Dawson: R&A will not force Muirfield to accept women

R&A chief Peter Dawson with the Claret Jug.

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – The Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews has no immediate plans to follow Augusta National’s lead and allow female members, according to R&A chief executive Peter Dawson. Nor will the R&A force Muirfield, this year’s Open Championship venue, to accept women.

“I do not deny the step Augusta made was a very positive one. In actuality, will it make much difference to women’s golf in America? I think probably not,” said Dawson, adding that female members in the Royal & Ancient also would not advance the game as much as people think. (Dawson is also secretary of the Royal & Ancient, which provides most representatives to the governing body R&A.)

“Having a small number of women members, while it would send out a positive message, I don’t actually think it would change very much.”

Muirfield is one of three men-only clubs on the Open rota. Royal St. George’s and Royal Troon are the others. The governing body will not follow the U.S. Golf Association’s lead and exclude male-only clubs from the Open Championship rota.

“To think that the R&A might say to a club like Muirfield ‘you are not going to have The Open any more unless you change your policy’ is frankly a bullying position that we would never take,” Dawson said.

The R&A has long been under pressure for taking the Open Championship to male-only clubs. That pressure has grown since Augusta National admitted Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore last year as members. Despite Augusta National’s move, Dawson has no plans to change the status quo.

“Our primary duty is to do what’s good for the Open Championship, and to kick venues like Royal St. George’s, Muirfield and Royal Troon into touch would not be good for the Open Championship.

“Muirfield is a single-sex membership club, but women do have access to the golf course either as guests of members or simply as visitors. Muirfield have been very helpful to women’s golf over time. I think the Curtis Cup has been there twice.

“This doesn’t seem to be an issue for some of the women’s organizations because next year the British Women’s Amateur is at Royal St. George’s. There is nothing wrong under the U.K. legislation with a single-sex club, as long as they behave under the Equality Act as far as guest access is concerned, which Muirfield certainly does.

“Muirfield has a huge history of the Open Championship. This will be the 16th time it has been played there. Who are we to say what they should do because they are behaving perfectly legally? We borrow Muirfield’s golf course for two or three weeks every 10 years. They allow us to stage the Open Championship at their golf course.

“Personally, I think this idea that it sends out a dreadful message to the world is considerably overblown. We don’t see it as our role to attack golf clubs which are behaving perfectly legally.”

Of the approximately 3,000 golf clubs in the United Kingdom, roughly 1.5 percent are single-sex only clubs, with half of them women-only clubs. Dawson points to St. Andrews as a place where single-sex clubs live in harmony. There are three male clubs in St. Andrews – the Royal & Ancient, the New Club and St. Andrews – and two female clubs – the St. Rule and St. Regulus.

“There is no pressure for a mixed-sex club in St. Andrews. People are very happy to be able to join the clubs as they are, and we intermingle. The legal position is very clear. As recently as the last Labor government, they recognized the rights of these single-sex clubs to exist. So there is no legal issue at all.

“There are times when men need to socialize with men, and women need to socialize with women. That actually reflects the majority opinion.

“The temperature’s changing, but I do think it’s entirely right that members of private clubs should be allowed to determine their own future, destiny. From the R&A’s perspective, if I thought it was materially affecting participation then the R&A would have a very different view because ultimately we’re here to do what’s good for golf.”

Dawson said golf was on a journey toward equality. It’s a journey on a very long and increasingly winding road, with no apparent end in sight.

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