St Andrews finally grasp equality ‘nettle’

Royal And Ancient to recommend ditching 260-year-old policy of confining club membership to men

The  clubhouse on the Old Course at St Andrews in Fife, Scotland, home of the Royal and Ancient.

The clubhouse on the Old Course at St Andrews in Fife, Scotland, home of the Royal and Ancient.


These things are never done quietly. The sound of a wall falling down or a barrier being broken or of a seismic shift in doctrine has a knock-on effect, one that usually causes the ground to shake. Yesterday’s announcement from the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews that its all-male membership will “vote on a motion to admit women” was, in the golfing world, one of those moments. It created the loudest of noises.

Perhaps, people will say, the dinosaurs have joined the modern age. It is not as simple as that.

However, the R&A’s inclination to have a vote for change – with the expectation that those 2,400 men from around the world who belong to the august club will do the right thing and support the call for women members to be allowed and to belong – is a hugely significant about-turn by its hierarchy.

The short, sweet statement contained a particularly relevant line: “The Club’s committees,” it stated, “are strongly in favour of the rule change and are asking members to support it.”

Unique position
The R&A is not just any old club. It is 260 years old. It holds a unique position in golf, governing the game worldwide outside of the United States and Canada, and has evolved into the leading authority on the sport. It has written to all of its members asking for a vote to be taken in September. After 260 years, what’s another few months?

The significance of the R&A’s move comes on the back of Augusta National’s decision to end its men-only membership policy. That, too, was done to their own tune and at their own pace when, in 2012, in a surprise move, two women – former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and financier Darla Moore – were invited to join the club and so ended an 80 year all-male policy there.

Now, the question must be asked: How long will Ireland’s only two male-only clubs, The Royal Dublin Golf Club and Portmarnock Golf Club, remain as male-only bastions?

Surely it is a case of not if, but when . . .

Legally, as the Supreme Court ruled in a judgment delivered in November 2009, Portmarnock is quite entitled to a male-only membership policy. That ruling, delivered by Mr Justice Fennelly, brought an end to proceedings under the Equal Status Act that had started in the District Court in 2003 and also worked its way through the High Court before reaching the highest court in the land.

In that majority judgment, it was noted that the club’s “principal purpose is to cater for the needs of persons of a particular gender”.

That things have changed in the golfing world since that judgment was delivered cannot be doubted, as evidenced by, firstly, Augusta National moving to end its men-only policy and, now, and perhaps even more significantly given that it is one of the sport’s ruling bodies (along with the USGA), the decision by the Royal and Ancient Club of St Andrews to organise a vote to allow women in.

Two dozen
It should be noted that Portmarnock and The Royal Dublin, while being the only Irish clubs to have a men-only membership policy, are far from on their own. There are around two dozen clubs around the world who continue to have such policies, mainly in the United States, but also on this side of the Atlantic including three clubs on the British Open rota: Muirfield, Royal Troon and Royal St Georges.

Indeed, the new stance from the R&A, which has been under political and commercial pressure to alter its membership policy, could yet force the hands of those clubs if they seek to remain on the roster of courses going forward.

Portmarnock, too, has paid something of a price for its men-only policy. Although it is the spiritual home of golf in Ireland and, in that Supreme Court judgment was noted as “a national institution” and referred to as the “best known golf club in the country,” the course hasn’t been considered as a host venue for the Irish Open since it last staged the championship in 2003.

This is because the government, through Fáilte Ireland, contributes to the cost of staging the event and doesn’t want to be seen to be supporting a single-gender membership policy.

In fairness, it should be pointed out that there is a ladies-only golf club in existence. It is the Ladies Golf Club of Toronto in Canada. A case of, what’s good for the gander is good for the goose.

Ironically, any change to Portmarnock and/or The Royal Dublin’s membership policy would probably cause greater upset among the wives of members who are currently allowed play the course for a nominal green fee.

Change may come, in time; just as it did at Augusta National, and looks most likely to at the R&A. Just not yet. And in their own good time. But it should happen.

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