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Lady advocates take swing at 'sexist' Muirfield

It is one of the oldest golf clubs in the world, and has long counted some of Scotland's most celebrated judges and advocates among its exclusive list of members.

But now, the relationship between Muirfield and the Faculty of Advocates is under strain after lawyers described the club's membership policy as "socially and morally repugnant" and called for a boycott of the clubhouse.

The comments came as the judges and advocates that make up the Bench and Bar Golfing Society prepare to tee off in the annual foursomes competition at the historic East Lothian course on Monday.

Following an e-mail to faculty members outlining details of the event, some advocates voiced concerns about associating with a club that has never had any female members.

The event will still go ahead, but it is understood no female golfers will participate following the row, detailed in a series of leaked e-mails seen by The Scotsman.

The messages reveal fears among faculty members that aligning themselves to Muirfield could cause clients to lose confidence in their ability to represent them "regardless of gender, race, religious beliefs or sexual orientation".

And others are worried the event will amount to an "implicit endorsement" of the club's membership policy, opening up the faculty and judiciary to legal challenges under both organisation's public equality duties.

Faculty member Jacqueline Williamson, who specialises in employment and discrimination law, warned advocates could not "escape the politics of the situation" by appearing to endorse the membership profile of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, which has long been the subject of controversy.

She wrote: "I do not play golf. However, discrimination in any context is both socially and morally repugnant. It is vital that the public have complete confidence in the ability of all Members of Faculty to represent their interests regardless of gender, race, religious beliefs or sexual orientation.

"We cannot expect that confidence to be maintained if Faculty's social functions are held at venues which openly discriminate against particular sections of society."

She called on members to avoid lunching in the clubhouse, adding: "Perhaps it is time for other, more inclusive venues to be considered."

She was supported by fellow advocate Alice Stobart who added: "I hope that in future other non-discriminatory venues would be used."

The society's captain is Sheriff Principal Edward Bowen, and it is understood he has written to members in an attempt to allay their fears ahead of the event taking place.

The faculty declined to comment.

Alastair Brown, the secretary at Muirfield, said: "I have nothing to say. It is up to the Bench and Bar. If they come to Muirfield, they know the conditions on which they come."

Women are not banned, but the 21st century is

The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, formed in 1744, is based at Muirfield and produced the first ever written rules of golf.

As well as an unparalleled history, the club has a reputation for fiercely upholding privacy and tradition, a stance that has led to accusations of snobbery.

The club does not have an official policy to bar women from joining the club, but no female has ever been able to become a member, or even been put forward for consideration.

This stance has been criticised by politicians and in 2002, ahead of the Open being played at the club, Sports minister Richard Caborn said the policy was "discouraging youthful talent".

The fabled club secretary Paddy Hanmer cultivated the club's reputation during his reign during the early 1980s.

He threatened to ban four-times Open winner Tom Watson and American colleague Ben Crenshaw from the course after they played two holes without permission after a tournament. He also refused to allow Jack Nicklaus to play on the course after the golfing legend failed to give the club sufficient advance warning of his arrival. A similar fate befell US golfer Payne Stewart, who was refused permission to play as a visitor.

In another incident, author Ludovic Kennedy had his membership application to the club rejected. He claimed that his application had been blackballed by lawyers because of his work in attempting to clear a convicted safebreaker he believed had been wrongly jailed.

The Bench & Bar Golfing Society - Annual Foursomes -
Monday 3rd May 2010

Dear All

Just a quick note to remind you that this year's Foursomes Competition is due to take place at Muirfield on Monday 3rd May. Notices will be going up in the Gown Room later today. Please do come along and participate in this year's event if you possibly can.

I do not play golf. Neither would I presume to know one end of a golf club to the other. However discrimination in any context is both socially and morally repugnant. It is vital that the public have complete confidence in the ability of all Members of Faculty to represent their interests regardless of gender, race, religious beliefs or sexual orientation. However, we cannot expect that confidence to be maintained if Faculty's social functions are held at venues which openly discriminate against particular sections of society. While I'm sure Members of the Bench and Bar do not endorse the policy of Muirfield, they cannot escape the politics of this situation. Having lunch elsewhere avoids the issue. Perhaps its time for other, more inclusive venues to be considered?

From: Jacqueline Williamson

For the record I support Jacqueline's comments. I hope that in future other non-discriminatory venues would be used.

From: Alice Stobart

I wholeheartedly concur and indeed wonder if a legal issue might arise in relation to the compatibility of patronising a discriminatory venue - and implicitly endorsing it's (sic] policies- with the Faculty's (and indeed judiciary's) public law equality duties under the Equality Act 2010.

From: Aidan O'Neill

Even though your point is too complicated for me I think it is legal isn't it to have clubs or events only open to one sex? The Council run women only tennis sessions for example. I personally don't object to that or there being clubs for one sex or the other even when they have the good fortune to have one of the best golf courses in the world (although perhaps they are open to challenge I don't know) but it just seems to me that an outing purportedly open to both sexes in this case all the members of Faculty shouldn't go there - all the more so where the Club is not prepared to accommodate all participants equally on the day.

From: Gail Joughin

Sorry for harping on about this, but it does seem to me that once the Equality Act 2010 comes into force (in October 2010?) then where a private club or association whose membership is lawfully restricted to one sex - but which allows guests of either sex to use some of its facilities or services - the club can no longer lawfully discriminate on grounds of sex as to the facilities or services provided to those guests.

Thus, if women guests are allowed on to the green, then they must also be allowed into the club-house for lunch if male guests are so permitted, and that on the same terms as those male guests.

From: Aidan O'Neill

This reading ) seems entirely correct. In addition, a guest or a person seeking to be a guest or a possible guest will all be entitled to protection in respect of harassment and victimisation.

From: Juliette Casey

Source: Christopher Mackie, The Scotsman, Saturday, 1st May, 2010