On cusp of Muirfield's historic debut, this Women's Open feels bigger than ever

·5 min read

When Catriona Matthew teed it up in her first Women’s Open as an amateur at Woburn Golf Club in the early 1990s, the tournament was still called the Women’s British Open, and it wasn’t even a major yet.

“It felt like the pinnacle, and that was the event to play in,” Matthew said. “It had big crowds and all the people I looked up to watching, playing. Looking back, it still feels huge.”

Yet, more than two decades later, Matthew knows such sentiment is more nostalgic than anything. The AIG Women’s Open is still the pinnacle in the veteran Scots’ eyes, but that summit has been heightened tenfold.

“Now,” she added, “coming to these venues that people have watched over the years and the same venues that the men are playing just puts it to another level.”

When the Women’s Open was elevated to official LPGA major status in 2001, Royal Birkdale was the only club in the men’s Open rota to have hosted the women’s championship. But starting with Turnberry in 2002, that list has now grown to seven Open courses, including the Old Course at St. Andrews and for the first time this week, Muirfield.

Of course, the significance of the Women’s Open coming to the home of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers hits differently than other Women's Open debuts.

This just feels bigger, and maybe because it is.

Up until five years ago, the private – and long elitist – Gullane links barred female membership, relegating women to playing the course only as guests. The club’s 800 or so male members voted on the issue the year prior, but there were not enough votes (only 64%, not the two-thirds supermajority required) to overturn the 275-year-old, discriminatory rule. As a result, the R&A removed Muirfield, a 16-time Open Championship host, from the men’s rota, with chief executive Martin Slumbers stipulating that “if the policy at the club should change, we would reconsider Muirfield as a venue for The Open in future.”

The R&A’s announcement, plus a mammoth backlash that, according to Golf Digest’s John Huggan, even included two packages filled with handwritten letters from primary-school-aged children asking the club why it hates women, forced another vote in March 2017. That’s when members finally passed (this time at 80%) a new policy allowing females to join the club.

And though it took about two years (which is notably quicker than the club’s admissions process had been), Muirfield welcomed 12 female members in July 2019.

"I was delighted, I couldn’t wait to come and play and be part of the club," said Barbara Biggart, one of the original female members. "We were all welcomed very much as members. It was nice to be part of this change that’s going on."

Added Lindsey Garden, another member: "I was almost pinching myself."

The number of women who have joined Muirfield is now reportedly 20, to go along with a significant investment in renovating the historic clubhouse to better accommodate women, who, in the words of member Douglas Cannon, have "enhanced the atmosphere of the club."

This week should amplify it further.

"[These female professionals] are going to play one of the best golf courses in the world," Garden added, "and they will be met with great friendliness and will get a warm welcome."

A look at Muirfield's long, arduous journey to inclusivity

Muirfield’s questionable past – it had developed the reputation as the “rudest golf club in the world” – and its eventual reckoning will undoubtedly be part of the discussion all week as the world’s best women professionals take center stage.

But if Tuesday was any indication, the competitors appear willing to participate in Muirfield's exoneration.

“The initial vote was obviously disappointing,” Matthew said, “but I suppose that was quickly reversed, and obviously I think they are delighted now to have lady members. You know, I've got a couple of friends who are members. … I think you just have to look forward rather than look backward. Golf, starting in Scotland, we had a lot more traditions perhaps; that we're just gradually moving with the times."

Brooke Henderson called Muirfield, after playing it for the first time Sunday, “maybe my favorite links that I've ever played.”

“To be playing better golf courses and golf courses with this historical meaning as Muirfield – it's hosted so many men's championships, but the first women's, to be playing this year, it really means a lot to all of us,” said Henderson, a major winner at the Evian two weeks ago.

Added world No. 3 Nelly Korda: “It's a beautiful golf club, beautiful golf course, and so far, everyone has been really welcoming.”

And reigning Open champ Anna Nordqvist: “It just feels really special coming through the gates.”

One player will feel extra special leaving through them.

Muirfield has crowned an impressive list of Open champs, including Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson, all of whom won their first claret jugs on the iconic links.

A look back at legendary 'firsts' at iconic Muirfield ahead of Women's Open

One could argue that the player who lifts the Women’s Open trophy on Sunday evening will be the club’s most historic winner.

Some may even make the case for Sunday’s eventual triumph eclipsing the magnitude of Lorena Ochoa’s Women’s Open win at the Old Course in 2007, seven years before the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews voted to permit female members into its club (though the golf courses had always been available to the public).

As the women’s game continues to build momentum, a Women’s Open champion at Muirfield is seemingly the last major puzzle piece – and a new pinnacle for the sport.

“It's just a really fun time to be a part of women's golf,” said Henderson, “because it is growing so much, and we feel like we're making a difference for future generations.”

Added Matthew: “Any girls or boys who are golfing, they can see both the men and the women playing the same golf courses, which is good. Hopefully, we will put on a good show here and inspire some people to take up the game.”

Considering the circumstances of this championship, inspiration, as much as history, is almost guaranteed.