Single Sex Golf Clubs

Single Sex Golf Clubs

Even in the days during the 1980’s when I was involved in staging events on the European Tour for sponsors and acting as Press Officer at tournaments, the issue of single sex clubs was a fact of life. Female members of the press corps were clearly aware of prejudice. I remember vividly the outrage of Liz Kahn at being refused entry to the Royal and Ancient clubhouse when the Open was held at St Andrews in the early 80’s.

In those far off days it was a different culture in every way of life, and golf courses and golf clubs were no exception. There were many clubs who operated men only bars, or smoking rooms, or ladies weren’t allowed to enter by the main entrance, or couldn’t tee off at weekends before a certain time, or weren’t allowed as members at all. The occasion when the Parisian wife of a good friend of mine was abruptly ordered out of the bar of my own golf club by a past Captain of the club, with whom my friend and I had just played, is clear in my mind and indelibly etched in hers.

Perhaps because golf in mainland Europe is that much younger than in the UK and Scotland, in particular, the culture of “men only” does not exist. Pau Golf Club in SW France founded in 1856 holds the distinction of being the oldest in mainland Europe and has a flourishing ladies membership. I don’t know of any golf club in mainland Europe that does not allow lady members. In Ireland the only one that I know of is Portmarnock, Wales so far as I am aware, none. I can’t say for the rest of the World, although I know of some in North America.

One I played on a number of occasions was Butler National in Chicago. It was the home for many years of the Western Open until the USGA, PGA Tour, LPGA and the PGA of America required private clubs that host events to adopt non-discriminatory membership practices. Butler was so single sex that only male employees could work at the club. As recently as 2012 the members voted on whether to allow lady members, only 40% were in favour. The quality of the course is such that it was widely accepted that it would host a US Open and could generate 4 million dollars for the club: the members however were adamant.

In Los Angeles during the 1920’s Jewish businessmen became aware that the gates of the Los Angeles and Riviera Country Clubs were closed to them, so they purchased land close to downtown and built a course predominantly for their faith – only a few years after the opening they discovered oil under their land!

Only England and Scotland have “men only” or for that matter “women only” golf clubs in the United Kingdom. In law it is expressly permitted for both ladies and men to belong to same sex clubs. Under equality legislation, (The Equality Act 2010), private associations can restrict membership. Just as a Christian association can solely accept Christian members, a men’s golf club does not have to allow women members, or vice versa. But there does seem to be an anomaly in the law. On one hand, the Equality Act does not ban single-sex clubs, yet clubs with both male and female members are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of gender.

There are those who would seek to alter that and make it unlawful to create or belong to single sex clubs. Now Harriet Harman is calling for male-only clubs to be banned by law. “I find it so out of step with everything else that’s happening in the rest of society” Odd that, coming from the woman who proposed the bill for equal opportunities in clubs that admitted both sexes as members, yet specifically allowed clubs that were single sex to remain so if they so wished. But there’s nothing like jumping on a bandwagon when politically it seems opportune to do so. You can be forgiven for thinking just one more step along the way to the George Orwellian view expressed in his novel Nineteen Eighty Four.

Clubs can get themselves into a state bordering on the hysterical when this emotive subject is raised, I quote John Huggan writing in Scotland on Sunday recently:-

“Only in golf would this sort of nonsense go on. When some forward-thinking members of the grandly titled and all-male Royal Burgess Golfing Society (instituted 1735) proposed entry into the 20th century – the 21st would obviously be too much to ask – through the introduction of female members, the club’s mechanism for agreeing change creaked into action.

After a bit of verbal back and forth from both sides, a vote was taken. That vote decided if a second vote could take place, one that would decide whether or not a third vote – this one (finally) to decide whether or not to let these “aliens” in – could be held. I am not making this up.

To the surprise of, one suspects, precisely no one, the dinosaurs still living amongst the current membership “won” the day. There will be no women members at Royal Burgess any time soon. Yet again, golf’s wider image is a figure of fun – Neanderthal men living in caves”

In July last year the emotive subject raised its ugly head again when the Open Championship was being held at Muirfield. Many column inches were written and not surprisingly politicians were quick to wade into the fray along with a number of somewhat frenetic members of the golfing press. I’ll quote just one: Derek Lawrenson, who wrote in the Daily Mail “one future Open is scheduled for a men-only club – Royal Troon near Ayr in 2016. It will surely be the last.”

Players also joined in. Rory McIlroy said: “For the most part men and women are treated equally these days – and that’s the way it should be.” McIlroy needed some persuasion to break rank from his fellow golfers, who were almost all resolutely non-committal about Muirfield’s membership policy. Sir Nick Faldo, Tiger Woods and Tom Watson refused to venture a single opinion on the subject but McIlroy, underlining that he belonged to a different generation to Dawson and his ilk, argued: “It’s something that we shouldn’t even be talking about. It’s something that shouldn’t happen. I don’t think it’s a real issue any more. Clearly for some golf clubs it is.”

The Prime Minister, being interviewed by a convalescent Andrew Marr, said “I condemn policies which look more to the past than they do to the future, in this day and age such a policy as anachronistic”

His Deputy Nick Clegg, who now has more than his knickers in a twist on “inappropriate behaviour”, leapt into voice on the radio exclaiming that Muirfield membership rules were “inexplicable” and “anachronistic”.

Alex Salmond and the Culture Secretary Maria Miller boycotted the Open in protest and her Labour opponent Harriet Harman called for male-only clubs to be banned by law.

However it’s worth recording that 640 responses were written to the Daily Mail article of July last year, the majority of which had a remarkably balanced view of the subject, with one or two not only humorous, but to the point:-

“Forget that Muirfield don’t admit women. They wouldn’t admit 99% of men either on the grounds of social class. The good thing about Muirfield is that it keeps all those of a certain ilk in the same place away from the real people. Move on.”

“I struggle to see how one could justify blocking men-only sports clubs while allowing women’s facilities to continue unchallenged.”

“Is it out of step with society? Yes. Will they be ridiculed by society? Probably. Is it their right to exclude whoever they like on any grounds they like? Yes.”

“A private club is a private club, and is free to exclude anyone based upon any criteria, regardless of how bigoted those criteria are. Is it a wise business choice, almost certainly not, but freedom means the freedom to make bad choices.”

“If the R&A decided to hold the Open at Lundin Links, an all-female club, would Alex Salmond &co refuse to attend unless men were allowed to join the club? Muirfield is selected because of the quality and suitability of the course, not because of the policy of the club. Provided all male or all female clubs are allowed to exist (as they should be) there is no problem having the Open at Muirfield.”

“You’re all missing the point with comments about private clubs. There is NOTHING private about the millions watching or the £1000’s of revenue they will make from hosting. They should NOT have The Open – that is the argument!”

That’s just a small representation of the views expressed, but I couldn’t let this one pass without quoting it:-

“Everyone should be bisexual then the problem would disappear. There would be no more perpetual, unresolved and totally counterproductive battles between the feminist camp on the one hand and the patriarchy on the other, and everyone would have twice as much choice into the bargain!”

After Muirfield the club said: “We are disappointed that some individuals feel unable to attend this year’s Open. As a club we conform to the Equality Act 2010 and any change in the membership would be for the members to decide. At this moment there are no plans to change the current membership status.”

Last year, the Woman’s Sport and Fitness Foundation conducted a survey of more than 2,000 adult respondents, who were asked for their views on the Open being held at courses that permitted only male members. Some 49% believed that such a move was damaging to the reputation of the game, with the figure rising to 55% among regular golfers.

So the problem has rumbled on, but in the interim hardly surfaced, until last weekend when Giles Morgan, global head of sponsorship and events for HSBC, tossed a smoking bomb into the pot at the European Tour’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship. He insisted that it was not “… holding a gun to anyone’s head…” but that HSBC were in an “…uneasy position in terms of the Open being staged at men-only clubs.”

He revealed that the banking giant had been consulted by the R&A, since the furore surrounding last year’s tournament at Muirfield

Morgan said he is confident “things are moving” on the thorny subject and is hopeful the R&A’s ongoing research will lead to a “niggle” going away for one of golf’s biggest sponsors, which is estimated to pump several million pounds per year into the Open Championship alone.

“They are doing a lot of research,” said Morgan. “They’ve been asking a lot of sponsors and stakeholders. They are acutely aware that things need to change and move on. What I think they are doing right is that they are spending some proper consultancy time looking at this rather than knee jerking to a sort of populist decision.”

An R&A spokesman confirmed the governing body established a consultation process after last year’s Open Championship.

“We promised a period of reflection immediately after last year’s championship, and this process is ongoing,” the spokesman said. “Naturally we have taken soundings within the game, and we will report the outcome of our deliberations in due course.”

“The R&A are clear that it’s a very uneasy position for the bank,” Morgan said. “When you are showcasing one of the world’s greatest tournaments, it would be much more palatable if the events were played where there was not the sense of segregation. We would like to see it get solved so we don’t keep talking about it.”

Morgan pointed to the Olympics as a better example of pushing change rather than the Open Championship, even though the R&A funds golf throughout the world with the money earned from the game’s oldest championship.

“This isn’t going away. Every single Open, this comes up. I don’t want to be in a situation where I’m having to justify our sponsorship.”

There are a very small number of single sex golf clubs in the UK and roughly half of them are women’s clubs, yet you don’t hear anyone insisting that they should admit men as members – so it really comes down to this: legally men or women can form single sex clubs, but if they wish to hold major events to which both sexes are admitted then they can’t have single sex membership. Is that logical? I don’t think it is, but I am equally certain that those pushing hard for change will have their way.

This ignores the fact that single sex clubs, such as mine at Sandwich, welcome visitors of both sexes to the course and clubhouse.

Last year I interviewed Shona Malcolm, Chief Executive of the Ladies Golf Union, on the issue of the Ladies’ British Open Amateur Championship being held this year at Royal St George’s, one of the three single sex venues on the Open Championship rota. Her views were clear that it was the quality of the course and the enthusiasm of the club to stage the event that were the overriding factors in deciding the venue.

The majority of views expressed in various blogs on the subject support this view:-

“The Open is making use of the course, which is open to all, and not the clubhouse (with its ‘captains room’, ‘smoking room’ etc).”

“As much as I have little time for the pomp and elitism of clubs like this, the choice of course is purely sporting.”

“I’m not a big fan of banning things, and I struggle to see how one could justify blocking men-only sports clubs while allowing women’s facilities to continue unchallenged.”

“Diversity, and respecting it, does require that men have their own spaces to cry on each other’s shoulders, mend socks, and share recipes. And, women should be allowed to wrestle, clear forests, and shoot skeet among themselves.”

Some years back the MCC voted to admit lady members and last year the committee at Cowes voted the same way, so I feel political pressure will prevail on same sex clubs who wish to stage open major sporting events.

This will ignore the views of the public or those who wish to stage events at such venues. Lewine Mair, writing in this week’s Global Golf Post, suggests that Sandwich may wish to reconsider its membership policy during the week of the Ladies’ British Open Amateur Championship. It might, but I think that the Royal & Ancient will pre-empt any such decision and bow to the pressure that exists, follow the USGA, the PGA of America, the European Tour, the LPGA, LET and the Olympic Committee, and cease holding the Open Championship at clubs that do not allow lady members.

Then it will be for those clubs to decide whether to change or remain as they are and no longer host major events – but that’s another question.