Kevin Garside: Men-only golf clubs should not be allowed to host the Open

The Royal and Ancient is seen as upholding the norms and values of Victorian Britain

For the majority the issue is black and white: the exclusion of women from the membership of a golf club is plain wrong. When that club, Muirfield, is host to the Open Championship, it is inexcusable. This is the toxic moral battleground on which golf's regulatory body, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, is mired.

Chief executive Peter Dawson believes the R&A suffers from a perception problem rooted in the way the issue is reported. He was keen to point out that discriminatory membership policy is not the domain of men. Half the clubs operating a single-sex membership are women's clubs. Neither, according to Dawson, is exclusion from membership a bar to participation. Women are free to play Muirfield and the other single-sex clubs on the Open rota, Royal Troon and Royal St George's, which hosted the championship two years ago.

There are approximately 3,000 golf clubs in Britain, of which only 1 per cent, about 30, operate single-sex membership policies. In the example of St Andrews, where five clubs share the same links facilities, all are gender exclusive, two for women only. According to Dawson there is no desire among the respective institutions to change the status quo. They like it that way and who are he and the R&A to tell them otherwise? That would be bullying, he said.

Dawson is on safe ground when women come together as a group and choose of their own free will to form a golf club. It is absolutely right that their choice is respected. The same right extends to men, of course. So what is all the fuss about?

The problem is historical and, ultimately, rooted in a society that remains stubbornly patriarchal. The golf club was born out of a tradition that gave us the officers' and gentlemen's clubs in an age when the role of women was viewed differently. Muirfield was founded in 1891, 27 years before women won the right to vote. That women might share the privilege of golf club membership was anathema to the Muirfield chaps. That world is long gone yet the bar remains, and that is the difficulty that has the R&A by the throat as long as Muirfield, Troon and St George's remain on the Open rota. The message it sends casts the body responsible for the good of the game in the same 19th century, backward-looking light as Muirfield circa 1891.

Membership confers a benefit or there would be no point. Women are denied that benefit in the case of Muirfield, irrespective of the opportunity to play the course.

Historically the sisters responded by doing it for themselves. With membership of the R&A Golf Club at St Andrews denied them, 25 alumnae of the town's Madras School formed the St Regulus Ladies Golf Club in 1913 and shared the links facilities with their brothers. The institution was born as a consequence of exclusion in an epoch that did not recognise their status. A century on, Muirfield, and Dawson, use the "freedom to choose" argument to justify what was at its inception a blatant act of discrimination based on a prejudiced view of women. In fact, in Dawson's argument, exclusivity is presented as diversity, an expression of the freedom of women to do as they please.

Again we are back to the problem of history and perception. Muirfield and the R&A are seen by many as upholding the norms and values of Victorian Britain, which endorsed the subjugation of women, not their emancipation. The day after Dawson spoke, the chief executive of the Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation, Sue Tibballs, was straight on the case. "While it may be lawful for private member clubs to remain men-only, it is clearly damaging to the sport's reputation that these iconic clubs don't allow female members. Not only is it ridiculously outdated, it sends out completely the wrong message to women and girls thinking about taking up the sport. A number of golfing bodies are working very hard to break down the traditional perceptions of the sport and encourage a new generation of female participants, and these clubs do nothing to help that cause," she said.

One of those is the Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters Tournament, which was caught in the same trap in a part of the United States slow to let the modern world in. It recognised the difficulty by first admitting African American members in 1990 and women last year. There are only two women members, high profile at that: former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and business leader Darla Moore. This might smack of tokenism but it does deal with the principle of the matter.

The answer is for the R&A to remove Muirfield and single-sex institutions from the Open rota. Though it is permissible for Muirfield's members to pursue an admissions policy that suits them, it need not and should not be sanctioned by the R&A with the award of golf's oldest major championship. All of the history attached to the place is not worth the slight against women in the year 2013.

Suggested Topics
News
peoplePair enliven the Emirates bore-draw
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark episode 8, review
News
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (R) and Boris Johnson, mayor of London, talk on the Andrew Marr show in London April 26
General electionAndrew Marr forced to intervene as Boris and Miliband clash on TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones
tvSeries 5, Episode 3 review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence