Better late than never. Two-hundred and sixty years after its inception, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews is expected at its annual meeting on Thursday to pass a proposal to allow women members — the same day Scots are to vote on their independence from Britain.
All committees are said to be in favor of the rule change, according to a statement from the club, although the final decision will be left to its 2,400 worldwide members. Peter Dawson, the R&A’s chief executive, has said at various times, “All indications are very supportive,” but also, “It’s not for me to speculate.” Gordon Dalgleish, president of Perry Golf, which books golf vacations to Scotland, is also cautiously optimistic.
“As a member, I am very much in favor of the proposal,” Dalgleish wrote in an email to Golf.com on Monday. “But I would prefer to withhold any comment beyond that until after the result of the vote is known.”
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 governance duties. That group includes women members.
Still, the matter of exclusion persists, 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), spoke publicly about the men-only club for the first time in the run up to the British Open last July. She told The New York Times 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 as she told Karen Crouse of the Times, that meant, among other things, Richardson could not dine at the Royal & Ancient with university donors. She also said Royal & Ancient members had waved their club ties in her face. Richardson said: “Here’s St. Andrews University, ranked third in the U.K., an organization of 10,000 people, we support 9,000 jobs, I run this place very successfully, and I’m not allowed in the clubhouse 600 yards from my house?”
Asked about the comments the day before the first round of the Open at Royal Liverpool, the R&A’s Dawson wasn’t eager to get into details.
“To be honest,” he said, “we just don’t recognize those remarks as in any way accurately representing the relationship between the R&A and St. Andrews University. We have an excellent relationship. We’re very supportive of the university. We’ve been very supportive of its fundraising efforts. In fact, its 600th anniversary fundraiser just finished, and we contributed 500,000 pounds to it, a not inconsiderable sum in support of St. Andrews University. And really that’s all I have to say on this.”
Dawson and the Royal & Ancient have come under heavy scrutiny in light of recent events, especially Augusta National’s addition of two women members. The Georgia club, which hosts the Masters each April and had come under fire from activist Martha Burk and others, invited former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and businesswoman Darla Moore to join in 2012. Both accepted. Although it’s hard to see how that wouldn’t have an impact, Dawson said Augusta’s policies are immaterial to Thursday’s vote.
All-male clubs came into the crosshairs again as ancient Muirfield, also known as the home of Scotland’s Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, hosted the 2013 British Open won by Phil Mickelson. Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond 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 major domo declined, saying it would be “bullying.”
Presumably Dawson will have more to say Thursday.