R&A vote to allow female members would be a significant step forward

By Iain CarterBBC golf correspondent
Stacy Lewis
Stacy Lewis won the Women's British Open at St Andrews in 2013

While Scotland decides its future on 18 September, the result will be published of another significant vote by one of the country's historic sporting institutions.

Members of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrewsexternal-link have been sending their replies to a postal ballot on whether to admit women to the club for the first time in its 260-year history.

The result will be made known in the early evening of Thursday when a statement will be issued by the Fife-based organisation. If, as expected, the vote favours the admission of women it will be a significant step forward for the game.

While it won't make any practical difference to the thousands of female golfers in the UK, it will help one of the game's governing bodies perform its duties free from rising criticism that was undermining its authority.

Charley Hull
In July 2013, English teenage golfer Charley Hull described single-sex golf club membership policies as "silly, absolutely stupid"

Golf has been regarded as out of step with modern society because several men-only clubs hold positions of great influence - none more so than the Royal and Ancient, which in 2004 spawned the limited company that runs the Open Championship and acts as rule-maker for the game.

The championship committee that organises the Open is made up by members from the Royal and Ancient Golf Club. Provided there is the anticipated "yes" vote, this means women will have a route to become involved in the running of golf's oldest and most revered tournament.

It is a significant move because the club will regain a moral authority that was slipping from its grasp. "We've done this really because of our governance role in the game," said R&A chief executive Peter Dawson when he announced the ballot in March.

"Sport has been changing, society has been changing and golf is part of that. We think it's time this change is made.

Peter Dawson
On the question of female membership, Peter Dawson says, "as society changes, as sport changes, as golf changes, it's something the R&A needs to do"

"You can always ask that question: 'Why now? Why not 10 years ago?' The R&A have been considering this. It's been on our agenda, on our radar, for quite some time," Dawson added.

"The feeling is as society changes, as sport changes, as golf changes, it's something the R&A needs to do."

Back in March, Dawson stated a "no" vote would be "undesirable". Indeed, were the move to be rejected it would leave many questioning the R&A's right to have any future influence on the running of the game.

During the ballot process, Dawson has been at pains not to be drawn any further into the debate. He did not want to say anything that might upset the membership.

Originally the vote, which would have required a two-thirds majority, was scheduled to take place at the club's annual business meeting. That's why they had no choice but to use the same date as the Scottish referendum.

However, it soon became clear that this was a matter for the entire club, not just the 300 or so members who typically attend the business meeting. Therefore a postal ballot of all 2,400 members was organised and only a simple majority is required to enact the historic move.

Too many recent Opens have been overshadowed by the men-only issue. Whenever the championship has been played at St Andrews, Muirfield, Royal St George's and Royal Troon, it has detracted from the tournament.

Dame Laura Davies's view
"I think if they're honest, they are bowing to pressure because they would probably like to keep it as it is, as it has been for the last 200 years."

The irony is that the Old Course at St Andrews is a public facility open to all. Unfortunately that fact was often lost amid arguments of elitism and discrimination.

Headlines portraying golf as a pompous, male chauvinist sport take away from the great champions competing for the prized Claret Jug.

In the wake of the vote being announced, the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers have been mulling over the issue of men-only membership at Muirfield, while at Sandwich there are increasing signs of movement on the issue.

Royal Troon appear to have no plans to move from single-sex membership. However, they point out that the town's ladies club use the course, which is scheduled to stage the 2016 Open.

While the R&A have no desire to remove these clubs from the championship rota, they must also know how the men-only issue undermines the sport. They should be able to influence change to more inclusive policies if they have female members.

"I think if they're honest, they are bowing to pressure because they would probably like to keep it as it is, as it has been for the last 200 years," Dame Laura Davies, Britain's leading female player in the modern era, was quoted as saying.

Condoleezza Rice and Arnold Palmer
The Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters, allowed female members for the first time in 2012, with former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice invited to join

"I'm sure a lot of people won't like it. Everyone probably thinks it should happen but it's their club, they're the members and, if they want to keep it the way it is, that's their decision.

"But I think, in a modern world, it's about time they did have some lady members. If they offered me a membership of the R&A, I'd snap their hands off. If they let lady members in then great; if they don't then that's their prerogative."

Sports minister Helen Grant has urged a vote to allow women members and it would be a surprise if the membership reject the proposal.

Certainly the committee would not have called the vote and backed the idea of women members if they thought there was much chance of defeat.

Unlike the referendum, this seems an easier vote to call and so expect 15 or so women from prominent positions in the golfing firmament to soon be invited to join its most historic club.


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