johnson did a decade ago when the then-chairman declared Augusta National would not bow to pressure to admit women “at the point of a bayonet.” The club kept Johnson’s promise, not relenting until last year when former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was one of two women finally issued green jackets.
Muirfield will eventually add women members, too, something Dawson seemed to acknowledge when he said the R&A is finding the issue increasingly difficult to handle. That’s fine and will generate some applause, though it’s hard to work up too much enthusiasm for the plight of well-off women who aren’t permitted to be members like well-off men at certain golf clubs.
Martha Burk found that out when her attempt to force Augusta National to admit women fizzled on the eve of the 2003 Masters. Only a handful of people showed up at a protest that turned into a freak show complete with a drag queen and a self-described Ku Klux Klan imperial wizard. It forced Burk to give up her active campaign for equality in a place almost every male golfer in the world couldn’t join, either.
“I just think it’s something that a lot of guys don’t want to get themselves into because it’s quite a controversial issue,” McIlroy said the second time he was asked about it. “It’s something that shouldn’t happen these days. It’s something that we shouldn’t even be talking about. So that’s why I guess a lot of people don’t want to talk about it.”
At least McIlroy gave it a try, something that can’t be said for many of his fellow pros.
The only lead they want to take is on the scoreboard at the British Open.