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.

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