Once A Club For Men, Muirfield Hosts Women’s British Open

MUIRFIELD, Scotland (AP) — Catriona Matthew had reason to believe she was in a great place at Muirfield, or at least as good as it could get for women in 1992.

Matthew was 21, a rising amateur star from just up the road at North Berwick, when she was a walking scorer assigned to John Cook, who had a two-shot lead late in the final round until he couldn’t hold it and Nick Faldo made two late birdies to capture his third claret jug.

“That’s kind of the memories I have of here,” Matthew said.

It’s about to get a lot better.

A former Women’s British Open champion and two-time winning captain in the Solheim Cup, Matthew has been selected to hit the opening tee shot Thursday in the final LPGA major of the year, and the most significant.

It was only six years ago when Muirfield didn’t allow women to join the “Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers,” or even set foot in the clubhouse.

The venerable club, which 130 years ago hosted the first of 16 British Opens, was in danger of being knocked off the Open rotation by the R&A when it took another vote in the spring of 2017 and agreed to accept female members.

And now the club that once banned women now is hosting a major.

“The initial vote was obviously disappointing but I suppose that was quickly reversed, and obviously I think they are delighted now to have lady members,” Matthew said. “I’ve got a couple of friends who are members.

“They have now got women members who are allowed to come and play here. I think you just have to look forward rather than look backwards,” she said. “Golf, starting in Scotland, we had a lot more traditions perhaps. We’re just gradually moving with the times.”

The Women’s British Open didn’t become an LPGA major until 2001, and the R&A first got involved in running the major in 2017 with the idea of elevating the championship. It now regularly goes to links courses made famous over the years by the men — St. Andrews twice, and scheduled again in 2024 at the Old Course.

Anna Nordqvist won the Women’s British last year at Carnoustie.

Along with the fabled venues, the R&A and title sponsor AIG have consistently raised the purse. The R&A announced Wednesday it would be $7.3 million — more than double what it was five years ago — with the winner getting $1,095,000.

That means four of the five majors on the LPGA Tour will award a seven-figure payoff to the champion. The exception was the Chevron Championship in California, which already has plans to boost its prize money next year as part of its new sponsorship.

“I think 2016, it was an important time for this sport and for the R&A,” Martin Slumbers, the R&A’s chief executive, said Wednesday. “We had been working very hard on a strategy for the R&A that had inclusivity very much as a part of it.

“I think that when you think back over that six-year period since then, women’s golf has really exploded, and it’s got a long way to go yet. But I do think that that time will be viewed as pivotal in that change.”

The LPGA is as diverse as ever, and it shows in the majors.

A year ago, the five major champions came from five countries. That’s also the case this year with Jennifer Kupcho (U.S.), Minjee Lee (Australia), In-Gee Chun (South Korea) and Brooke Henderson (Canada).

They will take on a Muirfield links that is reputed to be the purest of them all, a configuration in which the opening nine are on the perimeter of the property and the back nine is in the middle.

Faldo won two of his British Opens at Muirfield. Jack Nicklaus won his first at Muirfield. The East Lothian links also is famous for denying Nicklaus in 1972 and Tiger Woods in 2002 the third leg of the calendar Grand Slam.

It’s this kind of history the women now get to embrace to build their own legacy.

“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,” Henderson said. “It’s just proof that the women’s game is continuing to grow. … It’s just a really fun time to be a part of women’s golf because it is growing so much and we feel like we’re making a difference for future generations.”