An awareness that tournaments like the Irish Open would remain out of its reach if the club's male-only membership criteria were to continue is believed to be one of the primary reasons for Portmarnock Golf Club embarking on an extensive three-phase consultative process with its members to consider the possible admittance of female members into the north Dublin club.
In a letter sent to members which has effectively kick-started the process, club captain John Conway believes the potentially historic exercise “will seek to uncover not just a straight ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the admission of female members, but also the different attitudes and beliefs of those who are in favour or against.” No time-scale or time limit has been placed on the process’s completion.
Portmarnock’s move to engage its members on the gender issue follows similar approaches taken in recent months in Britain by Royal Troon, Muirfield and Royal St George’s - all on the Open championship rota - which currently also have male-only memberships. The timing of such processes has unquestionably been influenced by last year’s decision of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club based at St Andrews to end its 260-years ban on women members.
In the United States, Augusta National Golf Club - founded by the legendary golfer Bobby Jones in the 1930s, which had adopted a male-only membership policy from its foundation - allowed women members to join in 2012.
The club won a Supreme Court battle with the Equality Authority in 2009 which had alleged it was in breach of the Equal Status Act.
Portmarnock - founded in 1894 - has long been considered the spiritual home of golf in Ireland, playing host to the inaugural Irish Open in 1927.
In all, Portmarnock has played host to the Irish Open - one of the more prestige titles on the PGA European Tour - on 19 occasions; but the last of those was in 2003, when New Zealander Michael Campbell triumphed in a play-off, and, with government support of the Irish Open through Failte Ireland, the club's male-only membership policy has since then been seen as a mitigating factor in again playing host to the tournament.
The course -consistently ranked among the top seaside links in the world - has also played host to the Canada Cup (which evolved into the World Cup) and to the Walker Cup but, realising that its gender policy had implication in maintaining and advancing such traditions, outgoing captain Howard Mahon told last December's annual general meeting that the club's committee would take "soundings" on attitudes towards finally admitting female members.
Conway, who succeeded him, has moved on the process with outside “experts” engaged to oversee the three-stage review of current membership and the possibility of admitting women members. “I don’t think the issue will be divisive, nor should it . . . . at the end of a thoroughly and highly consultative process we will all have a clear idea about what is important to us. The views of the members will be the driving force,” acknowledged Conway in his letter to members.
In a recent newsletter, Jackie Reynolds, the club's honorary secretary, informed members the club would embark "on a journey of discovery and research over the next few months hopeful of an outcome that accurately reflects the overall views of the membership . . . . these are important life style changing issues and endeavour to look to the future and to lay a sound foundation for the next generation (of Portmarnock club members)."
Portmarnock Golf Club and The Royal Dublin Golf Club are the only two golf clubs in Ireland who currently adhere to a male-only membership policy.
The letter sent to Portmarnock members in full:
"Looking to the Future
It has been a busy start to 2015 for your Committee as we inherited a pretty full workload from last year. Significant momentum has already been generated in a number of important areas with the primary focus on planning for the future to protect the best traditions of Portmarnock Golf Club and enhance our position in the world of golf.
Last year, this planning process highlighted that our existing policies might be restricting the club’s choices in some important areas. Specifically, the Committee became aware of certain consequences which our current ‘gender policy’ imposes on the club, which may impair our ability to contribute to the development and promotion of golf in Ireland. This is a proud tradition which is important to us.
Hence my predecessor Howard Mahon confirmed at last December’s AGM that the committee would examine this issue and its implications and take soundings from members on attitudes to admitting female members.
Some members will say ‘if it’s not broke, why fix it?’ The club won a legal action in the Supreme Court in 2009. So, why should we revisit the gender issue now?
New Legislation and protocols to underpin and expand the equality agenda seems likely. Expert legal opinion made available to the Committee suggests that revised legislation could have implications for the club.
The Consultative Process
The Committee has decided to invite all members (associate members as well as Ordinary members) to participate in a 3 stage consultative process which will combine qualitative and quantitative research. While voting on Club Rules changes is restricted to Ordinary members only, the Committee believes that the club will benefit from giving associate members (including 5 Day, Overseas, Country and Juniors) a voice. It is intended to engage an outside professional organisation which has experience and expertise in this area to assist and facilitate all steps of the process. This process will begin immediately with no time limit on its completion. We will take as long as we need to make a decision on this issue. We will do so in our own time in an unpressured environment.
The members will decide on this issue which has important implications for the future of our club. All members will have the chance to express their views either through participating in consultation groups or in a survey or both. Everyone is encouraged to participate in the process and everyone will have an opportunity to contribute his views. The opinion of every member is valuable.
Objectives of the Consultative Process
The objective of this process will be to give the members the opportunity to consider all the issues involved. It is hoped that we can build a clear consensus among the membership on the future we want to shape for Portmarnock Golf Club to pass on to future generations of golfers.
The consultative process will seek to uncover not just a straight ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the admission of female members, but also the different attitudes and beliefs of those who are in favour or against. The process will evaluate what specific changes to our Rules, if any, would be appropriate and also what would be the best way to implement any suggested changes (i.e. AGM / SGM or Postal Ballot).
This consultative process is designed to discover the majority view. The Committee believes that this consultation process is preferable to a series of information meetings as it is likely to reach the widest cross section of members and achieve the highest participation rates. This is a sensitive issue wrapped in strong opinions. It is important that all members have an equal opportunity to express their views.
The First Stage of the Consultative Process
The first stage of the consultative process will involve the creation of a number of consultation groups of 8 - 10 members. Each group will be moderated by an expert from the outside organisation who has direct experience in this area. He will lead the discussion to examine the practical implications for the club and the members of ‘change’ or ‘no change’ and ensure that all key topics are thoroughly reviewed. These groups will meet in the Clubhouse at dates to be arranged.
Stage 2 of the Consultative Process
Once the consultative group stage has been completed, the second stage will begin. This will be an online confidential survey designed by the outside experts and administered exclusively by them (neither the Portmarnock Committee nor the staff will have access to individual responses). This survey will be sent in a secure password protected way to every member with an e-mail address. There will be a hard copy postal option for those without access to e-mail.
It is hoped that all members will participate in this survey, whether they have participated in the consultation groups or not. This survey will provide quantitative results measuring the strength of feeling among members about the admission of female members.
The Committee envisages that this poll will comprise about 20 questions and will take 10 – 15 minutes to complete. The questions will reflect findings from the consultation process.
This survey will give every member the chance to express his views and it is very important that the highest possible number of members take part. If members have any problems, questions or queries about this survey, they will be able to contact the outside expert directly by e-mail. This process will be entirely confidential and anonymous to encourage members to be as forthright as possible.
It is envisaged that members will have 3 weeks or a month to respond to the survey, with a reminder e-mail being issued if appropriate.
Stage 3 of the Consultative Process
The third stage of this consultative process will consist of a written report by the outside experts on the findings of Stage 1 and Stage 2 and that organisation’s recommendations. It is envisaged that this report will be addressed to the Committee and can be made available for review in house by members if desired.
Having considered and discussed this report the Committee will be in a position to decide whether to make a recommendation to the members regarding a vote to change the Club Rules. If a strong consensus for change does not emerge, the Committee may consider the matter closed.
On the other hand, if this report demonstrates a strong majority support for the principle of change, the Committee can progress to framing specific recommendations for Rule changes as it will have information from the survey on what sort of Rule changes are desired by the members. It will also have information on members’ preferences for a postal ballot or Special General Meeting. A summary of arguments for & against drawing on information from the consultation groups and the survey results could be prepared for circulation to members in advance of a vote.
On the face of it, the issue appears simple and straightforward – should we change our Rules to permit the admission of female members? But the implications of ‘change’ and ‘no change’ are far-reaching.
Whatever diverse views we may hold, we can all agree that this issue is not going to disappear. Better to grasp the initiative now to address the issue in a structured and measured way which gives every member the opportunity to inform himself of the potential implications for the club of ‘change’ and ‘no change’ and to come to a reasoned judgement about what we as a community want to preserve for future generations of Portmarnock GC members.
The General Committee and sub-committees have been busy gathering information and researching possible answers to the questions that will arise in discussion. We have had valuable input from other clubs which have engaged recently with the gender issue. Each subcommittee has been investigating all possible implications of ‘change’ and ‘no change’ as it may affect their area in the broader context of the club’s 5 Year Strategic Plan.
No doubt a myriad of questions spring to mind regarding the practical implications of change. These will be addressed as discussion topics in the consultation groups.
If members reach the conclusion that change is in the best interests of the club, then we will focus on defining exactly what changes to our Club Rules and facilities would be appropriate.
Practical Next Steps
As the first stage of the 3 stage process will get underway immediately, the Committee wishes to encourage every member (including associate members) to sign up for the consultative groups by completing the attached form and e-mailing it back to : email@example.com
Alternatively, it can be posted to Attention: Brian Hurley, General Manager at the club’s address.
Each consultative group, consisting of 8 – 10 members, will meet in the clubhouse for about90 minutes’ discussion moderated by the outside expert. Morning, afternoon, evening, weekday and week-end times will be available to suit members.
While associate members do not vote on Club Rules, the Committee believes that they could make a valuable contribution to the process by participating in consultative groups and in the survey. Therefore, it is planned to hold group sessions for each of these categories.
I believe that the members of Portmarnock GC will warm to this consultation process and will engage with enthusiasm. I don’t think the issue will be divisive, nor should it be. Every member’s opinion is valuable and will be listened to. At the end of a thorough and highly consultative process we will all have a clear idea about what is important to us. The views of the members will be the driving force. In a Club like ours, that’s how it should be.
You are welcome to contact me, the other officers, the Committee or the club if you have any questions.