Comment: Sex and golf: local rules should apply

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The Independent Online
Ihesitate to blame the Victorians because they are the founding fathers of the games most of the world now play and we owe them our eternal gratitude.

Football, rugby, cricket, tennis, golf . . . what they didn't invent they developed and the fact that the rules and constitutions they drew up in the latter half of the 1800s are largely those in force today is a tribute to their organisational thoroughness.

Unfortunately, and I am sure unwittingly, they left behind a few timebombs and the one ticking loudest at the moment is strategically placed under British golf. Not the golf played by the likes of Colin Montgomerie and Nick Faldo, but the more rustic version hacked out by the hundreds of thousands of us who play at private clubs throughout the country.

What the Victorians did, these so-called fierce patriarchs, was to adopt an attitude to the ladies that was not at all in keeping with their reputation for ruling with rods of iron and which is now ready to explode.

The pattern for forming a golf club towards the end of the last century, which was when many were created, was for a group of enthusiastic men to get together and beg, borrow or buy a few likely fields. They hired a professional who laid out a course which they knocked into shape. Then they built a rudimentary clubhouse and completed the hard work of pioneering the game as we know it today.

Since women have always disliked the thought of men enjoying themselves without them, it wasn't long before they wanted to try this new sport. Can we join? they asked. That was the moment when the course of golfing history hung in the balance. And our forefathers blew it. Perhaps, it was asking too much of them to possess the vision to shape the future of club golf as well as have the prescience to foresee the pitfalls but all they had to do was to take up the stern posture for which they were famed.

Sorry girls, they should have said, but we've only got a small clubhouse, the toilet arrangements are a bit primitive and the course is crowded. Why don't you go and form your own club?

It's easy to talk with hindsight but had they done that we'd have twice as many golf courses and few of the problems that now beset the game. Alternatively, and I admit this wouldn't have been in character or in context with the age, they could have welcomed them as equal members and the uniformity of opportunity now desired between men and women golfers would have been in place from the start.

But they didn't. They took the easiest, and worst, course by offering them a deal that would have seemed quite sensible at the time. The women would form their own section and play on the course when the men were at work during the week and keep clear when the men were free at the weekends.

Thus was set the template for the formation of golf clubs for decades to come.

Once established, the pattern has so far proved very difficult to change. In order to understand why this should be it is necessary to understand the nature of golf clubs and that seems to be beyond most non-golfers, especially the Equal Opportunities Commission who on Thursday launched a policy of positive discrimination in favour of women aimed at life in general but covering certain aspects of sport.

In an age crammed with unfortunates wondering where the next equal opportunity is coming from, I am not sure if the EOC have their priorities right but I do agree with their drive for female equality in sport, especially in schools, and if you were starting any sports club today you would automatically begin with equal status.

The problem comes when you attempt to introduce it into clubs that have been run very successfully and contentedly for many decades on decidedly unequal terms as the recent MCC conversion showed. The situation in golf is far more complex than the MCC's because of a large green area called a course upon which playing space is at a premium. Golf is one of the most under- resourced games and most clubs have as many members as they can possibly accommodate and also have long waiting lists.

It is the weekends when the congestion is worse, especially when the men's competitions are held. They are usually well over-subscribed, particularly in the short days of winter.

And, for historic reasons previously explained, it is the weekend when playing time for women members is restricted and that's when they want the equality to click in. They can only do so if men surrender course time that has previously been solely theirs and this is the fundamental issue at stake. Men argue that the women knew the rules before they joined but that doesn't disguise the fact that times have changed and more women golfers work than ever before and the weekend is their only time to play, too.

My mother club, Glamorganshire, is 108 years old and is one of about 1,400 facing this problem. It is proving a worryingly divisive issue. It is an oft neglected point that the women control their own section of a club, play off different tees with separate stroke indices and answer to their own national golf union. That doesn't mean that they don't contribute to the club as a whole but they are a self-sufficient unit within the club.

As far as I know, they have no specific complaints about the way we run the Glamorganshire which is a very successful and flourishing club that now has over 1,100 members of all categories. As a past captain I'm aware of the hard work and great expense, out of our own pockets, that has gone to making it so. Whereas I believe that ladies have a justifiable case for equality I can't disregard the fears of many men that it might be gained at the expense of the club's future health. That view may well contain a strain of misogyny, which I certainly don't share, but, like it or not, golf has been a game hitherto controlled and financed by men.

We can hardly blame the ladies for not having played a bigger part in building the game up to its present strength if we haven't let them have a vote but the fact remains that we may have been guilty of discrimination but certainly not of exploitation. They pay two thirds of the male subscription (pounds 267 compared to pounds 365) and, this is not a criticism, make a negligible contribution to what we make from the bar. Last year our net bar profits were way in excess of their total subscriptions. And, far from being deprived, I guess that the average women member plays more golf than the average male member.

Golf clubs have a regrettable history of discrimination, as various races and religions would testify. Forty years ago tradesmen and retailers would not have been welcome. Slowly, and it has been slow, the barriers have been pulled down and that facing the ladies is one of the last.

But, as impressive as the EOC's case is, I suggest the Government hold back from trying to change this situation through strict edict. There is men's golf and there is women's golf and we have been fated to share the same facilities. Every club steeped in this tradition is going to have to work out a future fair to everyone. It won't be easy but these are our clubs and this is our problem and we claim the right to solve it ourselves.