Peter Corrigan: Fairer fairways, but emancipation has a cost

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The Independent Online

While Michelle Wie, the 15-year-old golfing prodigy, waits to claim her place in history as the first female to play in The Open, the most important role she can play in golf is as a recruiting agent. Because the paradox of the much-acclaimed breakthrough she was offered last week is that it comes at a time when women's golf at the grass roots is in a slump.

While Michelle Wie, the 15-year-old golfing prodigy, waits to claim her place in history as the first female to play in The Open, the most important role she can play in golf is as a recruiting agent. Because the paradox of the much-acclaimed breakthrough she was offered last week is that it comes at a time when women's golf at the grass roots is in a slump.

Membership of the ladies' sections of golf clubs have dropped by around 10 per cent during the past two years, and golf unions are searching hard for the reasons. One ironic theory is that the equality women have been seeking in golf for decades is rebounding on their side of the game. Many clubs in England and Wales have answered the call to give women equal membership and voting rights, or have been forced to by local licensing authorities.

However, the emancipation hasn't come without a cost. The ladies might have had a lowlier status in the past, but they paid much less than the men in annual subscriptions and enjoyed a well-guarded autonomy within the club.

It could well be that the sharp increase in fees they now face is accounting for the membership shortfall and the difficulty in persuading young girls to take up the game. This is where the phenomenal Wie can be the Pied Piperess, but even if she does succeed in her invasion there is a enormous distance to travel before women can compete as equals and it will take, at the least, an amalgamation of the men and women's games.

The Royal and Ancient's promise to allow Wie to play in The Open this year if she should qualify has been hailed as the toppling of the last great male bastion. Don't be fooled. There are many old bastions still left to be removed before women golfers can flood, or even trickle, into the game's sacred male preserves.

"Tarts in The Open? Civilisation as we know it is crumbling before our eyes," someone said outside the R & A clubhouse after the announcement on Tuesday. It might have been me, now I come to think of it.

It would have been just a flippant reaction to a move that was inevitable but highly significant. The place of women in sport is generally a contentious subject, but in golf it has been divisive, dangerously so at times, and has earned the game derision and condemnation it doesn't deserve.

On the one hand, golf's devoted faith in its traditions and self-discipline has been the strength that has enabled it to endure for centuries and still be flourishing as healthily as any sport.

On the other hand, the same adherence to historic customs and principles are perceived as a weakness that causes discrimination and élitism. Over 15 years ago, I suffered much mockery and not a little indignation when I wrote that one day a woman would win The Open. It was a prediction based mainly on the progress women have been making along the whole of the sporting front.

I didn't say that it would happen in my lifetime, or that the young lady concerned has even been born yet, but you can depend it will happen one day, and we may be hurtling towards that day at a greater speed than I imagined at the time.

Indeed, one of the arguments repeatedly used against my prediction is that women would be lucky to get into The Open, never mind win it. It may take Wie a while yet to reach there, but she is the first of her sex to appear at the threshold and to be accorded, if not a warm welcome, a respectful acknowledgement of her ability.

If she did manage to finish high enough in the John Deere Classic in the US to appear at St Andrews, it could result in the event becoming a bit of a circus. But the R & A are quite happy at the extra crowds and attention her presence would attract. In the longer term, the governing body have to thrash out many details before they come up with a general qualifying format for women, whose abilities are measured playing over shorter distances from forward tees.

They are determined to maintain the event's strict standards. Quite right. This is a world championship of golf, and those who aspire to win it have to undergo the fiercest test of their ability and endurance under pressure.

But, by the same standards, it would not be fit to think of itself as an Open Championship if it didn't admit a worthy contender on the grounds of gender or, indeed, any other factor. The attitude of the top women players is also important. The way has been clear for them to enter the US Open but no one has bothered yet, though Wie may have a go.

Why would any of the rest want to waste their time tilting at windmills when there is plenty of glory and riches available on their own Tour?

The reality is that the ability to do well in the major men's championships depends on constant exposure to top golf throughout the year. The idea that women would be able occasionally to pop over from their own Tour to make successful forays into the men's domain is fanciful.

Women have to play exactly the same game as men from the day they start playing as girls for them regularly to be top contenders. Even with goodwill on both sides, which there isn't, the marrying of the golfing sexes will take decades. But it is the most desirable outcome and, without doubt, the only way to peaceful co-existence.

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