Golf: At the cutting edge of golf's bunker mentality

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WOMEN in golf clubs - or, rather, women only half-way in golf clubs - is the subject of one of our most durable sporting controversies and is suddenly being debated with renewed vigour thanks to a dimwitted decision by Northwood Golf Club in Middlesex to allow the cameras of the Channel 4 programme Cutting Edge to pry into the club's nooks and crannies.

The result had a million golfers squirming in their leather armchairs when it was shown last Monday night and repeated on Friday. Apart from the generally unflattering portrayal of golf-club life, it drew attention to the fact that lady members have no voting rights and are not allowed to play at certain prime times over the weekend.

Northwoood have since been inundated with telephone calls from indignant ladies all over the country complaining about this disgraceful treatment and also from a few men who said it sounded like just their sort of club and asked if there were any vacancies.

The more significant reaction came from within the club and already a director of the board has resigned and an extraordinary general meeting has been called by angry members wanting to know why the club had allowed themselves to be exposed to public ridicule.

Cutting Edge is the documentary programme that added such a sad postscript to Graham Taylor's forlorn career as England manager. A hefty fee, reported at pounds 70,000, was paid to allow the cameras to follow him and England around for more than a year. The result was a revealing but embarrassing picture of a man tormented by the gradual disintegration of his world.

As the name of the programme clearly indicates, it is out to perform a dissective role which it does cleverly by using the subject's own words and deeds to sharpen its point. It is, in effect, a do-it-yourself piss-take and Northwood fell for it like mugs. In choosing golf as its next sporting target, the programme-makers felt they were wiring into one of sport's most indiosyncratic areas. Seven clubs, however, were sensible enough to reject their approach before Northwood jumped at it.

They cannot even cite financial reward as an excuse because they received a measly fee of no more than a couple of thousand pounds for granting Cutting Edge the run of the place for as long they liked. First, a man with a notebook spent weeks observing and listening. Then the cameras arrived and stayed for three months.

With that amount of footage to ferret through, they could have presented the club in any way they chose. Much of the actual golf they showed was dominated by a member called Preston Lockwood, a venerable actor who, in playing the role of the philosophical hacker, saved his most inventive performance for the bar where members can't recall seeing him before.

There were many others queueing up to add their quota to the self-lampooning. It doesn't help to learn that the club were shown a preview and were so pleased they ordered extra television sets to be placed in the bar. We can leave Northwood to their private uproar confident that any rugby, cricket, tennis or other sports club have members who could turn in a similar cringe-making performance if the cameras were trained on them long enough. What helps to make golf an easier target is the game's reputation for male domination and a certain class of male at that.

Anyone with even a superficial knowledge of golf would regard Northwood's atttitude to women as normal. In common with many other activities rooted in tradition, the game jealously protects its privilege. In some clubs, ladies don't even get past the front door, as experienced by one who had been playing with her husband at a superior club. After the game, and still wearing her spiked shoes, she approached the clubhouse and, anxious to abide by the rules, asked the doorman: 'Are spikes allowed in here?'

'Spikes are, ladies aren't,' he replied.

There are other sporting domains similarly inclined to the admittance of ladies but few are as consistent. A recent television series called Tenko was about the brutal imprisonment of women by the Japanese during the Second World War. I know several clubs where the camp commandant would have been put up for honorary life membership.

Having been a captain of a golf club myself, I know the problem not to be straightforward. There are more than 1,600 golf clubs in Britain and many of them are operating under constitutions written many years before women could even vote for Parliament. The large majority vote necessary to change a club's constitution makes reform a very slow process.

Most clubs added ladies sections on the understanding that they would use the course during the week but make way for the men at the weekends. The number of women now at work makes that an outdated concept but something else has happened to golf - almost every club in the country has crammed in as many members as it can hold and have long waiting lists.

To grant women equal rights would be tantamount to letting in more than 100 new members at the prime weekend times. In many cases you'd be asking male members to vote against their only chance of a game, a sacrifice even the most fair-minded would find difficult to make.

This is the reason that men use their votes to maintain the existing relationship. Anyone who concludes that this renders women members voiceless knows nothing about golf clubs and even less about women.

Reform is sure to come but it is bound to be slow. A vast proportion of those precious acres of this island devoted to golf courses are owned by members of golf clubs and have been presided over by them in their spare time for a century or more. Members clubs are the backbone of a sport that flourishes more than any other, is better disciplined and self-regulated than any other and in recent years has produced more world-class performers than any other, with the possible exception of athletics. They can be the most infuriating places, but they work.

WEMBLEY'S future as the home of the England football team appears to be in doubt. The Football Association is threatening to play elsewhere unless it gets a better deal from the stadium company. I am sure English results would not suffer as a result.

Those twin towers may well represent the spiritual home of English football but as hallowed as that turf may be, there's little evidence it provides any real advantage. Visiting teams appear to be anything but overawed and at times seem to enjoy the experience more than the English players.

When the deal was negotiated I felt the FA had made a mistake in not retaining the right to play the odd game elsewhere and let the team plug into the more inspirational atmosphere at a place like Old Trafford. But to forego that and forfeit most of the money seems to make it a very poor deal.