The Royal & Ancient Golf Club, which governs the sport outside the U.S. and Mexico, will study the issue of all-male clubs after questions about Muirfield hosting this year’s British Open.
Peter Dawson, chief executive of the R&A, faced numerous queries today on Muirfield’s all-male membership in his annual press conference at the Open, which begins tomorrow. The club in Gullane, Scotland, is one of three in the Open rotation with no women members.
“We will have a look at what people are saying and try to take a view about all of this and find the most sensible way forward,” Dawson said. “We understand it’s a polarizing issue. We’ve been through polarizing issues and you eventually come out with a conclusion.”
When asked for the difference between men-only and whites-only clubs, Dawson said it was “absurd” to think gender issues in membership policies were the same as those set along racial or religious lines.
“Oh, goodness me, I think that’s a ridiculous question, if I may say so,” he said. “There’s a massive difference between racial discrimination, anti-Semitism, where sectors of society are downtrodden and treated very, very badly indeed. And to compare that with men’s golf clubs, I think, is frankly absurd. There’s no comparison whatsoever.”
Single-sex clubs are allowed under U.K. law and Dawson said they are a small minority, with half of them being women-only. He added that the R&A believes membership policies are a matter for each individual club.
“I don’t really think that a golf club, which has a policy of being a place where like-minded men or, indeed, like-minded women, go and want to play golf together and do their thing together ranks up against some of these other forms of discrimination,” Dawson said. “It’s just a way of life that some of these people like. And realistically, that’s all it is. You can dress it up to be a lot more, if you want.”
Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, who played with Phil Mickelson in the Scottish Open pro-am last week, has said he won’t attend the Open this year to protest Muirfield’s membership. He welcomed the news the R&A will study the issue.
“For the organizers of golf’s oldest major championship to undertake this is a step in the right direction, which will also be welcomed by everyone who loves the game,” Salmond said in a statement. “Scotland is proud of its tradition as the home of Golf. However, if we are to be the future of this great game it is only right we have equality between men and women.”
In addition to political pressure, Dawson said, the media and interest groups have been “attacking” the R&A and the Open.
“To be honest, our natural reaction is to resist these pressures, because we actually don’t think they have much substance,” he said. “But I’d like to stress we’re not so insular as to fail to recognize the potential damage that campaigns like this can to the Open Championship. And it’s our championship committee’s responsibility to do what is best for the Open.”
Dawson didn’t say when any discussion on gender issues would take place or specifically be addressed.
“I’m absolutely not going to pre-empt what’s going to come out of this,” he said. “I wouldn’t even want to call it a review, but we’re very conscious on the disparity of view on this subject.”
Royal Troon in Scotland and Royal St. George’s in England are the other clubs among the nine in the Open rotation with all-male memberships.
Augusta National Golf Club, which hosts the Masters Tournament each April in Augusta, Georgia, admitted its first female members in August, ending almost a decade of scrutiny. The U.S. Golf Association and the PGA of America, which run the U.S. Open and PGA Championship, respectively, don’t allow those majors to be played at all-male clubs.
“When things are a bit quieter after the championship, I’m quite sure we’ll be taking a look at everything to see what kind of sense we can make of it for the future,” Dawson said. “But I think right now our concentration has to be on this wonderful event and making it a success.”
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