It was a quiet Tuesday in the press room at the 2013 Open Championship.
Reporters gathered in their seats as Tiger Woods made his way to the podium to answer routine questions.
“How are course conditions?”
“What’s your strategy this week?”
“How’s your mental toughness?”
As the moderator motioned for the press conference to wrap up, another hand shot into the air.
“Tiger, do you feel morally there’s a difference between a golf club that excludes people on the basis of their sex from a golf club that excludes people on the basis of their race?”
Slightly uncomfortable, Tiger responded:
“I don’t make the policies here, I’m not a member and so I’m not going to speak for the club.”
The Open had come to Muirfield, a club steeped in tradition and history, for the 16th time. The site had also hosted a Ryder Cup in 1973.
But more important than the course, was the membership.
In 1744, the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers was founded at Leith Links in Edinburgh, Scotland. The members established golf’s original rules and hosted the game’s first formal competition. The club also joined Prestwick and St Andrews in hosting The Open and contributed toward the purchase of the tournament trophy, the claret jug.
In 1836, the club moved from Leith Links to a nearby golf course called Musselburgh. However, due to overcrowding, they decided to move again, this time settling at a course further east – Muirfield.
Over the years, legends would make their way to Muirfield, lauding it as one of the fairest and finest. The great triumvirate of Harry Vardon, Ted Ray and James Braid all won The Open at Muirfield, and Braid even named his son Harry “Muirfield” Braid. International players made the journey as well. Walter Hagen, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus also won The Open at Muirfield. Nicklaus was so inspired, upon returning to the U.S. he began construction on his dream golf course in Ohio, aptly naming it Muirfield Village.
However, as Muirfield’s influence grew, one presence remained absent: women members. A tradition not uncommon in Scotland.
“I grew up in a time when there were courses across the U.K. that wouldn't let women walk across the front patio in front of the men's lounge. Women couldn't even drive up the driveway, they'd have to drop their husbands off at the front gate,” said 2004 AIG Women’s Open champion Karen Stupples.
At the 2013 Open, 269 years after the club’s founding, Muirfield remained male-only. The controversy made headlines as Scotland’s First Minister at the time, Alex Salmond, decided to boycott the event entirely.
“It was just the fact that Muirfield wasn't prepared to bend at all at that stage. We were trying to encourage golf as a game for everyone, and it was standing in isolation to that policy. It was giving the wrong image for Scotland internationally,” said Salmond.
The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron, joined the cause as well and added his name to the list of non-attendees.
Phil Mickelson won his first and only Open title in ‘13. While he got his storybook ending, the story of Muirfield’s single-sex membership policy was just beginning.
Other clubs on The Open rota were also scrutinized, and eventually responded by changing their ways. In 2014, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews voted to allow women members, followed by Royal St. George’s in 2015 and Royal Troon in 2016.
In 2017, Muirfield’s membership took a vote to determine if the club would admit women.
The club’s captain, Henry Fairweather, delivered the result of the vote in front of cameras outside the clubhouse.
“A majority of members voted for women as members of the club but the two-thirds majority that we require for a change in the rules was not met,” he said. “The club therefore will retain its men-only policy.”
Golf Channel reporter Tom Abbott recalled the moment he heard the news.
“It was a sad moment in the game, really.” Abbott said. “We went through a dark period and it was hard to explain to someone who doesn't play golf, why women weren't members at Muirfield.”
As the world digested the news of the vote, golf’s governing body, the R&A, immediately responded. Muirfield would be removed from The Open rota.
R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers explained, “we made our position very clear, that we were only going take our championships to venues where there was a quality of membership.”
Ten months later a second vote was called. This time, 80.2% of the membership supported the proposal, enough for it to pass.
In 2019, after an accelerated invitation process, the first women were admitted. Barbara Biggart was one of the first 12 women to join the club.
“I couldn't wait to come and play. We were all welcomed very much as members. I've been part at the club dinners and club matches. We were all made to feel very welcome,” said Biggart.
Lindsey Garden joined the club last year.
“I've got two daughters, so I think it's important that if you get the opportunity to do things, you take them and just grab it and go for it,” she said.
In 2020, the R&A made an announcement: Muirfield would return to hosting major championship golf. For the first time in the club’s nearly 300-year history, the tradition of only hosting men professionals would be broken as 144 women were invited to compete for the 2022 AIG Women’s Open.
Scotland’s Catriona Matthew will hit the first tee shot. A moment that has come full circle for the two-time winning Solheim Cup captain and 2009 Women’s Open champion, who grew up down the road in North Berwick and served as a litter picker during the first Open she experienced at Muirfield.
“I think you just have to look forward rather than look backwards. Over the last probably 10 years, we started going to all The Open venues that over the last 50-60 years you've seen the men playing in, and I think that just elevates this championship. I think it's good for us,” said Matthew.
Another chapter of history ready to be written at Muirfield.
And perhaps the most significant.