SCOTLAND’S leading female golfer has urged the sport’s governing body to “lead by example” by admitting women members to the country’s most famous club.
Catriona Matthew called on the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in St Andrews to end its men-only membership policy. Such a move could signal the end of discriminatory policies that remain in place at some of Scotland’s most exclusive clubs.
Ms Matthew’s intervention came days after the R&A, golf’s ruling body and organiser of the Open Championship, said it could not “bully” men-only clubs into admitting women members. Muirfield – a men-only club in East Lothian – is preparing to host the Open for the 16th time in July.
Pressure has been growing on the small number of Scottish clubs that exclude female members after the Augusta National in Georgia, home of the Masters, broke with tradition by admitting two women members last year.
Speaking in Edinburgh yesterday, Ms Matthew, a former Women’s British Open champion, insisted the onus is on the R&A to make the first move.
“I’d say inevitably it will change,” she said at the launch of the Aberdeen Asset Management Ladies’ Scottish Open. “I think Augusta letting in the two [female members] was great. You can’t force these clubs to do it. They’ll do it in their own time.
“I think it would be a great move by the R&A to do it. It’s tough for them to tell Muirfield to do it when they don’t have women members. They should lead by example.”
The Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews was founded in 1754 and has a worldwide membership. Any decision to admit women would be “a matter for our members to determine”, according to the club when it responded to the move by Augusta to allow Condoleezza Rice, the former US secretary of state, and banking executive Darla Moore to don the coveted Green Jacket last year.
To date, there has been no sign of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers on the East Lothian coast, or other high-profile men-only clubs such as Royal Troon, following suit.
“There is nothing wrong under the UK legislation with a single-sex club, as long as they behave under the Equality Act as far as guest access is concerned, which Muirfield certainly does,” said Peter Dawson, R&A chief executive, last month.
“To think that the R&A might say to a club like Muirfield, ‘You are not going to have the Open any more unless you change your policy’, is frankly a bullying position we would never take.”
However, Ms Matthew, who lives in East Lothian, said: “You can’t suddenly have 50 per cent women members, but what they did in Augusta was a start.
“In 50 years’ time, hopefully there’ll be a few more. A few in is a start, though, and we can go from there.
“I’ve lived in East Lothian for quite a long time. I’ve played Muirfield maybe twice. I’m sure if I tried I could go [more]. The R&A do so much for golf. They put a lot into women’s golf. It’s a shame that that can get lost.”
Carly Booth, 20, the current Scottish Ladies’ Open champion, said yesterday she had never played at Muirfield.
“It’s out of our control,” she added when asked her views on single-sex golf clubs.
“We just on with it. When it happens, it happens.”
Another up-and-coming player, Melissa Reid, of England, recently spoke of her regret that the Open was staged at men-only clubs such as Muirfield, Royal Troon and Royal St George’s in Kent.
She said: “It would be nice if they did not [take the Open to male-only clubs], as it would back us up a bit, but I don’t think they will because they are such good Open venues.”
Mr Dawson, one of the most powerful figures in golf, was unavailable to respond to Ms Matthew’s comments last night, but he addressed the subject of men-only clubs during a recent discussion with golf writers.
He admitted the issue was “very emotive”, but felt the general public had “a slightly false impression of what things are like in the game of golf”, because of how the sport had been portrayed over single-sex clubs.
He said: “My personal position is that I totally believe in equality, but I do also believe that there are times when men need to socialise with men and women need to socialise with women.”
No-one from Muirfield returned calls last night.
Golf still bound by rules made in Scotland 269 years ago
The thorny issue of single-sex golf clubs has been a feature of the game since the first rules were drawn up in the 18th century.
The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, which this year is hosting the Open at Muirfield, was one of the first clubs to formalise the rules of the game in 1744.
Throughout its history it has had an all-male membership, as has the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, founded in 1754 and which was to become the custodian of the rules of golf and the game’s ruling body on this side of the Atlantic.
In 2004, a reorganisation saw the club devolve responsibility for these functions to a newly formed group of companies, known as the R&A.
The return of the Open to Muirfield has once again seen all-male clubs in the firing line. Other single-sex clubs to host golf’s most prestigious championship are Royal Troon and Royal St George’s.
Those who defend the arrangement against charges of sexism point out that lady guests and visitors are welcome to play the courses and are welcome in their clubhouses, and like any private clubs they have the right to create their own rules.
In some cases, for example Royal Troon and St Andrews, there is a neighbouring club that caters for an all-lady membership.
But the barrage of criticism that has rained down on all-male clubs led to Augusta National, the golf club once regarded as the as the most formidable male bastion in the world, relaxing its rules.
The home of the US Masters, founded by Bobby Jones, admitted the former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, pictured, and the South Carolina financier Darla Moore as members last year.