At Muirfield, the most symbolic major in years, things are still complicated

Nelly Korda plays a shot during a practice round Tuesday at Muirfield.

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GULLANE, Scotland — If you had just two words to describe the fact that we’re here in East Lothian, watching women’s golf at Muirfield, you’d struggle to do better than great and overdue. Great because it’s overdue. 

The most significant major championship this year may have been the 150th playing of The Open at St. Andrews, but the most symbolic is the AIG Women’s Open at Muirfield.

Home to the Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, Muirfield infamously barred females from its membership until, in 2016, the R&A revoked its status as a potential Open host. An exclusionary club only admitting female members once the men’s tournament was yanked away from them? Well, those implications are lost on nobody. 

The course at Muirfield is among the best in the world. The club literally wrote the first 13 rules on golf. But they were also pulled kicking and screaming into the 21st century. A bastion in the game and a longtime symbol of its gender bias. Muirfield is neither of those things on its own, only both at the same time. 

And so we have a historically vital event this week. It is great and overdue. But now that we’ve arrived, how much do we talk about it? 

“I think you just have to look forward and not backward,” Catriona Matthew said Tuesday. She’s as local as anyone in the field, living just miles up the road in North Berwick, scheduled for the opening tee shot at 6:30 Thursday morning. She’s worked multiple men’s Opens at Muirfield, volunteering in positions as lowly as litter picker, and as noble as scorer in the 1987 final pairing where Nick Faldo won with 18 pars.

“I think it’s great to come here,” she said. “Obviously over the last 10 years, we started going to all the Open venues that, over the last 50, 60 years, you’ve seen the men playing in. I think that just elevates this championship and we are now going to courses that people are used to seeing the Open and the majors on. I think it’s good for us.”

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Not just good. Great. The best female golfers have been pining for years for their biggest events to consistently be held at the best courses in the world, where golf history has been made. The last seven winners at Muirfield? All single-name Hall of Famers. Phil, Ernie, Faldo, Watson, Trevino, Jack and Player. Maybe, finally, later this week: Korda or Ko or Kim or … Lee! 

Minjee Lee, while growing up in Australia, dreamed about competing at two courses in particular: Pebble Beach and St. Andrews. Next summer, she’ll play in the very first U.S. Women’s Open at Pebble, the host of six men’s Opens. Then in 2024, she’ll compete in the Women’s Open at St. Andrews, which has happened just twice. Golf has taken a long time to lurch toward equity, and that’s not exclusively a Muirfield issue. This week, though, Muirfield is the convenient visual. 

For starters, there’s Tuesday’s pro-am, where Team Loch Lomond Whiskies 2, led by Gemma Dryburgh, barely clipped the R&A’s pro-am team, led by Atthaya Thitikul.

On the Tuesday afternoon of a major championship, how goofy is that sentence? And yet it’s a reality for the women’s golf world. Even at its most sanctified events, some of the proceedings are bought and paid for.

But some pros are willing to live with that. They’re not ready to bite the hand that feeds them. Or should we say hands? This week there are TWO pro-ams at the Women’s Open. After 24 groups jammed up the course Tuesday, 18 more will play Wednesday morning.

Mel Reid, who earned an exemption into The Open Monday, didn’t play in either pro-am, but has otherwise struggled to find room on the course. Reid said she hoped to join an open practice time before the pro-am Wednesday, but as of Tuesday afternoon, there was no space left. Now her best hope is to slide into the space of a group, any group that just doesn’t turn to the back nine.

“Yeah, but isn’t that how it’s always been?” asked Jodi Ewart Shadoff Tuesday, on the prospect of a pro-am during a major championship week. She’s not totally wrong. The year’s first major, the Chevron Championship, had a pro-am. So did the second major, the KPMG Women’s PGA. The third, the U.S. Women’s Open, did not, but the fourth, the Evian Championship, historically has. (Left unsaid: the mere suggestion that male players take part in a major-week pro-am would be enough to cause a field-wide revolt.)

Even as Ewart Shadoff accepted the cost of doing business in the women’s game, the golf course around her seemed to reject it. She said those words during a 15-minute pause on the 5th tee, while her group waited for the fairway to clear of middle-handicappers. Knowing her pro-am round would be the extent of her practice for the day, Ewart Shadoff occasionally played multiple tee shots, switching out clubs, in an effort to improve in whichever ways she could from the constraints of a hit-and-giggle. Could you imagine Rory McIlroy’s Open week in St. Andrews including a 5.5-hour romp alongside an overzealous bogey golfer?

Nope. 

And so this week we have what we have: immense progress, golf history, and a club best described as stodgy. A club that now proudly boasts more than a dozen female members, and whose history had been rewritten to acknowledge it. A club that, yes, has long invited females to play as visitors, and even catered to East Lothian county female events. But also a club that has occasionally ushered those female guests into the clubhouse through a separate entrance.

The story of the 46th Women’s Open at Muirfield is in many ways the story of golf — something great and too often overdue.

Agree? Disagree? Feel free to lob praise, critiques or any commentary to the author at sean.zak@golf.com.

Sean Zak

Golf.com Editor

Zak is a writer and host for various GOLF.com video properties and podcasts. Check out his travels on Destination Golf and his latest thoughts on the Drop Zone Podcast:

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