Open (except to any woman wanting to be a member). Is it time for the Royal and Ancient to become less so?

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The website of the Royal St Georges Golf Club has a dedicated section for its members, complete with a special password to keep out the undesirables.

The website of the Royal St Georges Golf Club has a dedicated section for its members, complete with a special password to keep out the undesirables.

To join up and get through security, you need deep pockets to pay for the thousands of pounds in fees, at least two years of patience to reach the front of the queue, and an ability to muster at least 14 supporters from within the ranks of the 775-strong membership.

But most importantly, you need the right chromosomes: club membership is closed to women. It may be proud of its royal connections, but the Queen could not sign up.

Yet as 156 of the world's best golfers set off down the fairways of the 116-year-old course at Sandwich, Kent, today in the Open Championship, any rumbling of discontent will be drowned by the sound of polite applause and the odd whoop of approval.

The Royal and Ancient club at St Andrew's in Scotland - the sport's governing body, organisers of the tournament and private club with around 2,500 members (all male) - are content with the situation. "We have nothing to say to your questions at all," said an R&A spokesman yesterday. "We are here running a tournament."

Despite condemnation from women's groups and complaints from politicians, the event will be unaffected by the kinds of protests that cost organisers of this year's Masters at Augusta millions of dollars in sponsorship. While widespread debate in the US questioned the all-male, blue-chip membership at Augusta - which hosts one of the four most prestigious tournaments in the golfing calendar - sponsors have backed the Open, unconcerned about the choice of venue. Royal St Georges has already hosted 12 Open Championships and nine amateur championships.

Martha Burk, the head of the National Council of Women's Organisations, who organised the protests in the US, said: "If I were invited, I would come over and try to help with organising.So far I have not been, and it's certainly not a thing I would jump into without being invited by British feminists."

Women can play on the course at Sandwich as visitors, but they are not allowed to become full members. The club saysthe story of a sign once on display at the course that said "no women or dogs" is myth.

However, public opinion is increasingly turning against the R&A, according to its critics. Despite protesting that only a handful of more than 2,500 golf clubs in Britain were single sex, it chose Muirfield, in Scotland, as venue for the Open last year, which does not have a single woman member.

Next year, it is to be held at Royal Troon in Ayrshire, another club that adopts a men-only policy. In a letter to the R&A before this year's tournament, Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, urged the organisation to "set an example" over discrimination.

Others yesterday urged radical proposals. Vivien Saunders, a women's British Open winner in 1977 and the nearest Britain has to an agitator in the Burk mould, demanded that the clubs should only benefit financially from staging tournaments if they opened their doors to all.

"The most likely thing is to ask the Queen to take away the Royal patronage if the club discriminates against women," she said. "I don't think the governing bodies are doing anything for the future of golf."

She wrote to Prince Andrew, who is due to take over as captain of the R&A this year, urging him to shun the office.

Golfing authorities said they were encouraging youngsters and women to take up the sport yet statistics compiled by independent analysts the Golf Research Group showed a dismal rate of participation in Britain.

Of 20 western golf-playing countries, Scotland, England and Wales took up the three lowest positions in terms of women players. In Wales, only 16.1 per cent of players were women, the other two home nations were only a point better. In Holland, 42.3 per cent of players were women.

"Golf in Britain has always been perceived as a male-oriented game," said Stephen Blake, a director of the group. "All the blue blazers presenting the prizes this week will be males standing around a table."

In Sweden, the average age for people playing the sport is under 40, while in England it is 61. Johan Dahlqvist, a spokesman for its national golf federation, said men-only clubs in the country were unthinkable and the mix was in part responsible for the rise of talented women players. The current world's best woman player is a Swede, Annika Sorenstam, who in May took on the men at a tournament on the US men's Tour.

"Golf in general is a very cool thing to do, there is a lot of fashion at Swedish golf clubs," said Mr Dahlqvist.

In England, horror stories abound: one club has painted a white line along the middle of its bar to indicated where women could and could not stand.

Joy Hunter, the chairman of the English Ladies Golf Association (ELGA), said she had no problem with the policy at Royal St Georges. "Ladies are allowed to play and are invited into the golf club," she said.

Parmjit Dhanda, Labour MP for Gloucester, was the latest champion of a private members bill - which had Government support - to outlaw sexual discrimination in private clubs with more than 25 members. Although it failed to pass, he said he would continue to press the case. "The last thing we want to see is this level of discrimination get institutionalised in golf," he said. "The R&A really do need to arrive in the 21st century. If they don't change their ways, the Government will have to be more hands on. Sponsors need to consider where their money comes from."

Among the Open Championship's "patrons" for 2003 are the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), Rolex and Nikon.

"It's something that we are aware of and we keep an eye on," said Elaine Swift, for Nikon. "We are sponsoring the event, not the club. Obviously the R&A are the organisers are the ones who select the venue."

A spokesman for RBS said: "We are sponsoring the British Open and ... it's open to all golfers, determined only by their ability, and open to all spectators. "We feel comfortable with our sponsorship."

Ms Burk yesterday called on a strong British campaigner to come to the fore - and go for the money. A number of clubs have already had to change their constitutions and allow equal status for women to be eligible for National Lottery funding.

Ms Burk, whose coalition organisation represented six million women in the US, said the main target should be the big sponsors to force change.

On the back of her protest, the Augusta National Golf Club told companies like Coca-Cola and Citigroup that it could not accept their money if it opened up the club to a corporate campaign to change rules. "The aftermath from Augusta has been remarkable," she said. "I am hearing from women from many of these companies whose chief executive officers are members and there has been a lot of turmoil. I am hoping we can get some of the CEOs to announce a resignation.

"It's definitely a rich man's sport, but these rich men who are in Augusta run companies who depend on women for revenue and that's what makes the difference. If they were all retired dentists, we would have no chance of opening the club."

MEN ONLY

THE GARRICK CLUB, LONDON
The Garrick Club in Covent Garden, named after the 18th-century actor David Garrick, was founded in 1831 by literary gentlemen who said it would be a place where "actors and men of refinement and education might meet on equal terms". In 1992, a proposal to allow women membership of the club was overthrown by 373 votes to 94.

THE ROYAL AND ANCIENT GOLF CLUB OF ST ANDREWS
The Royal and Ancient golf club of St Andrews, established in 1754, is gentlemen-only. As its 250th anniversary dawns in 2004, it plans to separate the governance of golf from its private member club, which will remain a testosterone-fuelled, albeit civilised, area with no plans to allow ladies membership.

FISHBURN WORKING MEN'S CLUB, SEDGEFIELD
Built in 1961, Fishburn working men's club in Tony Blair's Sedgefield constituency will not allow ladies equal membership. Though at liberty to enjoy the concert room and lounge, access to the men's bar is strictly prohibited. Women do benefit from reduced fees of £1, compared with the £2.50 paid by men.

HACKNEY SNOOKER CLUB, EAST LONDON
Although women are allowed to play, and drink at the bar, the £5-a-year Hackney snooker club will not allow females to join. Established 22 years ago, it now has eight branches in London. "Women always come in with someone, so it's never really come up," an employee said.

Profiles By Genevieve Roberts

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