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Storm brewing over Muirfield's membership

INVERNESS, Scotland (AP) - A storm is brewing at Muirfield.

Not of the weather variety that sent scores soaring in the third round when the British Open was last held there in 2002. It's the storm that once erupted at Augusta National for the Masters before it had female members and made a brief showing when the Open was held at Royal St. George's two years ago.

Muirfield is one of three courses on the Open rotation - Royal Troon and Royal St. George's are the others - that have a men-only membership, which has been criticized as being out-of-touch and damaging to the staid reputation of the sport.

Augusta National did not have female members until last summer, when it invited former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina financier Darla Moore to join. They were the first women in green jackets since the club was founded in 1932. It was seen as a key move. Tiger Woods called it ``important to golf.''

The Royal & Ancient Golf Club, which runs the British Open and itself is a men-only membership organization, isn't budging. And the topic likely will get even more attention this week when golf's oldest championship returns to Muirfield in east Scotland, where women are allowed to play and have access to its facilities. But they cannot be members.

Some prominent politicians won't be attending this year's event in protest.

``I just think it's indefensible in the 21st century not to have a golf club that's open to all,'' said Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, a huge golf fan who played a round with Phil Mickelson in the pro-am before the Scottish Open this week.

Salmond attended the 2011 British Open at Royal St. George's, but said Saturday he didn't realize at the time that the club had a men-only policy.

Two British government members - Maria Miller, the culture, media and sport secretary, and sports minister Hugh Robertson - have also turned down invitations to attend.

``I would really encourage the R&A, when they next come to allocate the Open, to look at this, simply because of the message that it sends out,'' Robertson said in Sunday's Daily Telegraph. ``It just looks very, very out of touch and old fashioned in the post-Olympic era.''

Robertson acknowledged that private clubs are within their right to have the single-sex policy, but added: ``In my mind, the problem comes when that private club fulfills a public function, which any golf club does when it hosts the Open.''

Muirfield is hosting the Open for the 16th time.

Members of the R&A, notably chief executive Peter Dawson, are to face the media Wednesday for its annual news conference. Dawson has defended the decision of his organization to select Muirfield, formally known as the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, as the host of the 2013 Open.

``I don't deny my job would be made a lot easier if this issue didn't exist; that's self-evident,'' Dawson said in April. ``But one might choose to respect the wishes of members of these clubs, which are virtually unanimous in a place like St. Andrews, that the status quo works extremely well for them.''

Dawson leaned on UK legislation that allows single-sex clubs provided they operate under the equality act when it comes to guest access.

``And to think the R&A might say to a club like Muirfield, `You're not going to have the Open anymore unless you change your policy,' is frankly a bullying position that we would never take,'' Dawson told reporters in the spring.

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