Single sex golf clubs Q&A

In April 2013 Peter Dawson, the Chief Executive of The R&A, spoke to British golf journalists about the single gender golf club issue. 

The following is a transcript of this discussion and the questions asked by a number of different journalists.


This is an issue that's obviously getting a great deal of traction, it's very emotive, and people have very strong opinions about. And I'm not going to attempt to divert people from their chosen path or chosen opinions on this subject at all.

I'd like to spend a little bit of time on this and try to get it into balance. I do think that, however strong opinions are, the way this is often reported and the way that we have perhaps failed to get our message across does leave the general public with a slightly false impression of what things are like in the game of golf. I'd like to, before I go on to the substantive point, try to correct some of that with a few facts and figures to try to get some balance into the discussion.

I think golf has moved over time a hell of a long way from the stereotype of the particular golf club that was reported back in the 1950s and so on. I think it's done so because of general moves in society. It's a generational thing. There can be commercial pressures, societal pressures. But the average golf club in Britain today is a very different place to what it was 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago.

A few bits of information. There are no golf courses, I stress golf courses, I know about in Britain which are closed to either women or men as players. I don't think there are any that I know about. And if I'm a liar, it's maybe one or two, but I honestly don't know of any. So access to these golf courses for men and women exists.

Point two. There are about 3,000 courses in Britain. Around about 1% of them have a single sex membership policy. So this is a 1-in-a-100 number. It's not rife. It's not what many members of the public perceive when they read this subject. It's a much smaller number than perhaps is often believed. Of that 1% or so, half of them, slightly more than half, are women-only clubs in Britain. And there's obviously historical reason for that, as to why these clubs were first formed, because they couldn't get into the men's clubs at that time. But one hundred years on plus, it's quite different today, and these women-only clubs are fiercely independent by and large.

So it's quite a balanced thing, the number of single sex clubs that are out there. It's also interesting that a vast majority of single sex clubs in Britain are in Scotland. There are very few in England. There are none in Wales that I know about. The vast majority are in Scotland. Much of it, not all of it, but much of it reflects the sharing of golf courses by a number of different clubs.

And this is the situation that we see here, for example, in St Andrews, where the courses are public. Anybody can play, young, old, domestic, foreign, men, women. There are five clubs, private clubs, around the Links, which share the courses with visitors. Of those five clubs, three are all-men, two are all-women. The youngest of those clubs is one hundred this year. The oldest is The R&A which goes back to 1754.

These clubs all live together, interact together, very harmoniously. And the members of these clubs actually don't want to change. They're very happy with the current situation, both the men's clubs and the women's clubs. They've actually put out a statement twice as a group of clubs about this, which I can give you copies of. So the scene here at St Andrews is one of great harmony. More women play golf here than anywhere else I've ever been, and no one is disadvantaged, which might be quite a good measure if equality actually exists or not.

I don't think that type of situation is well understood in the country. Why should perhaps 5,000 members of these various clubs change something that they're very happy with? And I don't know who could make that happen, because the feeling is very strong here, that this works, this model here at St Andrews works.

Now I completely understand the view that many people would have that any kind of discrimination is a complete no-no. I understand that. We'll move on in a minute to Open venues and the like, but I just wanted to put into context that there's a very, very small proportion of single sex clubs in golf. Golf has moved on in a huge way. There's a direction of travel about this, there's no doubt about it in my mind. But there are groups of people who like things the way they are in these clubs. I don't see very much wrong with that personally as long as nobody's disadvantaged, and that's certainly the case here in St Andrews. And the one-size-fits-all model maybe people should think about a little bit because I don't think necessarily every club has to be exactly the same. There's room in golf, surely, for a bit of diversity in that regard.

So I just want to get across the point that this single-sex issue isn't quite what it seemed at first. Of course I understand the criticism that The R&A would get having a single sex golf club and being the governing body for golf, et cetera. Let me just try and deal with that one.

We did, as part of the reorganisation that we conducted in 2004, moving our external activities into a corporate structure, recognise there was a need to split these activities away from a private members club. We're still, if you like, on that journey because it is true to say that in these companies, many of the committee members that we have are drawn from the club members of The Royal & Ancient Golf Club, there’s no denying that at all.

But in the important areas of our governance role, the Rules of Golf, the rules of equipment, so on, which is where we have an influence on the world of golf, we make sure our committees are more representative of the world of golf than just drawing from R&A members.

The Rules of Golf Committee, for example, has 12 R&A members on it, but it has 12 other people on it as well from all around the world. I don't have any control, we don't have any control of how many of those are women, because it depends how many women the organisations that are represented on that send. If Golf Australia sends a man, they send a man. If they send a woman, they send a woman. The LGU (Ladies’ Golf Union) and the Ladies European Tour are on the equipment committee. So we do have female and male representation on those committees, and a much wider group than just people from The R&A.

Don't forget, of course, that R&A members, many of them, over time, have been drawn into membership because they would be good at committee work.

Now moving to Open venues for a minute, and then we'll perhaps come back to more questions, we have nine venues that we use at the moment. Three of them I would regard as public facilities: St Andrews, Turnberry and Carnoustie. Three I would regard as private members clubs, dual-sex membership, Birkdale, Lytham and Hoylake. And three would be private members clubs with single-sex policy membership, and that would be Royal St Georges, Muirfield and Troon.

Now, Troon, just getting that one out of the way for a moment, is more akin to the St Andrews model. There's a true ladies golf club there that shares the courses with the Royal Troon members. There's a situation there where there's an equilibrium, the members of both clubs seem to me to be very happy with the situation. There's no internal pressure for change at Troon. Women and men can play all the courses at Troon.

At Royal St George’s and Muirfield, there are different situations. Let's talk about Muirfield, because it's there this year. As I said earlier, it is a single sex membership club. Women do have access to the golf course either as guests of members or simply as visitors. You do see a good number of ladies playing at Muirfield.

Muirfield has been very helpful to women's golf over time. I think the Curtis Cup has been there twice in its history. And as an aside, this doesn't seem to be an issue for some of the women's organisations in golf because next year, the British Women's Amateur is at Royal St George’s.

I'm just making comments here to try to get some facts out on the table.

There's nothing wrong under the UK legislation with a single sex club, as long as they behave under the Equality Act as far as guest access is concerned, which certainly Muirfield does. And to think that The R&A might say to a club like Muirfield, You're not going to have The Open any more unless you change your policy, is frankly a bullying position that we would never take. Muirfield has a huge history in The Open Championship. This will be the 16th time it's been played there. And who are we to say what they should do, because they're behaving perfectly legally. We borrow Muirfield's golf course for two or three weeks every ten years. That's what we do. They allow us to stage The Open Championship at their golf clubs. Personally I think this idea that it sends out a dreadful message to the world is considerably overblown, but that's my own opinion.

And at The R&A, I've used this term 'social engineering' in the past, I'm not going to use it again, we don't see it as our role, if you like, to attack golf clubs which are behaving perfectly legally in the UK.

If I could just make one last comment. Golf is, as I've said, certainly on a journey in this thing. There's a direction of travel about this. This is where I want to touch on reporting.

You see articles still banging the drum about notices and I doubt that a sign about dogs and women ever existed. If it did, it was one hundred years ago. All that that does is stall the direction of travel. Because the people inside the game and inside these clubs reading that say: “God, what do they know? That demonstrates they don't know what goes on here.”

I'd love to see a much more reasoned debate in the media about this than I think we have seen, which I think will help the direction of travel personally. 

Q. You did remarkably well to present exclusivity as diversity because I've never understood it in that way before. But if a woman, for example, I like to understand there are five clubs attached to the Links?

PETER DAWSON: There are five clubs in St Andrews all within 200 yards of each other.

Q. I take the point about access, which is critical, the major defence against all of it. Were there a woman who wanted to be a member of a club that is mixed sex, where does she go in St Andrews for that privilege of membership?

PETER DAWSON: There are a lot of things I didn't mention; they use the Links clubhouses as mixed facilities. That clubhouse you see over there is entirely public and many people go there and use that.

Q. One assumes that membership confers some kind of benefit.

PETER DAWSON: As I think I'm trying to get across, there is no pressure for a mixed sex club in St Andrews. People are very happy to join the clubs. The clubs intermingle. There's social events between the clubs going on all the time, monthly or more regularly.

Q. There's still a bar, in principle.

PETER DAWSON: Yes. The single sex clubs are single sex. The Equality Act has forced these clubs to actually declare a position on this. That's a requirement of the Equality Act. Prior to the Equality Act, The R&A didn't have a rule about single sex membership. It wasn't in the rule book at all.

Q. Peter, your concerns about the perception of the game is damaging for the game. You quoted the statistic about 1% of single-sex clubs.

PETER DAWSON: 1 in 100.

Q. But the most famous competition is held at one of these clubs.

PETER DAWSON: I totally understand the point you're making. And I respect that point of view totally. All I'm saying, all I've been trying to say up until now, is there are other points of view about this and other facts about this that don't get reported. I'm not criticising, I'm just making that comment.

I don't actually believe the fact that The Open is played at Royal St George’s or Muirfield or Troon does have the impact that you're suggesting. I don't see evidence personally. I understand the point that people might want to say that and be against single sex clubs, I understand that totally. But I don't believe that a few single sex clubs, even if The Open is held at one or two of them, affects participation in the game of the golf. I don't believe that. That is not to say I'm trying to sell you single sex clubs, but I think it's overblown.

Q. Do you think it might damage the perception of the game of golf? It's saying to a lot of people, Look at golf and hold it at a distance –

PETER DAWSON: Some people do that. People from inside the game I don't think do that. But people from the outside looking in would think that. And I quite see that it's kind of counter to the post London Olympic spirit, the sport-for-all kind of approach to things that's out there these days. As I say, there's a direction of travel about this.

Q. You must see the wonders it would do. When you talk about this journey, I think it would accelerate it.

PETER DAWSON: I think it would help it.

Q. If you separated the membership wing from the official wing, if one of these had a different name...

PETER DAWSON: We did discuss that a lot at the time. We thought if we called it 'Oranges and Lemons,' do you really want to lose that 250 years of historic strength for this one issue.

Q. These things often end up in a court of law. Is that a concern you have?

PETER DAWSON: Challenges? What, exactly? I mean, the legal situation is very clear. As recently as the last Labour government, they recognised the rights of these single sex club clubs to exist. I don't want to come across as defending this at all. I just want to explain.

Q. What is your position personally?

PETER DAWSON: My personal position is that I totally believe in equality. But I do also believe there are times when men need to socialise with men and women need to socialise with women. It actually reflects majority thinking, I believe. I might be wrong. But that's what I think.

Q. Has there been any shift in the position of the members?

PETER DAWSON: I think it's changing a little bit, yes, a little bit.

Q. Can you see in the long- or short-term a change in the view of the majority?

PETER DAWSON: I do think it's quite right that in private members clubs, let me separate this from The R&A's role in this, I do think it's entirely right that members of private clubs should be allowed to determine their own future destiny. I don't see anything wrong with that at all.

From The R&A's perspective, if I thought it was materially affecting participation, I think The R&A would have a different view about it. Ultimately we're here to try to do what's good for golf, not what's good for The R&A.

I think what I said about totally believing in equality and also recognising that men need to socialise with men and women with women, I don't see anything wrong with that as long as nobody is disadvantaged by it.

Q. In this process, The R&A, you can't say to Muirfield and Troon, You can't have women members unless you have.

PETER DAWSON: We couldn't ever say it. To be quite honest, our primary duty I think as far as The Open Championship is concerned is to do what's good for The Open Championship. To kick out venues like Royal St George’s, Troon and Muirfield (indiscernible) would not be good for The Open, and we wouldn't think of doing it. Also having six venues left behind isn't actually enough.

Q. But some would argue that it would be good for the game.

PETER DAWSON: Some have tried to argue that.

Q. You say golf is on a journey. It sounds like you're also saying, “Leave us alone, we'll get there eventually.”

PETER DAWSON: I don't know. I can't say that because I also believe it's for people to determine what happens in their own clubs. But I do detect, and I think we all detect, how different things are today to not too many decades ago. Obviously Augusta admitting lady members is another step.

Q. If I may, again, coming back to this point, the arguments you make are subtle and nuanced, but to a wider audience, this is going to wash over their heads. This is about messaging, and I think that's your complaint, isn't it?

PETER DAWSON: I'm in the business really of trying to separate perception from actuality and the art of the possible. It's not all about messaging for me. There's actually some substance in all of this.

Q. We recognise that. One of the difficulties you have with your position is that when these clubs were formed, the role of women in society, they didn't have the vote at that point, and it reflected that epoch which no longer exists. So the reasons why they wanted to keep women out then are probably quite different for the reasons they want to keep them out now. The key point here is that it's all legal. You can flat bat it as long as you like. But for young girls, we were speaking to Mel Reid yesterday, and from the perspective of a professional woman golfer, she's not buying this at all.

PETER DAWSON: What is she saying?

Q. The idea there is no limit to access. It might be the case that no one is disadvantaged and there is access, but that's not how it feels. That's not the mood that's being expressed or inferred by her as an individual, as a woman playing on tour.

PETER DAWSON: I had the same conversation with Suzann Pettersen who said exactly the opposite.

Q. That's always the case unless you get them all around the table. While your arguments are difficult to sort of combat, because it's the truth, materially it isn't making that much difference, there is still access. But there still is the question of membership, the benefit of memberships. They're not allowed through the doors. It's as simple as that. As I said, when these clubs were formed, they were formed at a time when the view of women was so different than it is today.

PETER DAWSON: That's certainly the case. I tried to say that earlier on. The reason these clubs were formed, in those days, the men wouldn't let them in. Now there's quite a number of women's clubs that don't want to change.

Q. For women to respond to the power of men, it's a different argument.

PETER DAWSON: If you poll the women in St Andrews: “Should The R&A allow women members?” you would get an overwhelming no, overwhelming. I'm not trying to make a case. I'm trying to tell you what the situation is.

Q. You talked about the split in 2004 and everything. Is it true that the Championship Committee, the one who looks after The Open, is made up of Royal and Ancient members?

PETER DAWSON: We've never seen our role in the Championship Committee or perhaps in our Golf Development Committee, while we take advice from other people, in the same way as our governance committees where we do have this wider role.

If you look at the Championship Committee, what we do and what the LGU (the Ladies’ Golf Union) does, again, in combination, is run the British championships. We do the men's ones, they do the women's. In combination, if you like, that's all being covered and addressed. If you go to the USGA, for example, they have a women's committee within the USGA that does their women's championships.

Q. Does what happened in Augusta with admitting women members for the first time, does that not place you in a slightly more uncomfortable position?

PETER DAWSON: Well, as I say, it's all part of this direction of travel thing. And different places have different timing, different needs. I remember walking out here on a Sunday morning, the weekend after the Augusta announcement. The Old Course is closed on Sundays as you know. There were people kicking footballs and walking dogs, I was one of them with a dog. I thought about Augusta, high fences and security. I thought about here. I thought to myself, “Well, who has the greater access?” I don't say that in any way to be critical of Augusta. I think it's a wonderful place, it has a tremendous position in the game. It's just plain different. Because one place does one thing at a certain time doesn't mean another place needs to do the same thing at the same time. I don't deny that the step Augusta made was a very positive one.

Q. Do you think it's good for the game?

PETER DAWSON: It's certainly not bad. I think, in actuality, will it make much difference to women's golf in America? Probably not. But the perception.

Q. It looks good on golf.

PETER DAWSON: It does. It's very difficult for me to say anything about Augusta and be in any way positive or negative about it. I think they've done what they thought was right for them. They have a different structure, of course, to many of our clubs, it's more centrally run than British golf.

Q. What Augusta have done is not create a new fact. They've created a new perception. The perception will always trump facts. Those who wish to see you as gin-soaked, middle class misogynists, will see you like that. While that might be personally upsetting to you and your colleagues, it's bloody irritating to me and to the rest of us who love golf because you, The R&A, you're the face of golf. And those who wish to take a large stick and hit this game use what we've been talking about for the last 20 minutes or so. A very big stick with which to hit it. Until it changes, the stick will still be used, fairly or unfairly.

PETER DAWSON: I agree with that. I think one of the reasons we have some of this stuff is that, unlike tennis or swimming or athletics, men's events and women's events are held separately in golf. You don't have a Wimbledon situation. You don't have a World Athletics Championships situation where men and women compete.

I don't think it's unnatural that men run the men's Open and women run the Women's Open. I'm actually delighted that the Youth Olympics in 2014, Nanjing, have a boys, girls, and mixed event as part of that. I think golf needs more of that. One never hears any talk about the fact that the European Tour has an all-male membership and the LET (Ladies’ European Tour) has an all-women membership. That seems to be okay.

Q. Because they're not representing the game. They're representing a business.

PETER DAWSON: They're on TV more than we are.

Q. They're a business. You're a game.

PETER DAWSON: I think it's all in the mix.

Q. Peter, I think a simple question a lot of people would ask is, where is the harm in appointing women members? Why is there resistance to change?

PETER DAWSON: I hear that. Where is the harm in not appointing women members?

Q. There is, because of the perception issue.

PETER DAWSON: I just go back to the fact that I think private clubs can determine their own destiny. It's like freedom of speech. I may disagree with what someone says but I will defend their right to say it. I feel similarly about this, especially as it's such a small number. If it was 80% in Britain, it would be completely different.

Q. That's ultimately the defence of the R&A, that it's not illegal.

PETER DAWSON: No, I don't want to leave you with that impression. The fact that it's not illegal –

Q. And the right of members to choose as they wish.

PETER DAWSON: The right of members to choose as they wish is important. Also the right of the freedom of association is important.

Q. Peter, again, it's about messaging and perception. The points you make are absolutely correct. But if you recognise, and I think you have here expressed the view that some of the commentary has been negative and not representative, if that's the case, that this continues to be the issue, would it not be of value to exclude a championship course that behaves in this way in order to promote a more positive message?

PETER DAWSON: Well, I think whilst you might be right about that positive message, I don't think it's something we would entertain. I don't think it would be good for The Open Championship to lose a historic venue. I don't actually think it would make as much difference as you say it would.

Q. Devil's advocate, by the way.

PETER DAWSON: I know. It's difficult. But we need to move forward here and we need to keep a balanced reporting view, which I think will actually continue the direction of travel much more readily than some of the soundbite stuff we sometimes get.

Q. Do you think it would be positive for golf if The R&A were to allow women members tomorrow?

PETER DAWSON: I think it's impossible for me -- let me be very careful how I answer that because I can see tomorrow's headlines.

Q. If it's positive for Augusta...

PETER DAWSON: That's a logical extension of it. I would caveat it by saying, having a small number of women members, while it would send out some potentially positive messaging, I don't think it would actually change much in British golf.

Q. Are you saying it would be a positive?

PETER DAWSON: I've said what I just said.

Q. Would it be positive yes or no?

PETER DAWSON: Don't give me any of these ultimatums.

Q. I'm asking a straight question.

PETER DAWSON: I think I've explained enough about my views to make it clear what I think.

Q. You see this direction of travel actually ending in the governing body having women members?

PETER DAWSON: The governing body isn't the member's club at all. So I don't understand the question. I understand there's a close connection between the two, don't get me wrong.

Q. Where does this direction of travel end then?

PETER DAWSON: Well, when you guys are happy, I suppose. I jest. But it's going to go on and on and on until everyone's satisfied with whatever the situation is. Moods can change in these matters, I guess, as they have over time.

Q. Do you think it would be a positive move if you did have different names for the governing body or for the members’ wing, would that change the perception?

PETER DAWSON: It probably would. We have 147 organisations from 135 countries worldwide who are affiliated to The R&A. They look to us for leadership. It's the R&A they want. If you go out to countries in Asia and Africa, South America, wherever, the bond is extremely strong. We do get a lot of plaudits for what we do and how we help these countries. So they're looking to St Andrews as headquarters. There's no question about that.

Every four years we have an international golf conference. It's coming around actually as soon as next week. We have 200 delegates coming to St Andrews from all over the world to talk about the big issues in the game. I can guarantee you that the issue we're talking about now will not come up. These people do not see this as a big issue in the game. Believe me, it will not come up.

Q. Do you think the issue is almost a liberal elite issue?

PETER DAWSON: I think the majority of people in the country believe what I tried to say earlier, which is that they believe in equality, but they also recognise that men and women need to socialise together for some time. And I fear, I think this is a very good point, that many people outside of London do see it as a chattering classes issue in London. And that's a negative to progress, as well. I think that's a kind of view that most people in St Andrews would actually have, truthfully, which is a shame, because it's more important.

Q. If hypothetically, Peter, you made Annika Sorenstam an honorary member tomorrow, you don't think people would be upset?

PETER DAWSON: No. Let me ask you this. Would that in some way change the perception that you would portray?

Q. Totally changes the perception.

PETER DAWSON: We talked about it last night. I'm absolutely staggered about how things have switched in Georgia.

Q. It's not the real issue, is it?

PETER DAWSON: It would appear not to be. I'm trying to explain this. It makes people think, “God, it's all smoke and mirrors.”

Q. I disagree. You have to start somewhere. Once you have one, you will never go back.

PETER DAWSON: It's like devolution.

Q. Augusta will never go back. What we hope is in 20, 30, 40 years from now, it will be fully mixed and it will seem odd looking back that there was anything else.

PETER DAWSON: I suspect that's true. Annika Sorenstam might be a good example.

Q. On the flip side it can be seen as tokenism.

PETER DAWSON: Let's hope it wasn't.

Q. People have perceptions.

PETER DAWSON: You have to start somewhere. I don't think it was for a minute.

Q. Do you feel under siege on this issue?

PETER DAWSON: I can’t deny that my job would be a lot easier if the issue didn’t exist. ‘Under siege,’ I think that’s a bit strong. But it’s certainly something that we talk about a lot, isn’t it, between us?

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