2014 Newsmaker No. 8: The R&A

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The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews made news in September voting to allow women as members for the first time in the 260-year history of the organization, but the monumental change brought important new questions with it.

With the club’s pledge to “fast track” new women members, who will they be?

Annika Sorenstam? Nancy Lopez? Judy Rankin? Laura Davies? As players, they make sense as women who have profoundly influenced the game.

And how about Louise Richardson? Since becoming the first female head of St. Andrews University in 2009, she felt the impact of the club’s exclusionary membership practices more than most women. Unlike the male presidents who preceded her, she couldn’t use the club to dine with university donors, or to cultivate important professional relationships.

Richardson felt the discriminatory practice of the all-male rule in her daily life. She told the New York Times before the vote that she has endured club members waving their R&A ties at her.

“A supporter of the university got in touch and asked if he could possibly have lunch at the R&A,” she told the New York Times. “I had to arrange for somebody I know to take him to lunch at the R&A because, of course, I can’t. And I had to arrange for another member of the staff to take his wife to lunch some place in town because, of course, she can’t get into the R&A, either.”


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The club pledged change will come quickly.

“The membership has acted to fast-track a significant initial number of women to become members in the coming months,” club secretary Peter Dawson said when news of the vote was announced.

Almost three months later, the world is waiting to see who will take those historic first steps as female club members.

“Back when I turned pro I would never have imagined that this could ever happen,” Davies said.

The Royal and Ancient’s clubhouse sits behind the first tee at St. Andrews, and though the club doesn’t own historic St. Andrews, it assists the St. Andrews Links Trust in managing and maintaining the course as the home of golf. Royal and Ancient members get preferred tee times and other perks.

When announcing the historic change, Dawson said the vote was overwhelmingly in favor of women, reporting 85 percent of the Royal and Ancient membership voted for the change.

Strong women’s voices framed the meaning of the vote.

“It is disappointing that we are even having to have this discussion in 2014, and today’s result must mark the beginning of a message which states that sport cannot treat women as second-class citizens,” Ruth Holdaway, chief executive of the United Kingdom’s Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation, told media the day the vote was announced.

Helen Grant, the UK’s Minister of Sport, raised other questions the new membership policy now poses.

“This is positive news for the sport, and I hope we will now see other golf clubs that still have outdated sex policies follow suit,” she said.

Royal Troon, Muirfield and Royal St. George’s are all-male clubs on the British Open’s current rotation of venues. Royal Troon is scheduled to host The Open in 2016. Royal St. George’s and Muirfield are actively reviewing their membership policies, according to British media reports.

Will these clubs change their policies, too? Or will the R&A steer future Opens away from these venues if they don’t change?

The R&A, the governing body that administers the Rules of Golf with the USGA, is often confused with the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews. They are linked by heritage. The Royal and Ancient Golf Club created the R&A in 2004, technically becoming separate entities but still bound by history and active associations. Dawson is chief executive of the R&A as well as the secretary of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews.

The Royal and Ancient Golf Club’s membership change promises to heighten pressure on the R&A to steer future Opens to inclusive clubs.

“I think clubs somewhat have the right to do whatever they want to do, but then that maybe limits them from what they can host, and their position potentially to the world,” said England’s Justin Rose, whose six PGA Tour titles include the 2013 U.S. Open. “I think there’s definitely a situation there where if you’re going to host such high-profile events, you need to conform a little bit more with what’s acceptable in the mainstream society.”

In that sense, a woman’s place in the game will remain an ongoing question for the R&A.