It's called The Open – so why is the golf club closed to women?

Royal St George's has welcomed the world to the sport's greatest contest. But usually half the population is shut out
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The Independent Online

This weekend the world's best golfers will compete in the Open on the runway-like fairways and sleek greens of the Royal St George's Golf Club in Sandwich, Kent. If only the club's views on sexual equality matched its perfect record for course maintenance.

The club is one of a handful in Britain which exploit a loophole in European Union legislation, meaning they admit only male members. Women cannot join – they are free to play the course as guests, use its facilities and drink in the bar, but they're are not allowed to play at weekends, meaning those who work are effectively barred.

It has come under fire this week with Tory MPs and sports industry leaders combining to criticise the club's outmoded male-only membership policies.

Local Tory MP Laura Sandys said on Thursday: "Surely it's in their interest to open up membership to as many people as possible," while Sue Tibballs, the chief executive of the Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation has said it was "time to make a progressive stand".

Sports minister Hugh Robertson is also set to speak out against the club's men-only policies, even if regular visitors maintain its membership policy is purely historical.

Sadly, the club has no plans to change it. Royal St George's was founded by two Scotsmen, Henry Lamb and William Purves in 1887. Purves, a wealthy doctor, wished to set up a club which would emulate the high-quality Scottish courses he had grown up playing. Legend has it that he climbed the tower of St Clement's Church in Sandwich so he could identify the land on which to build, and he chose its name to mirror that of St Andrews, arguably the most famous golf course in the world.

Visitors today will hear Home Counties accents and see pinstriped suits hanging in its locker rooms. The course, only two hours by rail from London, is an isolated retreat for City slickers and has clear views of the white cliffs of the Kent coast. Celebrated golf writer Bernard Darwin once described its appeal as: "a charm that belongs to itself. The long strip of turf on the way to the seventh hole, that stretches between the sandhills and the sea; a fine spring day, with the larks singing as they seem to sing nowhere else."

One regular visitor to the present-day club, who did not want to be named, described the clubhouse, a converted farmhouse, as "nothing ostentatious". According to him, the course attracted a mixture of old and new money and drew a large portion of its membership from the capital. He suggested it was particularly popular with those used to the gentlemen's clubs of St James's, where segregated membership was traditionally common, though recent reform means women are increasingly admitted to such institutions. Famous former and current members include James Bond author Ian Fleming and Tory MP Tim Yeo. Fleming once criticised the club's locker room as having a "tacky smell of old shoes and socks and last summer's sweat". He said: "Why was it a tradition of the most famous golf clubs that their standard of hygiene should be that of a Victorian private school?"

Ray Harlow, a curator at Sandwich Town Museum, where an exhibition is currently being shown of the club's history, says male membership is "purely historical" .

"My understanding is that when it started space was so limited that they only had room to accommodate men," he said. "It was only when they realised the club had a social function that they put in facilities for women."

The club's captain, Edward Demery, revealed this week that the club had been discussing membership rules but was reported as saying: "I see no reason for change". Former captain Michael Attenborough has also dismissed the possibility of reform. The club has won the backing of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club's chairman Peter Dawson, who has said: "Quite frankly, it's a matter for clubs what their membership policies are. There are very few single-sex clubs in golf in Britain today – far less than half of one per cent... We are aware of the issue. But I also believe people have a right to determine their own freedom of association."

Such protestations come despite the European Union passing a 2007 law putting an end to male-only bars and limits to how long female players could play in mixed clubs, though the law did not ban male-only clubs due to a legal loophole.

Andrew Reynolds, the golf pro at nearby Royal Cinq Ports Golf Club in Deal, said his club voted five years ago to accept women members. "We're quite comfortable around women, we like them," he said. "The thing is, there are plenty of clubs which historically have not accepted women and the law of the land says they don't need to change." Reynolds points out the existence of women's-only golf clubs, such as Formby Ladies' Golf Club, near Liverpool. However none of them, so far, has been asked to host the Open. The next venue for the coveted championship is the men-only club Muirfield in Scotland.

Male Bastions

*London's gentlemen's club White's still does not allow female members. Founded in 1693, Prince Charles, David Cameron and Lord Conrad Black have all been members. One of the club's former chairman was David Cameron's father, Ian.

*Royal Troon Golf Club only admits men, although there is a separate golf club nearby for ladies. The venue, which hosts the Open, has come under fire from Scottish ministers in recent years for the segregation.

*The Morris Ring, the country's oldest Morris dancing body, recently voted to accept women but still won't let them dance. Women are only allowed to be musicians or help the organisation's male dancers. A spokesperson said men were "physically stronger".