The Open: Golf chiefs to review ‘no women’ policy

R&A chief Peter Dawson: 'Membership policy is a matter for the clubs.' Picture: PA

R&A chief Peter Dawson: 'Membership policy is a matter for the clubs.' Picture: PA

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THE head of golf’s governing body, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, yesterday said it would consider its position on men-only golf clubs as the issue threatened to overshadow the start of the Open Championship at Muirfield.

Speaking on the eve of the world’s most prestigious tournament, R&A chief executive Peter Dawson conceded the debate had the potential to “damage” the reputation of the event. In the strongest indication yet that the R&A will reconsider its stance, he said: “We will have a good look at what people are saying, and try to take a view about all of this and find the most sensible way forward. We understand it’s a polarising issue.”

The matter came to the fore last month when The Scotsman revealed First Minister Alex Salmond would not attend the Open at Muirfield in Gullane, East ­Lothian, ­because of the private club’s refusal to allow women members.

“We’ve got politicians posturing, we’ve got interest groups attacking the R&A, attacking the Open, and attacking Muirfield,” said Mr Dawson yesterday. “To be ­honest, our natural reaction is to resist these pressures, because we actually don’t think they have very much substance.

“But I’d like to stress we’re not so ­insular as to fail to recognise the potential damage that campaigns like this can do to the Open Championship. And it is our championship committee’s responsibility to do what is best for the Open.”

It is a matter which has left players squirming in the build-up to the 142nd Open Championship, with some refusing to enter the debate.

Tiger Woods was among those who refused to be drawn on Tuesday, but Rory McIlroy yesterday said players had not been asked to avoid the subject.

“I haven’t been advised either way,” the world number two said. “I just think it’s something that a lot of guys don’t want to get themselves into because it’s quite a controversial issue. It’s something that shouldn’t happen these days. It’s something that we shouldn’t even be talking about. So that’s why I guess a lot of people don’t want to talk about it.

“Obviously it’s an issue in some golf clubs. But in terms of life in general, I think men and women are treated equally for the most part these days. And that’s the way it should be.”

Similar protests occur when the championship is staged at Royal St George’s, in Kent, and Troon – the other clubs on the nine-strong Open rota to be men-only. As private clubs, the three are free to make their own membership rules. The R&A could attempt to compel them to change by removing them from the Open rota.

Mr Dawson said the R&A was inclined to resist such pressure, despite finding the issue ­“increasingly difficult”.

“The whole issue of gender and single-sex clubs has been pretty much beaten to death ­recently,” Mr Dawson said.

“We do understand that this is a divisive issue. It’s a subject that we’re finding increasingly difficult, to be honest.

“In recent months we’ve been at great pains to try to explain some of the facts about this matter. Single-sex clubs are in a very small minority in the UK. Half of them are women-only, half of them are men-only. They’re ­perfectly legal.

“In our view they don’t do ­anyone any harm and we think the right of freedom of association is important. And we’ve ­explained our view that we think they have no material ­adverse affect on participation.

“I’m absolutely not going to pre-empt what’s going to come out of this. I wouldn’t even want to call it a review, but we’re very conscious of the disparity of view on this subject.”

The decision was welcomed last night by the First Minister.

Mr Salmond said: “I welcome reports the Royal & Ancient is to reconsider its position on men-only clubs. For the organisers of golf’s oldest major championship to undertake this is a step in the right direction which will also be welcomed by everyone who loves the game.

“Scotland is proud of its tradition as the home of golf. However, if we are to be the future of this great game it is only right we have equality between men and women.”

Former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and business executive Darla Moore became first female members of Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia in August last year, ensuring the matter received little attention at this year’s US Masters.

Mr Dawson refused to accept that discrimination on the grounds of gender was the same as other forms of discrimination. He said: “There’s a massive difference between racial discrimination, anti-Semitism where sectors of society are downtrodden and treated very, very badly, indeed. To compare that with a men’s golf club I think is frankly absurd. There’s no comparison whatsoever.

“I don’t really think that a golf club which has a policy of being a place where like-minded men or, indeed, like-minded women, go and want to play golf together and do their thing together ranks up against some of these other forms of discrimination.”

Read more on The Open

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Christine Jardine: Salmond’s unsportsmanlike conduct