Martin Dempster: A whole new Open era for golf

R&A had to move with the times and Muirfield inadvertently aided women’s cause says Martin Dempster

Condoleezza Rice was one of the first two women to become Augusta National members. Picture: Reuters

IT was a week that left Peter Dawson, the R&A’s chief executive, at the end of his tether.

At his traditional press conference on the eve of last year’s Open Championship, where he was bombarded with one question after another about Muirfield’s men-only policy, the normally unflappable administrator looked close to exploding.

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He was back up to boiling point again on the Sunday morning, as I discovered when bumping into him in front of the iconic clubhouse at the East Lothian venue. “Bloody marvellous,” he said of an incorrect report regarding Royal St George’s, another of the country’s male-only golfing bastions, being a future venue for the Women’s British Open. “That’s probably set us back another 20 years.”

The following day, Dawson did not hold his usual post-Open briefing, no doubt because he was fed up answering the same questions, though just as interesting would have been to hear his thoughts on a 20,000 drop in attendance from the event’s previous visit to Muirfield in 2002.

Nine months on, he effectively did that yesterday by holding a round-table discussion with a group of golf writers in his office overlooking the first tee on the Old Course at St Andrews – and his message was crystal clear.

While the events of Muirfield alone – First Minister Alex Salmond refused to attend, in protest – were not the only factor, they have certainly contributed to the move made by The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews to propose a motion to admit women as members.

It remains to be seen if that will be passed by the 2,400-strong male membership and, remember, the same proposal didn’t even get to the official voting stage at Royal Burgess Golfing Society, another men-only club, at the end of last year.

Having seen so much work go into an event only to see it “dwarfed” by wave after wave of negativity, however, Dawson seems determined that it won’t happen again. The R&A, as he rightly pointed out, can’t force the clubs that stage the game’s oldest major to change anything providing they are being run “legally”, as is the case, of course, with Muirfield, Royal Troon and Royal St George’s.

But, if the vote to admit women members is passed on 18 September – the same day as the Scottish independence referendum – then it seems inevitable that those clubs will have to follow suit.

It would be ludicrous, after all, for the game’s governing body to – finally – set the example so many people have been crying out for, only to then open themselves up for fresh criticism by taking the event to a club that is digging in its heels.

“That will be the day!” declared Dawson in reply to being asked if he had felt personal hurt by some of the flak flying around last July. “What I felt most sorry about at Muirfield was all the hard work that was put in to stage the championship only for it to be rather dwarfed by this one issue – that was a great shame.

“The staff here are very dedicated and very able. They look to get the right results for The Open and the R&A, so there’s probably more a feeling here that we’ve got this done (a vote) despite it rather than because of it.”

The focus now turns to the members of the club that was founded in 1754 and, as was the case at Royal Burgess, there will be some among them who will have choked on their gin and tonic at the very thought of a letter carrying such a proposal tumbling through the letterbox.

It seems unthinkable, though, that the members of the R&A’s general committee, the one with the most powerful voice, have taken this step without feeling confident they can secure the required two-thirds majority.

As one of the game’s governing bodies, the St Andrews-based organisation has to be seen to be leading by example. It cannot continue to live in the past and now more than ever, perhaps, is the time for it to move into the modern world.

It would have been an awkward proposal to be put on the table in a year when the Open Championship is being held at one of those men-only clubs. That’s not a problem this year at Royal Liverpool, which has a mixed policy. Royal Troon, the 2016 hosts, are the next men-only club to host the Claret Jug joust and it will be interesting to see how they respond if the R&A vote goes through, though the situation there is slightly different to Muirfield and Royal St George’s due to the existence of the Troon Ladies club.

In the meantime, let’s applaud the R&A for making the first move, albeit on the back of Augusta National Golf Club having admitted two woman members – former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and businesswoman Darla Moore – in the past couple of years.

While they were hand-picked, the first female members of the R&A – if the move is, indeed, successful – will be determined in the same way male members have been over the past 250 years. They will be proposed and seconded by existing members then, if approved by the rest of the membership, the door of that iconic clubhouse will swing open.

A “yes” vote will also pave the way for honorary membership to be conferred upon women and potential candidates for that include the legendary Annika Sorenstam, Scottish duo Catriona Matthew and Belle Robertson and Judy Bell, the only USGA president not yet to hold R&A membership.

“Obviously this is all part of the marketplace out there,” replied Dawson to being asked about any corporate pressure being placed on the R&A, with Giles Morgan, HSBC’s head of sponsorship and events, having expressed concern about the Open Championship being held at men-only golf clubs. “But this is about our governance role and, for good governance of the game, this is the right thing to do.”

Hear, hear!