GULLANE, Scotland (Reuters) - British Open organisers will look at the issue of men-only golf clubs after coming under fire for hosting this year’s tournament at a club that does not allow women members but ruled out any immediate changes.
The R&A, the body which governs golf outside the United States, has faced mounting pressure to take action against single-sex clubs with the 142nd British Open starting on Thursday at Muirfield, one of three male-only member clubs on the tournament’s rota.
Several politicians have refused to attend the event due to the single-sex policy and women’s groups have called it embarrassing that Britain is the only country to host a major golf tournament at a club which bars women.
R&A chief executive Peter Dawson said this was a divisive issue but stressed that only about one percent of the 3,000 golf clubs in Britain were single-sex, with some only allowing men members and others only allowing women.
Dawson, however, said the issue of single-sex clubs was becoming increasingly difficult and the R&A (Royal & Ancient) would be discussing the situation again after the tournament.
“We will have a good look at what people are saying and try to take a view about all of this and find the most sensible way forward,” Dawson told a 40-minute news conference on Wednesday in which about half the questions were about single-sex clubs.
“I‘m absolutely not going to pre-empt what’s going to come out of this. I wouldn’t even want to call it a review, but we’re very conscious of the disparity of view on this subject.”
Single-sex clubs are not illegal in Britain and exist in the golfing world and other sports and social situations but opponents have accused them of being outdated and out-of-touch.
A government spokeswoman said the Equality Act 2010 allowed private clubs to restrict membership to women only or men only as private clubs could decide on their membership criteria.
But the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation (WSFF) said research showed that 55 percent of golfers thought hosting major championships at single gender clubs damaged the reputation of golf which is struggling with falling numbers of women players.
“Muirfield’s sexist membership policies are absurd in the 21st century, and holding the Open at a club that bans women members is damaging to the sport,” WSFF Chief Executive Sue Tibballs said in a statement.
“A number of golfing bodies are working very hard to break down the traditional perceptions of the sport and encourage a new generation of female participants, and these clubs do nothing to help that cause.”
Figures from the Ladies Golf Union showed that the number of women players in Britain and Ireland has fallen 20 percent to 177,000 last year from 210,00 in 2004.
Dawson said the R&A’s view was that single-sex clubs were legal and did no harm while acknowledging the storm of protests.
He would not be drawn on whether there had been any discussion with Muirfield about changing its policy, or with Royal Troon and Royal St George‘s, the other two male-only member clubs in the list of nine British Open venues.
“We do believe that membership policy is a matter for the clubs. We happen to believe that very strongly,” he said.
When asked the difference between men-only and whites-only clubs, Dawson said it was “absurd” to compare gender membership policies with those set on racial or religious lines where sectors of society were “downtrodden and treated very badly”.
He declined to comment on the fact that Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond, Culture Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities Maria Miller, and Sports Minister Hugh Robertson had rejected invitations to attend the 2013 Open.
Former world number one Rory McIlroy said he had never really thought about the subject although it was clearly an issue at some golf clubs.
“But in terms of life in general, I think men and women are treated equally for the most part these days. And that’s the way it should be,” he said.
Additional reporting by Belinda Goldsmith, Editing by Tony Jimenez