R&A to vote on women members
10:49am Wednesday 26th March 2014 in © Press Association 2014
The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews believes it has "strong support" for a vote in September to finally admit women members, 260 years after it was founded.
But R&A chief executive Peter Dawson insists the move is not intended to place pressure on male-only clubs which are currently on the rota of Open Championship venues.
"As long as clubs are behaving legally and are the best courses for the Open Championship then we have to put the needs of the Open Championship high up our list of priorities," Dawson said. "To lose a number of key venues would not seem to be doing that to me."
Ahead of last year's Open at Muirfield, Dawson said it would take a "hard push" for the R&A to change its policy of staging the Open at male-only clubs, despite "political posturing" and attacks by pressure groups.
Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond was among the political figures who stayed away from Muirfield, describing the club's membership policy as "indefensible in the 21st century."
Similar protests occur when the championship is staged at Royal St George's and Troon - the other clubs on the nine-strong Open rota to be men-only - but Dawson said the R&A was inclined to resist such pressure, despite finding the issue "increasingly difficult."
Speaking at St Andrews on Wednesday, Dawson said: "We very much hope once the vote is taken we will be welcoming women to the club. It's something that has been expected; I'm not going to say overdue but I'm sure I'll be asked that question.
"Early indications from the members are very positive indeed. We obviously wouldn't be entering this if we didn't feel there was strong member support for this and I hope that turns out to be the case. We have seen other organisations have more than one bite at this and [if there was a no vote] we would have to decide whether to come again or not. One has to pick one's time for this. Let's hope we have picked the right one.
"We have been talking about this for quite a while and it's our governance role which has been the driving factor. Society is changing, sport is changing, golf is changing and I think it's appropriate for a governing body to take this step. This is not about the Open Championship. This is about our governance role."
Asked if the vote should be interpreted as heralding the Open no longer being staged at male-only courses, Dawson added: "No, I don't think it should. It may, but I am not here to say it will.
"I think it is a step along the direction of travel. If you look back in I don't know how many years time, this will certainly be a step that will be recognised. We are not intending to place other golf clubs under any particular pressure by doing this.
"We have been entirely focused on this internal change and I have absolutely nothing to announce about Open Championship policy. We have given the (single-sex) clubs advanced notice out of courtesy."
Augusta National, venue for the US Masters, admitted women members for the first time in October 2012, with former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina financier Darla Moore becoming the first women in green jackets.
"The R&A membership is very eclectic," Dawson added. "Very few of our members are famous and I suspect that might be reflected in the women members, too."
The club is "strongly in favour" of the rule change and is asking its 2,400 existing members to vote in favour, although only the few hundred present in person at the annual business meeting will be eligible to vote. There is currently no provision for postal or proxy voting.
The vote will take place on September 18 - the same day as the referendum on Scottish independence - and requires a two-thirds majority. Dawson said between 30 and 50 new members are admitted each year after being proposed and seconded by current members.
A spokesperson for The Royal and Ancient Golf Club said: "Members of The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, the founding club of The R&A, will vote on a motion to admit women as members.
"The Club's committees are strongly in favour of the rule change and are asking members to support it. The vote is scheduled to take place in September of this year."
Minister for Sport and Equalities Helen Grant welcomed the announcement, adding: "This is welcome news from the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews and I urge its members to follow their Committees' recommendations and vote 'yes' for women members.
"It would mark a step in the right direction for the sport and I would hope encourage the remaining golf clubs that still have anachronistic single-sex member policies to follow suit."
Speaking in January, HSBC's global head of sponsorship and events Giles Morgan said he felt an end to the Open being staged at single-sex clubs could be in sight.
"I think things are moving," Morgan said. "It's not something we are going to put a gun to anyone's head over, but we would like to see it solved so we don't keep talking about it.
"The R&A are clear that it's a very uneasy position for the bank. 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."
Shona Robison, Scotland's Minister for Sport, Commonwealth Games and Equalities, said: "This is great news for golf and sport in Scotland.
"As the founding club of The R&A, The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews is an important institution and can provide an example for change that other clubs will endorse and follow.
"I warmly welcome today's announcement and the committee's recommendations."
Muirfield-based The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers said in a statement: "A working group has been empowered to consult with the membership and to make recommendations to the board about our future.
"As a club, we comply fully with the requirements of the Equality Act 2010 and there are no current plans to change the membership criteria but these will be reviewed.
"HCEG confirms that we are already well into the process of preparing to consult with our members to gauge the best way forward.
"Most importantly, we intend to take the time to ensure that the plans we adopt will stand us in good stead, not only for the immediate future but for the next 270 years of our great club."