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LONDON (AFP) – Politicians condemned the men-only membership policy of Scotland's Muirfield golf club on Thursday as the first strokes of the British Open championship were played at the centuries-old course.
The Royal and Ancient Golf Club, which runs the Open, has faced a storm of criticism over its decision to hold golf's oldest and most prestigious tournament at the venue.
Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Maria Miller is boycotting the event, while a spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron said he supported her decision.
"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," the spokesman told reporters.
Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond has also said he will boycott the event.
The 269-year-old club admits women as guests, but not as members.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said on his weekly LBC radio show: "I'm dismayed the club does not accept women as members. I find that inexplicable in this day and age."
But he added that it was not for politicians to determine where the Open is staged.
In Parliament Thursday, Leader of the House of Commons Andrew Lansley called the policy "entirely reprehensible", while Labour's shadow culture secretary Harriet Harman called for a ban on no-women sports clubs.
"After the recent successes of female sport it's an embarrassment that this year's British Open, a world class sporting event, is being held at a club which does not admit women members," she said.
"It's time that Muirfield dragged itself into the 21st century and let women in. It's time to ban men-only sport clubs."
Comparisons were drawn with the struggle for racial equality, with Labour MP Diana Johnson saying in the Commons: "We would be outraged if a black person was refused membership of a sports club based on their skin colour.
"So can we please have a debate for why it's acceptable for Muirfield to ban people from joining their club, and doesn't that bigoted bunker mentality make the British Open less than open and less than British?"
Muirfield is one of three clubs out of the current nine used on the Open rotation that has a male-only membership policy. The two others are Royal Troon in western Scotland and Royal St George's in southeast England.
But pressure to act was cranked up on Muirfield and the Royal and Ancient two years ago when the Augusta National Club in Georgia, which hosts the Masters, finally opened their doors to women members after years of resistance.
The Royal and Ancient's chief executive Peter Dawson said of the row at Wednesday's pre-tournament press conference: "I think at the R&A we've been through over 250 years of existence without getting into political comment and I don't really intend to break that rule here."
Players at the Open have been reluctant to answer questions about the issue.
As play began on Thursday, Spanish veteran Miguel Angel Jimenez set a blistering early pace, birdying the first three holes to edge ahead.
He then bagged further birdies at the fifth and ninth to reach the turn in a scorching five under 31.
Another Spaniard, Rafael Cabrera-Bello, was in second place at three under after eight holes.