Iain Carter column: 'Great days for golf in the UK - the sport must capitalise'

Henry Fairweather holds a media conference outside Muirfield Golf Club on March 14, 2017
Muirfield captain Henry Fairweather said he looked forward to welcoming women as members

Though Muirfield's vote was in favour of admitting female members, the ballot once again dragged up the uncomfortable issue of golf's elitist image.

Social commentators, making rare acknowledgement of the existence of the sport, needed little encouragement to put the boot in.

They asked why it has taken until 2017 for such a famous venue to see the light, and wondered whether it was only done to regain Open status.

These questions were levelled against the world's oldest club - The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers - but the knock-on effect put the game in general in the firing line.

Of course, it is lamentable that it took so long and needed two ballots for the club that boasts one of the world's finest courses to move away from being a men-only institution.

Critics also railed against the grey-haired, blazer-clad club officials for soberly presenting an old-fashioned image as last week's announcement was made in front of the Muirfield clubhouse.

"Says everything about golf," said one Twitter correspondent beneath a picture of the captain Henry Fairweather as he revealed the 80% majority in favour of change.

The implication that what happens at places such as Muirfield somehow reflects golf as a whole is inevitable but tiresomely irksome.

Yes, too many people use the game as a vehicle for their pomposity - but that can be said of many sports.

And anyone who attended the inaugural England Golf awards dinner at Lord's a couple of days after the Muirfield vote could easily have taken an opposite view of the royal and ancient game.

Blazers were swapped for dinner suits and ball gowns, but this was still a tremendously unstuffy occasion that celebrated so much of what is good in golf.

Masters winner Danny Willett, Olympic champion Justin Rose, LPGA Tour champion Charley Hull and the recently-turned-pro starlet Bronte Law were all recognised.

Charley Hull
England's Charley Hull, 21, is ranked 15th in the world and has two Tour titles to her name

Awards were dished out throughout the evening to recognise the best players and coaches with elite status and, more significantly, the people who tirelessly popularise the game at county, club and community level.

The biggest cheer came when one recipient reminded the audience that golf is not a game where you stick children in a corner and tell them to be quiet.

There was an award for the most welcoming golf club, won by Fynn Valley in Suffolk, one for strongest community engagement - Hollingbury Park in Sussex - and for the volunteer of the year - Jenny Davies from Yorkshire.

In all honesty, I thought it was going to be one of those nights where I'd rather be at home gorging my way through a box-set or wearing out the carpet trying to correct a dodgy putting stroke.

Instead it proved a genuinely uplifting evening and a vital occasion to demonstrate so much of what is so good in the sport.

England Golf borrowed the idea of such an evening from their Scottish counterparts, who have long since been making sure they recognise those contributing most to golf in their country.

And it is only right England should do the same, especially at a time where it is enjoying so much success at the top of the game.

Aside from the 2016 heroics of Willett and Rose, Tyrrell Hatton, Tommy Fleetwood and Matthew Fitzpatrick showed again their burgeoning credentials on the PGA Tour at Bay Hill last week.

If Ross Fisher enjoys success at this week's WGC Matchplay in Austin, Texas, there will be a record 11 Englishmen heading to Augusta for next month's Masters.

These are great days for golf, not just in England but, with the likes of Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy and Scottish WGC winner Russell Knox, for the United Kingdom at large.

It is important administrators capitalise to ensure the game prospers as a result.

The evidence of last week suggests England Golf is nurturing the sort of culture to make that possible.

Muirfield's vote brought a great course back on to the Open rota but what goes on at places such as Fynn Valley and Hollingbury Park is more significant.

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