The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, Scotland, that serves as the governing body of the sport, is set to welcome women as members after having a male-only policy for 260 years. The historic club uses as its playing ground the Old Course in St Andrews, often deemed the “home of golf” because the sport was first played on the links there in the 1400’s, and thus wields great influence within the game. The Royal and Ancient club has apparently written to all of its 2,500 male members on the subject of accepting women into their hallowed halls. A vote is to take place on the issue in the autumn months of this year and follows claims by senior Royal and Ancient committee members that the contentious issue has become a problem that divides members.
Although the club chairman of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club has advised members to support the change and accept the need to modernize the gender discrimination basis of their membership policy, the final decision is ultimately in the hands of the current male members. The governing body of golf has consistently defied calls for a more progressive approach and for them to welcome women into their historic institution, but after 260 years with a male only tradition it remains to be seen if such outdated habits will die hard. In a previous vote on the same issue, the club rejected the idea of female members although many are hoping that with the combined pressure from the club hierarchy and prominent politicians, the men that frequent the Royal and Ancient Club will see the need for change.
In the past there has been significant criticism leveled at the male only membership of the club and several well-known individuals have spoken out against such a backwards practice. The former UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, both condemned the club for not welcoming women. Salmond called the exclusion of female members “indefensible” in the modern world and refused to attend the Open Championship at the Muirefield Golf Club just outside Edinburgh, for having the same male-only policy. Similar boycotts were carried out by other influential politicians such as the ex-Minister of Sport, Hugh Robertson, and Cultural Secretary, Maria Miller. Even sponsors of the Open Championship have put pressure on the club to change, claiming they did not want to have to find justifications for supporting one of golf’s biggest tournaments being hosted by a club which discriminated against female players.
Although it should be added that while the men are still muddling over whether to step into the 21st century and welcome women, the women might be quite happy for them to stay stuck in the past. When the Royal and Ancient Golf Club did not give the University of St Andrews principal, Louise Richardson, their traditional offer of membership for the person who held this post, she claimed that she would not have taken it anyway. Although she cited a lack of interest in the sport as a primary reason, there was also the indication that she felt little inclination to join such a conservative, patriarchal boys club that clearly viewed women as subordinate. This view is encapsulated by the fact that the Royal and Ancient Golf Club quite happily employ female waiting and cleaning staff, only declining to welcome women as equal members.
However, perhaps this recent show of support for more gender equality within the world of golf by the governing body will be the start of a new and better relationship between the male-dominated world of the sport and its many female players. After 260 years of refusing to welcome women, it does now look as though the governing body of golf, and one of the most prestigious golf clubs in the world, will finally open its arms and doors to the modern world.
Commentary by Rhona Scullion