By An Overwhelming Majority, The R&A Votes to Allow Female Members For The First Time

Golf has rarely been accused of being particularly progressive, but now, at least, progress toward gender equity is impossible to deny.

At its annual meeting Thursday, the stodgy, 260-year-old Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews announced that its 2,400 members, all men, have passed a proposal to allow women members.

“More than three quarters of the club’s global membership took part in the ballot, with a decisive 85% voting for women to become members,” club secretary Peter Dawson said in a statement. “This vote has immediate effect and I can confirm that the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews is now a mixed-membership club.”

Reaction to the decision was swift. The LPGA said in a statement, in part, “This decision is certainly a step in the right direction and one that better captures the current diversity and inclusiveness of our great game.”

The PGA of America added: “Women have played and will continue to play an integral role in the game of golf. In fact, women represent the biggest growth market in the sport, and every step to make golf more inclusive is good for the game. The PGA of America is thrilled that the R&A is welcoming women into its organization, and loudly applauds its decision.”

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The decision was not a surprise. Butch Harmon, one of the game’s most sought after instructors, said Thursday it was, “Just a matter of time,” what with Augusta National having begun adding women to its membership scrolls two years ago. Committees within the Royal & Ancient club were said to be in favor of the rules change. Gordon Dalgleish, president of Perry Golf, which books golf vacations to Scotland, told Golf.com earlier this week, “As a member, I am very much in favor of the proposal.”

Dalgleish, one of many members who voted remotely, said Thursday, “The world is changing, and this is the right result. Everyone associated with golf has a lot of work to do to keep the game moving forward, and this was one of those conversations that was distracting from that. It needed to be sorted so everyone could move on.”

Ernie Els, enjoying an off-week in South Florida, told golf.com: “I’m glad they’ve come to this decision. I don’t know why it’s taken this long. We’ve got women and men in this game and they should be able to visit the same facility.”

The Royal & Ancient has traditionally set rules and run tournaments, governing golf everywhere except North America, where the USGA is nominally in charge. In 2004, though, the Royal & Ancient reorganized and spun off a smaller group of companies known as the “R&A” to handle those governance duties. That group includes women members.

Still, the matter of exclusion persisted, with the all-male Royal & Ancient in essence holding the keys to the home of golf. Club members get first dibs on tee times at the Old Course and are afforded temporary lodging during their stay. The club also has input on how the facility is managed (by the St. Andrews Links Trust) and acquires and preserves golf artifacts.

Louise Richardson, the first woman principal of St. Andrews University (the equivalent of an American university president), told The New York Times last summer that the club’s exclusionary policy had been more than a mild nuisance; it had negatively impacted her ability to do her job. Unlike her predecessors, Richardson, a golfer, was not extended an invitation to join the club upon taking over in 2009, and that meant, among other things, she couldn’t dine at the club with university donors.

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Thursday’s announcement would seem to pave the way for her to join the club, promising a future in which women get equal access to arguably the most famous 18 holes in golf, and centuries-old grudges are put to rest. Club secretary Dawson’s statement went on to say, “The membership has acted to fast-track a significant initial number of women to become members in the coming months.” Presumably we’ll soon know who they are.

“I think it is great news,” said England’s Laura Davies, an LPGA veteran. “Back when I turned pro I would never have imagined that this could ever happen. I think it is a huge step forward for the R&A and women’s golf, and everyone will be delighted with the result.”

Charley Hull, another LPGA star from England, also expressed her support of the long-awaited news from St. Andrews, adding, “Golf needs to get a bit more modern and we can’t be doing [that] with single sex golf clubs in this day and age, especially not ones where majors are held.”

The Royal & Ancient had been under scrutiny since Augusta National added two women members in 2012. The Georgia club, which hosts the Masters each April, invited former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and businesswoman Darla Moore to be pioneers, of a sort. Both accepted.

All-male clubs came into the crosshairs again as Muirfield, “the home of Scotland’s Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers,” hosted the 2013 British Open. Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond stayed away from the tournament and slammed Muirfield, calling it, “indefensible in the 21st century not to have golf clubs open to both males and females.” He pressed Dawson to intervene, but the Royal & Ancient secretary declined to do so, saying it would be “bullying” to impose a mandate for inclusiveness.

It also would have been hypocritical. Not anymore.

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