ST. ANDREWS, Scotland (AP) — For more than 250 years, the words “royal and ancient'' have been synonymous with the rules, traditions and dedication to fair play that are the foundation of golf.
Yet the R&A, the sport's governing body outside the United States and Mexico, is fending off new accusations of sexism because the private club from which it gets its name still is open to men only.
As with Augusta National – home of the Masters – the Royal and Ancient Golf Club has long been criticized because for its no-girls-allowed policy. Now the issue is on the front burner again with Louise Richardson last month becoming the first woman principal of the University of St. Andrews, the prestigious school that overlooks the famous Old Course. Her male predecessor was an honorary member of the club but she has not been asked to join.
The case to persuade the organization to open its doors to women has been taken up by the leader of the Scottish government as well as regional lawmakers.
“The Royal and Ancient Golf Club is an organization with a long and distinguished heritage,'' said Alex Salmond, leader of Scotland's regional government. “However, it is important for all such bodies to reflect contemporary society by making membership available to everyone, regardless of gender.''
Claire Baker, a Scottish lawmaker whose constituency covers St. Andrews, doesn't think Richardson will receive an invitation.
“The question I'd like answered is: Can women become members of the club, yes or no?'' Baker said. “And, if yes, which women members have they had? The answer to that is none.''
The problem facing those who are pressing for change is that women have a club at St. Andrews with exclusively female membership. Its members are happy with the situation that the men have their own clubs and the women have their's.
“I can't see the problem with the new university principal. If she wants to become a member of a golf club she can get the right people to propose her and join ours,'' Dorothy McIvor, a member of the women-only St. Regulus Ladies Golf Club, said while visiting one of the many golf shops in this quaint town on Scotland's east coast.
“I think the people who are making a fuss about it know nothing about golf and clearly aren't members. They should stay out of it.''
The Ladies Golf Union, which also has its headquarters at St. Andrews and administers British women's golf, says it has no objection to single-sex membership clubs. Its biggest issue, said director of championships Susan Simpson, is some mixed membership clubs where there are restricted privileges for women and even no-go areas.
“We are concerned with those clubs where full members, men and women, pay the same fees for membership but the clubs just pay lip service to the women,'' she said.
The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews was established in 1754, and developed into a leading authority on the game. In 2004, it passed responsibility for rules of golf to the then-newly formed R&A, with the club retaining its private membership.
Baker believes that barring the opposite sex from either club in town is wrong in principle and that the R&A – benefiting from its association with the famous club – is stuck in the past.
She also says that the club's reluctance to accept mixed memberships will harm its attempt to get golf into the Olympics, which she supports.
“The R&A hope golf will become a sport in the Olympics, which upholds equality and fairness,'' said Baker, who has written to International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge seeking its policy on single-sex membership. “Now it is linked with a golf club that has exclusively male members.
“I just think it's chauvinistic, it's old fashioned. It needs to take a different approach and become part of a modern Scotland.''
Organizers of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics wanted to add golf to their program and play it at Augusta National. But that proposal failed when some IOC members and others criticized the club's all-male membership, along with the fact it had only recently taken a black member.
Now the R&A has teamed up with the PGA, the LPGA and golf's national and international organizations to push for golf to enter the Olympics, possibly in 2016. Baker says that, unless it persuades the Royal and Ancient Golf Club to allow women members, it is in effect letting the coalition down.
Asked by the AP for a comment, the R&A said it would talk to Baker in the near future.
“We are meeting with Claire Baker in St. Andrews later this month and will listen carefully to her views on gender equality in golf clubs,'' the R&A said in a statement.
“Our founding club, The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, exists to provide services to its members. The R&A was legally separated from the club in 2004 and uses its worldwide influence and funds derived from the commercial success of The Open Championship to support the development of women's and men's golf on every continent.''
Baker acknowledges that it appears Richardson, who declined an interview request, doesn't appear to be very interested in golf.
“That's not the point,'' she said. “The Royal and Ancient Golf Club has links to the R&A and the golf club has a male-only membership. It's an iconic golf club … it's what a lot of people come to Scotland for.''