John Huggan: Golf and the gender equality question

The 1929 Women's Open at St Andrews. Almost a century later, women are still not allowed in the R&A clubhouse. Picture: Getty
The 1929 Women's Open at St Andrews. Almost a century later, women are still not allowed in the R&A clubhouse. Picture: Getty
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THE too-often Olde Worlde treatment of women golfers by their male counterparts is a subject that, especially for non-golfers, has long provoked reactions ranging from incredulity, through to hysterical laughter and all the way to full-blown outrage.

And questions, so many questions. . .

Can it be true that the rules of golf worldwide (except in the USA and Mexico) are conducted and administered by a club that has, since 1754, excluded everybody of the female persuasion? Every single one of them?

Yes and yes.

So the Open Championship, the biggest, oldest and most prestigious event in the game, routinely visits clubs where there are no women members?


The clubhouse occupied by the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews does not allow women to enter the premises other than for “Lady Guests Dinner Nights?”

That’s right.

Today, in the 21st century?


Are you kidding me?


And these are all things that the First Minister of Scotland and the Prime Minster of the United Kingdom have apparently only just become aware of? Where have they been these last few decades?

Yes. Maybe off on some other politically opportunistic jaunt.

Sadly, of course, all of the above does nothing but tarnish the wider reputation of the greatest game of all. The routinely discriminatory treatment of women within golf – and the very existence of an all-male club in a position of power and authority that extends beyond their own gender – is an embarrassment to all.

Or is it?

Disappointingly, it would seem not. Forget for a moment the invariably grey-haired, soup-stained, dandruff-festooned, public school educated and checked-shirt/loud corduroy trouser/brogue shoe/straw hat-wearing members of clubs such as the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, Royal St George’s, Royal Troon, Prestwick and Western Gailes. They, given the evidence of the past 250 years or so, are a lost cause, their rampant misogyny is far too ingrained to change now.

Instead, let’s focus on lady golfers themselves. By their inactivity and seeming indifference to the bigotry that surrounds them, they, sad to say, are part of the problem rather than major players in the solution. My goodness, next year the Ricoh British Women’s Open will be played at the aforementioned Royal St George’s, a place where, for 51 weeks of 2014, women will not be welcome.

The Ricoh event is overseen by the St Andrews-based Ladies Golf Union. On a radio show last week, Shona Malcolm, chief executive of the Ladies’ Golf Union, claimed to be unconcerned by the fact that the Open Championship, run by her near-neighbours the R&A, is routinely played at clubs where she is ineligible for membership.

Instead, Malcolm, pictured, pleaded for what she seems to think of as “understanding.” Her organisation, she said, was one which prefers to effect change from within the system. Cutting off relations with their male counterparts would, she felt, only make things worse.

Such an attitude, it hardly needs to be said, is staggering. This policy of friendly engagement is just not working. Or at least it hasn’t been working for at least the last 259 years, the lifetime of the R&A. It is, in actual fact, wholly ineffective. Forget emotion, mere logic demands that something else be used in an effort to haul the blazer-clad chaps out into the open, or at least into the 21st century.

And the time is now. Dawson is wobbling on the ropes. Only the other day the 64-year old Aberdonian confessed to finding this perennially divisive issue “increasingly difficult.” All that is needed is a knockout blow. Or at least a few wee jabs to the kidneys. Whatever way, he and his ilk will end up on the canvas. And, best of all, they seem to have finally realised that inevitable fact. The fat lady – oh the irony – is clearing her throat.

Here’s a proposal for the LGU. Let’s change the venue for the 2014 Women’s British Open. Let’s take it to a club where men and women co-exist rather than “co-exclude.” Let’s go for democracy rather than demigodry. Let’s make it clear that the outdated behaviour and attitudes of this elite (!) band of administrators will no longer be tolerated. Let’s put these guys under some real pressure.

Here’s another idea. In defence of their current position, the R&A tends to make much of the fact that its various rulemaking committees contain representatives from across the globe and that those representatives are both male and female.

“We have taken some steps in that direction,” said Dawson last week. “But I’m sure there will be more to come.”

Truly, their generosity of spirit is quite overwhelming at times.

But there is a more expedient solution. Let’s get all of those females on the rules committees to withdraw their services. Every single one. Let’s isolate the men and, in so doing, reduce their authority to govern properly down to nothing.

They can’t do this thing without you ladies. Without your meek acquiescence, the credibility craved by the R&A is gone.

In fact, let’s go further. Let’s form a new body to administer the rules, one that better reflects the modern world we live in and the modern game we play. And let’s give this new army some weapons with which to fight. Let’s give them, for example, the go-ahead to do something significant about how far the modern golf ball can travel after it is struck by a frying pan-wielding tour professional.

Okay, maybe that last bit is unrealistic. But it’s worth considering in our brave new world of equality. A game that takes less time to play and isn’t played on courses 1,000 yards too long is surely worth pursuing.

And there is hope that change may at last be reasonably imminent, albeit on the R&A’s own terms and, no doubt, at its own leisurely pace. As was widely reported last week, Field Marshal Dawson admitted to concerns over the potential damage being done to the prestige of the Open Championship by an ongoing stream of negative publicity regarding the R&A’s seeming preference for Stone Age over Modern Age.

On the other hand, Dawson went on to point out that, in the last decade or so, the R&A has put “about £30 million into women’s golf.”

This is undoubtedly true. And it is to the R&A’s credit that so much of the profits from the Open – the only profit-making event under their auspices – heads off in so many non-discriminatory directions.

But let’s take a closer look at their generosity.

While the R&A wants to help people of all shapes and sizes, colours, creeds and genders onto golf courses and into golf clubs, what they definitely do not want is either children or women in their own golf club. Indeed, at last glance the number of junior members in the R&A was holding relatively steady at nil.

This, too, must change. Within any democracy, the right of “free association” is one that should be forever protected. But the rules of that particular game do not apply to the R&A. They are different by dint of the self-appointed position they hold. And so they must be held to a higher standard, one that the LGU must lead – or, more likely, drag – them towards.

Come on ladies, you know it makes sense. Let’s get this thing done. At last.