FINALLY. A mere 260 years after the original band of old codgers got together over, no doubt, a couple of kummels to form their own clique, sorry, club, that estimable body of men known as the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews is on the verge of doing something sensible. Or long overdue, depending on one’s point of view when it comes to the always-polarising issue of gender discrimination in what was, once upon a time, the most egalitarian of games.
On 18 September this year – now known as “referendum day times two” – the 2,400-strong R&A membership will have the opportunity to vote on whether or not to allow that strange and foreign species known as females into the sandstone clubhouse that sits directly behind the first tee of the Old Course. But only an opportunity.
By tradition, R&A members have to attend the annual “business meeting” that takes place on the day before the final day of the club’s autumn meeting – stay with me on this – in order to be eligible to vote on any constitutional change. So, even if it is safe to assume more than the usual 300 or so members will show up in Fife come September, it is equally likely that a large percentage of the total electorate will be absent. Truly, this is a strange way to “democratically” decide something of such magnitude.
Still, before the members get to answer their burning question, here’s another: Why now?
Just the other day, Peter Dawson, chief executive of the R&A, was at pains to stress on multiple occasions that the motivation behind the timing of this potentially historic change to golf’s ruling body outside the United States and Mexico was “our governance role within the game”. And there the Aberdeen-born administrator (who, many moons ago, somehow managed to compete in the English Amateur Championship) made a valid point.
While this column has never had a problem with the existence of single-sex clubs per se – in any true democracy individuals should be free to join clubs of all types, shapes and sizes – the R&A is different. Put simply, no individual or organisation can possibly retain any semblance of credibility while simultaneously making the rules for golfers of both sexes and openly discriminating against one of the two. The word “untenable” comes immediately to mind.
Hang on, though. This seemingly indefensible situation was no different a decade ago. Or a century ago. So what has suddenly changed? Why is this established and entrenched position being abandoned now? Is there something we don’t know?
As someone once said: “There’s a reason for everything and that reason is usually money.” Which is why even the most mildly cynical mind will surely be turning to comments made earlier this year by Giles Morgan, global head of sponsorship and events for the HSBC bank. “It’s not something we are going to hold a gun to their heads about,” said Morgan, whose employers are one of the Open Championship’s biggest corporate supporters, of the R&A’s continuing all-maleness. “But the R&A are clear that it’s a very uneasy position for the bank. We would like to see it solved so we don’t keep talking about it. When you are showcasing one of the world’s greatest tournaments, it would be much more palatable if it were played where there was not a sense of segregation.”
Strong stuff, especially as the Open is the R&A’s sole source of income. Were golf’s oldest and most important championship to suffer significant financial setbacks – such as the withdrawal of HSBC – the repercussions would have severe implications for Dawson & Co.
At this point in this long-running debate, defenders of the status quo invariably cite the undeniable fact that the R&A and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club are two distinct entities. Indeed, part of the press release distributed at the time of last Wednesday’s announcement underlined that very fact.
“The Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews holds a unique position in golf,” it said. “Established in 1754, it evolved through two-and-a-half centuries as a leading authority in the world game.
“As the club celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2004, it devolved responsibility for the administration of the Rules of Golf, the Open Championship and other key events, and the development of the game in existing and emerging golfing nations, to a newly formed group of companies collectively known as the R&A. As a separate entity, The Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews remains a private club with a worldwide membership of 2,400.”
Yeah, yeah. While factually correct, such a distinction is mere semantics. The fact is that the R&A and the Royal & Ancient etc etc are the same people with, crucially in this instance, the same attitudes. So Dawson’s repeated claims that this long-anticipated move has more to do with “governance” than greenbacks is one that should perhaps be consumed with a modicum of sodium chloride.
Placing him on equally unsafe ground, Dawson was also quizzed on the future of the three “nae wimmin” clubs on the nine-strong Open rota – Royal Troon, Royal St George’s and the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers (Muirfield). Assuming the R&A is soon to be a mixed-sex club after 18 September, could they, in all good conscience, take golf’s flagship event to a course where lady members are anathema?
“This should not be interpreted as the R&A declaring we will not take the Open to a single-sex club in future,” declared Dawson. “As long as clubs are behaving legally and they are the best courses for the Open, then we have to put the needs of the championship high on our list of priorities. So this is merely a step along the direction of travel for us. We’re not intending to place other clubs under pressure. The governing body issue is primarily driving this forward.”
Still, within 24 hours of those words being uttered, the Honourable Company announced the formation of a “working group” that will, in due course, make recommendations to the club board about all aspects of the “future”. Within that, there are apparently no immediate plans to change the membership criteria but “these will be reviewed”.
So, while it would perhaps be best not to get too excited, the wind of change is definitely blowing on both sides of the Firth of Forth. Which brings us inexorably to speculation over the identities and number of prospective women members in these soon-to-be ex-male bastions. One name that springs immediately to mind is American Judy Bell, pictured, the only past president of the United States Golf Association not to be offered R&A membership. Britain’s leading lady professional, Catriona Matthew, is another obvious candidate. As is Lady Angela Bonallack, a past Curtis Cup player and wife of Sir Michael, the five-times Amateur champion who is the only man ever to be both secretary and captain of the R&A.
Whatever eventually occurs, much excitement and conjecture surely lies ahead. Let’s hope none of the resulting giddiness leads to voting confusion in the, generally speaking, elderly R&A membership.
If things go horribly wrong on 18 September we could conceivably end up with no women in Scotland.