Women-free golf clubs? Some of us rather like them, says boss of the Royal and Ancient

R&A chief executive Peter Dawson defended Muirfield's men-only policy ahead of British Open
  • @emilydugan

The head of golf's governing body has said that excluding women from clubs is not sexist, but part of "a way of life that [some people] rather like".

In an increasingly bizarre press conference ahead of tomorrow's 142nd British Open at Muirfield in Edinburgh, R&A chief executive Peter Dawson defended its men-only policy.

He said clubs who chose to keep women out "don't do anyone any harm", adding: "On the Saturday morning when the guy gets up or the lady gets up and out of the marital bed, if you like, and goes off and plays golf with his chums and comes back in the afternoon, that's not on any kind of par with racial discrimination or anti-Semitism or any of these things."

An increasing political storm about sexism in the game has seen the R&A come under pressure to change their policy towards "old boys' clubs" that continue to bar women. Muirfield is one of three clubs on the Open's nine course circuit which persists with men-only membership rules.

Scotland's First Minister, Alex Salmond, is one of a growing number of senior political figures and campaigners clamouring for change in the game. He is boycotting the tournament and said it was "indefensible in the 21st century" for clubs to exclude women.

Smaller-scale protests have also happened when the championship was staged at Royal St George's and Troon - the other all-male clubs - but Dawson said the R&A was inclined to resist the pressure for change, despite finding the issue "increasingly difficult."

Facing down the criticism, he said: "In our view they don't do anyone any harm and we think the right of freedom of association is important. And we've explained our view that we think they have no material adverse effect on participation."

He said it was "frankly absurd" to compare sexism in golf to whites-only clubs or other forms of discrimination, explaining: "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.

"It's just for some people a way of life that they rather like. I don't think in doing that they're intending to do others down or intending to do others any harm. You can dress it up to be a lot more, if you want."

In a sign that he had misread the seriousness of the political storm against him - which has even seen cabinet ministers Hugh Robertson and Maria Miller condemn the sport's archaic attitudes - he said that the issue of gender had been "pretty much beaten to death recently".

Despite conceding that he did "understand that this is a divisive issue," he went on to accuse politicians and the media of hyping up the situation. "We've got politicians posturing, we've got interest groups attacking the R&A, attacking The Open and attacking Muirfield. To be honest, our natural reaction is to resist these pressures, because we actually don't think they have very much substance."

British golf star Rory McIlroy reluctantly waded into the debate today, saying that such blatant discrimination "shouldn't happen these days".

"It's something that shouldn't happen these days. It's something that we shouldn't even be talking about", he said, "So that's why I guess a lot of people don't want to talk about it.

"Obviously it's an issue in some golf clubs. But in terms of life in general, I think men and women are treated equally for the most part these days. And that's the way it should be."

Commenting on other professional golfers' silence on the issue, he said: "I just think it's something that a lot of guys don't want to get themselves into because it's quite a controversial issue."

Club rules: Restricted membership

In a quirk of equality legislation, there is nothing to stop the persistence of men-only clubs and associations in Britain. A private society can restrict membership in whatever way it likes – it is only if it does allow both men and women to join, that the law says they have to be on an equal footing.

Around one per cent of golf courses are single sex, according to R&A, which claims around half of these are women-only. But any private association can restrict its membership – and many do. Some progress has been achieved through funding threats. Marylebone Cricket Club at Lord’s, for example, voted to allow women members in 1998, after it became clear that no Lottery funding would be forthcoming if they did not reform their men-only rules. 

Gentlemen’s clubs – such as the member’s-only Garrick club – continue in Britain, despite attempts from women to join. Two years ago the actress Joanna Lumley tried – and failed – to join the club.

The elite Carlton club, usually the chosen club of every Conservative leader, broke their men-only policy to allow Margaret Thatcher an honorary membership. Until 2008 she was still the only female member.

In a bid to counter the culture of stuffy gentlemen’s clubs, the female-only Grace Belgravia club was established last year. It is the capital’s first women-only private members’ club.

Emily Dugan