Muirfield tales shed light on strict membership

IRVING, Texas -- It was back in 2002 when Ernie Els earned "Champion Golfer of the Year" honors on Muirfield Golf Links -- at a club, he points out, called "The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers."

Even though he was celebrated that Sunday afternoon as the new caretaker of the claret jug, Els understood that there were certain areas of the clubhouse that remained forbidden because he wasn't a member.

"Some of the rooms we can't even go in as professionals," Els said Thursday after an opening-round 2-under 68 at the AT&T Byron Nelson. "We can't go into the locker room or we can't go into certain areas of the club. That's the membership; the membership has their rules and regulations, and we kind of follow that."

There are a lot of rules at Muirfield, a course that dates back to 1891 and owned by a club that has been around since 1744. And yes, some are as ancient as those dates would suggest.

The club has never allowed female members, an issue recently raised by the R&A, the governing organization for The Open Championship. Even though 16 previous editions of the major championship have been staged at Muirfield, the most recent won by Phil Mickelson three years ago, the R&A was putting pressure on the club to change this rule.

After the membership vote fell just short of the two-thirds majority needed to begin accepting female members, the R&A announced on Thursday that -- for now -- the course will be removed from the Open Championship rotation.

As for Els, it was a decision that he understood -- from both perspectives.

"It's Catch-22, you know," he explained. "You're going to a private club, you know. They basically welcome us to their club. We kind of follow the rules.

"I can't say they're wrong and we're right. I'd love to play there as a competitor; I'd love to play the tournament at the golf course because it's one of the best links courses in the world, but we're in a situation and it will be missed. The guys will really miss it, because it's a great course."

Sergio Garcia, who grabbed the AT&T Byron Nelson opening-round lead with a 7-under 63, owns some history at Muirfield, as well.

He won the 1998 British Amateur on the course, then finished 10th and 21st in each of his two Open Championship appearances there.

"It is sad, because I love that golf course," Garcia said. "I think it's one of the best links courses we play, but it is their decision. Obviously, I can understand it and it's unfortunate, but it is what it is."

"Unfortunate" was a popular word used to describe the situation. Muirfield is a world-class golf course, one more than suitable for being in the Open rotation, however players understand the R&A's stance on needing to distance itself from such an exclusionary policy.

In the end, it was the resistance to change that kept the 272-year-old club from remaining a host venue.

Following his round Thursday, Els recalled an old story about the late Payne Stewart attempting to play a practice round in advance of a Muirfield-based Open.

Already a U.S. Open champion, he showed up at the course a week before the tournament and asked to play. They wouldn't let him, because he hadn't booked a tee time beforehand.

Those are the rules, he was told.

"That's how strict they are," Els said. "They're probably more strict than Augusta National or Pine Valley or anywhere. They really follow the rules there."

Els himself recalled a time when he played with friend Johann Rupert, a billionaire businessman. Accompanied by two professional cricket players, one of whom was a member, they were offered a special dispensation to play as a foursome.

The rule, they learned, was that two-ball pairings are the common game at Muirfield.

"It's quite a military operation," Els explained, "but I've always felt pretty welcome."

Speaking as both a champion at Muirfield and one who has championed the rights of females to become members -- he was quite outspoken on the topic prior to the Open there in 2013 -- Els owns a unique perspective on the announcement.

Pressed for which side was right in this situation -- the private club for adhering to its long-standing rule or the governing organization for removing its championship from the venue -- he winced, then paused for a second before carefully answering.

"I agree," Els said, "with both of them."