THE biggest sponsor of the Scottish Open has revealed he will not agree to the event being held at any golf club that discriminates against women.
Martin Gilbert, chief executive of Aberdeen Asset Management, said the event would not be held at a men-only club for at least the next four years, while his organisation is its title sponsor.
His comments follow the row over the Open championship being held this year at Muirfield in East Lothian, home of the men-only Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers.
Mr Gilbert, co-founder of Aberdeen Asset Management and a former director of Aberdeen Football Club, said he could not back such a venue for the Scottish Open, because it risked offending his company’s female clients.
When asked what he thought of holding events at clubs that excluded female members, he said: “Because a huge number of our clients are women, we don’t agree with any policies that discriminate against them.
“Women are more than half our clients,” he said, adding jokingly: “They live longer.”
The Scottish Open is set to be played in at least one venue in the east of the country and one in the west within the next three years.
Sports commentators say men-only Royal Troon, in Ayrshire, had been one of the contenders – but Mr Gilbert’s comments rule out the event being held at the 135-year-old course.
The businessman said organisers of the competition – won this year by the American Phil Mickelson, who went on to win the Open championship – had agreed a policy of not playing at clubs where women could not be members.
Officials at Muirfield were subjected to a barrage of criticism for the men-only policy. A number of the top players, including South African Ernie Els, admitted they were perplexed at how the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers could continue with its ban on women.
Els, who won the championship when it was staged at Muirfield in 2002, said: “We have presidents, prime ministers, heads of companies who are women – all I can say is that it is weird in this day and age.
“It is an issue. I’m not a member there, but I’m a member at a lot of clubs around the world and I like to think they’re all open. Other people judge, we go play sport. But it is so weird.”
First Minister Alex Salmond has spoken out against clubs that discriminate against women and did not attend this year’s Open.
He said he thought it was “indefensible in the 21st century not to have a golf club that’s open to all”.
The most recent Scottish Open was held at Castle Stuart, the Highlands links course overlooking the Moray Firth, and the next will be hosted at the Royal Aberdeen Golf Club. The locations for the following tournaments are still to be decided.
Aberdeen Asset Management is understood to be one of the first companies to take a stand against a major golf event being held at a men-only club.
At the start of this month’s Open championship, Peter Dawson, the ruling R&A’s chief executive, admitted the debate over men-only golf clubs had the potential to “damage” the event’s reputation. He revealed the governing body might reconsider its stance.
“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,” he said.
“We understand it’s a polarising issue.”
But he denied the current policy was sexist, saying: “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.”
Aberdeen Asset Management joined forces with the Scottish Government last year to support the Scottish Open tournament, with the fund manager taking the role of title sponsor.
Last month, a deal to extend the sponsorship deal to 2017 was announced.
After the government and the Aberdeen-based company revealed plans to extend support for the tournament, prize money will increase from its current level of £3 million to £3.25m in 2015 and 2016, and to £3.5m the following year.
The Scottish Government’s initial three-year support package of £2m includes the provision of activities for young people and communities.
The government’s backing of the tournament uses money confiscated from criminals through its CashBack for Communities initiative.
The European Tour also manages the Ryder Cup, which is set to be staged at Gleneagles in Perthshire in 2014.
Meanwhile, the Scottish Open’s sister tournament, the Aberdeen Asset Management Ladies Scottish Open, will be played at Archerfield Links in East Lothian this year, from 30 August to 1 September.
Aberdeen Asset Management has previously committed to funding the ladies’ competition until 2014.
Scottish golf champion Catriona Matthew said at the time: “No company is doing more for Scottish golf than them at the moment.”
Members of the secretariat at Royal Troon were unavailable for comment.