18 Jul 2013

Why I celebrated my hole-in-one… in the car park

Golf is engulfed by a sexism row. Why? Because women members are not allowed at Muirfield, host of the Open. So what happens when a female hits a hole-in-one at a course with a men-only clubhouse?

Hayley Barlow in action on the golf course.

The latest sexism storm brewing over Muirfield and its outdated male-only policy would be far less troubling if the wait for women’s membership had not been 269 years and counting, writes Hayley Barlow.

Now even David Cameron has chipped in. “The prime minister has a great deal of sympathy with the view that exclusive memberships of this sort look more to the past than they do to the future,” his spokesman said on Thursday.

But any hope that, all these decades later, men in starched blazers are softening their stance on membership has been hit once more into the deep rough.

Peter Dawson, chief executive of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club (R&A), stated before the world’s media that excluding women from clubs is not sexist, but part of “a way of life that some people rather like”.

His comical claim sent my mind reeling back to a bittersweet tale in 2000, the day I was offered a chance to fulfill a childhood dream of playing on the Old Course at St Andrews. With a giddy obsession for all things golf, I made my way to Scotland’s most cherished slice of common land where the game was first played over 600 years ago.

As I criss-crossed the revered fairways in search of my ball, the experience was positively dream-like.

Like a long lane that has no turning, the Old Course is peppered with hazards, heather, gullies and gorse. As I criss-crossed the revered fairways in search of my ball, the experience was positively dream-like.

And then I stepped up to the 11th tee. I had once read in some esteemed journal that this was one of the most celebrated par threes in the world of golf. To me in the cold of a winter’s day, it seemed just like any other plucky 150-yard par three.

The hole played directly into a harsh prevailing wind off the Eden estuary. Falling temperatures and lashing rain did little to deter my enthusiasm.

Teeth chattering and saturated I struck my seven-wood with perfect pitch. The ball soared through the air clearing the Strath bunker like a Kentucky show horse and disappeared onto the large elevated green.

“That’s in the hole,” shrieked an overexcited golfer looking on blindly. I knew it was good, but how good exactly demanded instant inspection. I grabbed my bag and sprinted down the embankment and up towards the green. And there it was, my precious battered Callaway wedged neatly between the flagstick and the cup.

A perfect fluke! The heady feeling of euphoria was dizzying. A Tornado F3 fly-past followed. Admittedly it was returning to nearby RAF Leuchars but I appreciated the personal touch.

Adrenaline raced through me and my body shook like a wired partygoer. No matter, seven holes to go and I was determined to continue with cunning, guile and whatever shreds of talent remained.

I won’t bore you with a shot by shot replay of the remaining holes, but suffice to say, those 18 holes played out in almost perfect unison at the historical home of golf.

Clutching my handsome certificate, I celebrated my hole-in-one triumph with a Fanta in the car park.

But as I we drifted towards the clubhouse, it was the twitching of the seagulls descending like locusts in their multitude that seemed to spell out my goose was cooked.

Entering the clubhouse bar with boundless exhilaration, the customary hole-in-one round of drinks offer was abruptly cut short by a determined badged-up lackey who singled me out from our crowd and hurriedly escorted out the front door.

No women permitted. My shoulders slumped. But I had a hole-in-one. My pleas mattered less to him and it quickly became apparent that not even perfect-fluking females are exempt from undeserving vilification from the R&A.

Clutching my handsome certificate, I celebrated my hole-in-one triumph with a Fanta in the car park.

To this day all good reasoning for that inexplicable episode eludes me on an otherwise perfect day. Yet 13 years on here we are again, questioning the R&A’s wisdom of staging the Open, the world’s greatest golf tournament on a course with gender equality issues.

Perhaps Tiger Woods, the fun-loving world number one in pursuit of his 15th major golf championship, summed it up best on Wednesday when he said: “It’s time to shape the ball both ways.”

Hayley Barlow is head of communications for Channel 4 News and captain of the Press Golfing Society.