I have great admiration for the skills of top golfers but none at all for the petty pomposities of some golf clubs. Muirfield, otherwise known (with no sense of irony) as ‘The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers’, has been widely condemned for its decision to maintain its ban on women members, with the result that the Royal and Ancient – hardly a bastion of progressive thinking – has decreed that it cannot host future Open Championships. Presumably the financial implications of this will be considerable. Television reports of Muirfield’s self-inflicted bunker shot showed a group of elderly men wearing blazers and club ties, some looking mildly embarrassed, others positively gleeful. Once the cameras had departed they could no doubt repair to the club bar to congratulate themselves on their stance against the pressures of political correctness.
Membership of Muirfield is regarded as a mark of social acceptance by the Edinburgh elite. Those who see opportunities for beneficial business and professional networking feel they have arrived once they are admitted as full members. Visitors are tolerated on Tuesdays and Thursdays provided they book in advance and are willing to pay the fee of £220 for one round. The calendar of bookings on Muirfield’s website shows that slots are taken up months in advance.
The website also refers to the club’s ‘colourful history’, pointing out that its origins go back to 1744. One of the less ‘honourable’ aspects of that history relates to its links to the Scottish civil servant, George Pottinger, who was jailed for corruption in 1974. Pottinger was a snob with a taste for the high life. This was reflected in some of the books he wrote: an uncritical biography of Lord Fraser of Allander, one-time owner of Harrods; a guide to St Moritz, a favourite ski destination for the ‘smart set’; and, not least, a history of Muirfield itself, expressed in the respectful tones of the socially aspiring.
Pottinger had a house built within walking distance of Muirfield: at his trial it was said that this was only possible because of substantial financial support from the architect, John Poulson, who was awarded major contracts for the development of the Aviemore centre. Pottinger was dining at Muirfield in June, 1973 when he received a call from his wife saying that he had better return home to speak to members of the fraud squad who had come to arrest him. The scandal that ensued did not reflect well on Pottinger’s superiors in the Scottish Office, but a familiar strategy of evasion and back covering was quickly put in place. It is doubtful whether the full facts of the episode will ever be known.
After the latest instance of Muirfield’s ‘colourful history’, with its vote to exclude women, club members would be well-advised to settle for a monochrome phase, during which they should engage in some thoughtful reflection about how they are perceived by the world outside their self-regarding circle.