THE Women’s Open at Muirfield. Five words we may never have thought we’d see in the same sentence, given what occurred at the famous East Lothian club six years ago, but stands are going up and the membership is ready to welcome the world’s finest female golfers in just three weeks’ time.

In 2016, the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers (HCEG) – which runs the course – was handed the chance to allow women members for the first time in its then 272-year history.

A two-thirds majority vote was required from the all-male membership and, in a move described as “indefensible” by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, the Company opted to continue barring women members with only 64% voting for change.

The decision attracted global condemnation and it saw the world’s oldest major – The Open – stripped from the venue by organising body the R&A, which has also run the Women’s Open since 2017.

It was not necessarily unusual for a golf club – particularly one as old as HCEG – to be men-only, given the R&A – based at the Old Course in St Andrews – only began allowing women to join in 2014, while Royal Troon on the Ayrshire coast only ended its male-only membership policy in 2016.

But it was the conscious decision by more than a third of members to continue with the club’s exclusionary approach that led to Muirfield receiving such widespread criticism.

The club was told unless it changed its tune, it would not get to host an Open championship again, something it had proudly welcomed on 16 occasions. Another vote was held in 2017, and this time, more than 80% of the membership said women should be allowed to join.

Five years on, there are now 20 female members and after the Claret Jug is lifted at St Andrews today, eyes will turn to Gullane, where the HCEG is preparing to host the Women’s Open for the first time from August 4 to 7.

Cynics have, of course, accused the club of only agreeing to host the event as part of its aim to bring back The Open to the Firth of Forth.

But Lindsey Garden, who became a member a year ago and sits on the championship committee, said this is a false perception.

The National: Stuart McEwan, club secretary, said the rule change at Muirfield brings recognition to the talent of female golfersStuart McEwan, club secretary, said the rule change at Muirfield brings recognition to the talent of female golfers

Speaking to The National from Muirfield, the 56-year-old said: “I think a lot of people’s reaction was thinking it was a precursor to getting The Open [back] but the longer I’ve been here, it’s become clear it wasn’t.

“It was about the R&A, together with their title sponsor AIG, saying they wanted to go to the best venues that there are [with the Women’s Open], and Muirfield is top of anyone’s list.

“I think the women, certainly any [female] pro-golfers I speak to, are so excited about playing here. It’s such a great and fair test of golf.

“I think the women playing at Muirfield and shooting some low scores will just consolidate a lot of the work that the Solheim Cups [the female equivalent of the Ryder Cup] have done.

“For a lot of people those [Solheim Cups] have made them realise it’s good golf these women are playing, this is not just second-best.

“I actually hope there isn’t a huge focus on it being at Muirfield, I just hope it’s a good thing for women’s golf. As a club, we have no qualms about hosting it. Of course we would want to host it, it’s such a great event.”

Garden has been lucky enough to fill one of the 25 extra vacancies that were created exclusively for women in the wake of the membership policy change.

Becoming a member is no easy task, as you must be proposed and seconded by different members before receiving official backing from another five.

Having played the course as a guest a number of times – which ladies have always been allowed to do – Garden said it was impossible to put into words the excitement of finally being able to be a member.

“I do feel very honoured,” she said.

“It’s just really exciting. It’s difficult to articulate feelings, I think. When you turn into Duncur Road [where the club is based], there’s that sense of excitement about coming to play here.

“I’d always loved the course, and any time I’d had the opportunity while women were not allowed to be members, I always loved coming and playing here. You can’t help but feel pretty privileged to be part of it.”

Muirfield last hosted The Open in 2013 when the R&A was starting to come under pressure to consider the ethical stance of the venues on the rota.

It coincided with when Stuart McEwan became club secretary. He says the HCEG is now in a much better place for having opted to switch to a mixed membership.

He said: “The change externally is fantastic. There’s a much better perception of the club.

“Internally as well, the club feels great.

“The members have embraced the change, there’s not been any tension.

“I think it’s better now we have a mixed membership.

“What’s happened in the last four or five years has just enhanced the club’s standing in the world of golf.”

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Muirfield did in fact secure its place back on The Open rotation in 2017 after the decision was made to allow women members, long before the Women’s Open was awarded to the historic links course in 2020.

However, it has not been confirmed when it will host the men’s tournament again, with the earliest opportunity being 2026.

McEwan agreed with Garden that staging the Women’s Open was not part of an effort to accelerate the return of the UK’s only men’s major to the club.

But he also insisted allowing female members was nothing to do with it either.

He added: “This change is not because the club wants to host an Open championship.

“It allows it to host one, but as a leader in the world of golf – and Muirfield is recognised as being one of the top five golf clubs and courses in the world – it’s got a responsibility to act appropriately in a modern day world.

“The club is in a great place now and heading in the right direction.

“We’re hosting the Women’s Open because we want to host it.”

For the HCEG, it’s now a case of the past being in the past and looking ahead to what it hopes will be the best Women’s Open there has ever been.

McEwan said: “We’re really excited to add this to what is already an impressive portfolio of hosting championships, but this carries more significance, obviously, because it has coincided with the club’s membership change – and that adds a bit of spice.

“But I think it’s just a great opportunity to show the women golfers what Muirfield is.

“I know they’re really looking forward to coming to play the course they’ve heard and read about.

“Our number one objective is to make it the most successful Women’s Open ever.”