Clubs where women aren’t welcome to join

Opinion: Such discrimination is tolerated in supposedly upmarket golf clubs

‘There’s nothing inherently reactionary about propelling balls with equipment ill-suited to the task.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘There’s nothing inherently reactionary about propelling balls with equipment ill-suited to the task.’ Photograph: Getty Images


Had you brushed aside the chatter concerning nosy Guards, plummeting aircraft and Gwyneth’s conscious uncoupling, you might have happened upon an alarming story last week. It seems that the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews – which is to such bodies as Led Zeppelin is to hard rock – has finally agreed to a vote in September on allowing women to join its ranks.

Alarm is triggered not by the terrifying notion of “ladies” (as golf clubs insist on calling adult females) daring to tee up at weekends and consume gin in the main bar. The shock is that the contrary prohibition remained in place for so long. One could hardly be more surprised to learn that Jews and black people were banned.

It is so. Supposedly upmarket golf clubs remain among the few institutions where such discrimination is tolerated. It is less than two years since Augusta National, home to the US Masters tournament, opened up to the minority that makes up 51 per cent of the population. In this country, neither Portmarnock nor Royal Dublin golf clubs admits women as members. Last year, Clare Balding, the British television journalist, created a minor fuss when she refused to cover the Open Championship at Muirfield because that club still refused to admit women.

How is this legal? In 2009, the Supreme Court ruled that Portmarnock could continue to exclude women because it is exempted under equal status legislation. The decision hung on the fact that the club’s main purpose was to serve the needs of one particular gender.

If we were to play devil’s advocate here we could ponder when, exactly, it becomes the State’s business as to whom we allow into our own private club. Let’s pretend I am some sort of racist, anti- Semite lunatic. If I start a chess club in my front room I am, presumably, under no compulsion to admit any Jewish or African neighbours with a taste for the game. Less facetiously, no club catering to the “the needs” of a particular disabled community should feel any compulsion to admit able-bodied folk who just need somewhere to hang out of an evening.

Contoured recreational paradise
The offending golf clubs could make the flimsy argument that any women golfers have the right to form their own club and place prohibitions on the entry of men. That sounds easy enough. All women golfers in, say, the Portmarnock area need to do is purchase a vast area of unused land, hire a course designer and drum up the few million euro required to make a contoured recreational paradise. Well, that doesn’t sound too difficult.

Look at it that way and, whatever the legal position, such bans continue to seem petty and unreasonable. The real question is why any such organisation would wish to preclude women as members.

There is, here, a workable analogy with the Orange Order’s attitude to marching through largely Catholic areas. Maybe that body does have the right to walk down any part of the Queen’s highway that it desires. But why would they want to disturb uninterested citizens with a display of stomping triumphalism?

Nobody is ever likely to confuse the golfing establishment with any sort of Marxist revolutionary tendency. No doubt, most clubs are bastions of tolerance and open-mindedness. But the continuing bans on women members only serves to bolster the cliched image of golf clubs as centres of reactionary, tweedy conservatism. It allows us to make cheap cracks about red-faced colonels whinging about influxes of immigrants after competing leisurely fourballs.

Nagging impediments
The tradition stems from a time when women – more particularly, wives – were regularly characterised as nagging impediments who, though decorative and adept at flower arranging, got in the way of men intent on having a nice relaxing chat in the public bar. It is not so terribly long ago that a large number of pubs in this country refused to serve women. Such establishments frequently had no lavatory facilities for the “gentler sex”. The notion was that women were too delicate to cope with the rude language and course allusions that formed the backbone of barroom conversation. Pubs, golf clubs and card schools were places were one went to get away from the supposedly monstrous regiment of chattering females.

It seems as if the Royal Snootington Golf Club is still allowed to enshrine such Precambrian attitudes in its constitution. What is it about golf that does this to people? There’s nothing inherently reactionary about propelling balls with equipment ill-suited to the task. Whatever the reason, the fact that the golfing elders are allowed to behave like boors doesn’t mean that they must behave like boors. Exercise your rights by forming a club solely dedicated to the exercise of petty chauvinism. You can whinge about “the ball and chain” to your heart’s content and then, on the weekend, take the “little woman” out for a nice game of golf. It’s time to drag these places kicking and screaming into the 19th century.

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