There are few firsts left in Muirfield, home to a golf club founded in the mid-18th century.
Still after hosting 16 Men’s British Open Championships Through 130 years on Thursday, the women’s event will start for the first time on the legendary Scottish course.
It’s been a long wait that seemed set to continue in May 2016 when members of the private club – The Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers – voted against canceling its all-male membership policy. Founded in 1744 at Leith in Edinburgh, the club moved to the East Lothian site in 1891.
The result of this vote was tagged “obscene” by four-time major champion Rory McIlroy and “indefensible” by Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, and the Royal and Ancient (R&A) – organizers of the Open – quickly banned the course to welcome the middle finger.
However, Muirfield was reinstated as an open venue in March the following year after a fresh ballot saw the club vote 80.2% for to accept female members, securing the two-thirds majority needed to overturn the 2016 vote.
Five years later, the course opens its doors for the fifth and last major of the women’s season, to the delight of the participants.
It will be a special kind of excitement for Scottish golfer Catriona Matthew who, as well as having the opportunity to experience a major tournament a short drive from her home, will go down in history as the first woman to play at Muirfield in a Women’s Open.
“It’s a huge honor when you’re asked to do something like this”, Matthew, Open champion at Royal Lytham in 2009, told reporters on Tuesday.
“I think it’s going to be a great experience…all the players will have watched the men play here over the years and I think they’re thrilled to have this opportunity to come here and play their own Open.
“It just elevates this championship, and now we’re going to courses that people are used to seeing the Open and the majors on. I think that’s good for us.”
The 52-year-old admitted she was “disappointed” with the initial vote to keep the all-male membership but believes the reversal of progress is underway.
“Just looking forward rather than looking back,” Matthews added. “Golf, starting in Scotland, we had maybe a lot more traditions, which we are gradually evolving over time.
“I hope that every girl or boy who plays golf can see men and women playing on the same golf courses, which is good.”
Anna Nordqvist comes to East Lothian as the reigning Open champion, having picked up a one-shot win at Carnoustie last year. With her first major appearance as an amateur at the event in 2007, the triumph cemented a “special” bond between the three-time Major winner Swede and the Open.
“I’ve heard a lot about Muirfield,” Nordqvist said. “I know the guys have played here over the years so I think it’s an amazing opportunity for us to have Muirfield added to our Open rotation.
“Coming in through the door, (I) saw my picture – it’s the first picture you see – obviously it’s still pretty surreal to have my name on the trophy,” she added. .
A historic Open at Muirfield marks the continuation of a historic week for women’s sport, after the Lionesses’ English football first victory in the international championship where Sunday, followed by a record crowd for the Euro final at Wembley Stadium.
Despite the pain of seeing Sweden beaten 4-0 in the semi-finals by eventual champions, Nordqvist sees parallels in the increased coverage of women’s football and golf.
“It’s just exciting to see that I think women’s sport (all) around the world is getting more attention,” she said.
“It was quite a big event, the way they were organizing it and the TV times, I think that’s very important. Our tee times are also getting better. A lot of times we leave early because (of)… guys schedule.
While Nordqvist starts as the defending champion, Brooke Henderson arguably starts off as the in-form player.
With her second big win at the Evian Championship in July, the Canadian scored two Tour victories in just over a month. The 24-year-old hasn’t finished below 16th in any of her previous five events.
After withdrawing from the Scottish Open, won by Japan’s Ayaka Furue on Sunday, Henderson is “recharged” and eager to go.
“Playing this year really means a lot to all of us,” she said. “It’s just proof that women’s football continues to grow – handbag sizes are increasing, we’re on network TV more and we’re playing in these top venues.
“It’s just a really fun time to be a part of women’s golf because it’s growing so much and we feel like we’re making a difference for future generations.”
After a three-month break that began in March, due to a blood clotworld number 3 Nelly Korda relishes every second back on the Tour, especially before a major event.
“I was extremely excited to be a part of this event this year,” she said.
“I knew the history, and the fact that we were going to be the first women’s tournament here too was pretty amazing.
“So I was just more excited to be here and to be able to play on this golf course and soak up everything and the history of this place.”
Catriona Matthew is set to play first his band alongside Sophia Schubert and Louise Duncan at 6:30 a.m. local time (1:30 a.m. ET) Thursday.