The last taboo in golf is about to fall. Caught in a commercial pincer movement executed by the Olympic Games and major sponsors, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club appears ready to end the epoch of men only institutions hosting the Open Championship.
R&A chief executive Peter Dawson spoke last year ahead of the Open at Muirfield, one of four clubs on the Open rota that operates male only policies, about a ‘direction of travel’ leading the game away from the Victorian practice of excluding women from club membership. It would seem the pace of change is accelerating with key sponsor HSBC vocal yesterday about the need to move on.
Giles Morgan, head of sponsorship at HSBC, one of the principal backers of the Open, said: “I think things are moving. It's not something we are going to put a gun to anyone's head over, but we would like to see it solved so we don't keep talking about it.
“The R&A are clear that it's a very uneasy position for the bank. When you are showcasing one of the world's greatest tournaments it would be much more palatable if the events were played where there was not the sense of segregation. We would like to see it get solved so we don't keep talking about it. I don't want to be in a position where we have to justify our sponsorship.
“They are doing a lot of research. They've been asking a lot of sponsors and stakeholders, which they did over the last three or four months. They are acutely aware that things need to change and move on.”
Golf’s return to the Olympics in Brazil is a key factor forcing the R&A to act. Olympic association is central to golf’s plans to expand further into China and break through in South America. For ‘growing the game’ read ‘attract new investment’ from sponsors seeking exposure through the global platform golf provides.
With the heartlands of Europe and America exhausted in terms of the business template golf is keen to colonise new territories. It cannot do this with fusty, old attachments to 19 Century mores. Scottish First Minister raised the temperature last summer by refusing to attend at Muirfield. With the Open due to return to the exclusion zone of St Andrew’s next year, 12 months before the Olympics, the organisation has little choice but to act now.
“The Olympics is a far more potent and powerful consideration. We all know that the thing about the Olympics is it's about men and women playing on the world stage, and to be part of the Olympic family there are certain stipulations that need to adhered to,” Morgan said.
An R&A spokesman said: “We promised a period of reflection immediately after last year's Championship and this process is ongoing. Naturally we have taken soundings within the game and we will report the outcome of our deliberations in due course.”