Peter Dawson on the men only policy at Muirfield

R&A chief executive Peter Dawson insists Muirfield deserves to be hosting the Open for the first time since Ernie Els claimed victory in 2002. Picture: Getty
R&A chief executive Peter Dawson insists Muirfield deserves to be hosting the Open for the first time since Ernie Els claimed victory in 2002. Picture: Getty
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AT a dinner to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Association of Golf Writers in St Andrews on Monday night, it was remarked that a photograph of the organisation’s founding members had been taken on the steps in front of the R&A Clubhouse due to the fact they weren’t allowed inside.

“Rightly so,” joked Peter Dawson, the R&A’s current chief executive and guest at the event in the Old Course Hotel.

Yesterday morning, around 20 members of the Association were being warmly welcomed by Dawson into the governing body’s inner sanctum, taken out on to the balcony of his office high above the first tee to admire the view and, back inside round a giant table, encouraged by the R&A’s communications manager to have a “frank exchange of views” with one of the most powerful figures in golf.

While it would be wrong to suggest he was “buttered up” with a few easy questions – a proposal to outlaw anchoring, after all, could have all sorts of consequences for the game – Dawson’s assembled audience sat up straight almost in unison when it got round to the main topic of the day – single-sex golf clubs. “The elephant in the room,” said 
Dawson, who quickly apologised to Global Golf Post correspondent Lewine Mair, the sole woman in attendance, in case he’d offended her.

Almost from the day he succeeded Sir Michael Bonallack in 2000, it’s a matter Dawson has constantly found himself being quizzed about. “I can’t deny that my job would be a lot easier if the issue didn’t exist,” he admitted. It does exist, though, and the heat has been turned up on organisations such as the R&A and the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, whose Muirfield course will host the Open Championship for the 16th time this summer, after Augusta 
National brought down its barriers by affording membership to women for the first time.

Before offering his views on that specifically and whether or not the lead should be followed by similar male-only bastions on this side of the Atlantic, Dawson 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” due to how the sport had been potrayed over single-sex clubs.

In an attempt to provide some “balance”, he described the average golf club in Britain today as a “very different place” to what it was 20-30 years ago. He also highlighted the fact no course in the country was closed to men or women as players and used St Andrews as an example of how men and women golfers co-habitated “in great harmony” as members of five private clubs – three all men and two all women. “More women play golf here than anywhere else I have been and no-one is disadvantaged,” he said. “Feelings are very strong here that this model works. There is no pressure for a mixed-sex club in St Andrews.”

Muirfield is one of three clubs on the Open Championship rota that are men-only establishments, the others being Royal St George’s and Royal Troon. On the back of Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore becoming the first women to wear Green Jackets at Augusta National a fortnight ago – “I am absolutely staggered about how things have switched in Georgia,” said yesterday’s host – it was inevitable that the pressure would be cranked up on the R&A heading into this year’s Open but Dawson insisted the East Lothian club is acting within the law and, therefore, deserved to remain as a venue for the world’s oldest major.

“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,” he stressed. “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 that we would never take.

“Muirfield has a huge history of the Open Championship, this will be the 16th time it has been played there, and who are we to say what they should do because they are behaving perfectly legally. We borrow Muirfield’s golf course for two or three weeks every ten years. They allow us to stage the Open Championship at their golf course. Personally, I think this idea that it sends out a dreadful message to the world is considerably overblown, but that is my own opinion. We don’t see it as our role to attack golf clubs which are behaving perfectly legally.”

Dawson said the R&A had started a “journey” with a re-organisation in 2004 – its governance committees, for example, now include representatives from other organisations – and that he believed the “temperature is changing” amongst members. “I completely understand the view that many people have that any kind of discrimination is a complete no-no,” he added. “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.”