Dragging golf into the 21st Century: the end of male-only clubs?

Published 10 December 2012 | Authored by: Kevin Carpenter

The summer of 2012 saw women's sport take centre stage at the London Olympic and Paralympic Games with many female athletes and events being the most celebrated. Women's sport also saw another significant milestone in the month of August with the admission of the first two female members at the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina financier Darla Moore.

Augusta finally succumbed to public pressure, and common decency some would say, after the howls of derision became too loud in April during this years Masters (golf's second greatest tournament). Many thought this day would never come for the most infamous male-only sporting institution in world sport. A change in the golfing landscape that may be a major factor in this change is golf's impending return to the Olympics at Rio 2016 (for my views see this post). However the other institution seen as a bastion of male-only sport (golf once again) yet to be felled is the Royal & Ancient (the 'R&A').

The R&A, based at the home of golf, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club at St Andrews, has three significant responsibilities: the administration of the Rules of Golf in conjunction with the United States Golf Association, the running of the Open Championship (golf's greatest tournament) and the development of the game in existing and emerging golfing nations. The second of these is where the R&A has been pilloried since Augusta finally got into step with the need for equality in the game.

All courses on the Open 'rota' are in the UK. There are nine courses on the current rota and yet a third, Royal Troon, Royal St George's and Muirfield (host of the next Open Championship), have a male-only membership policy. Are these policies in any way defensible given one of the R&A's responsibilities is to develop the game in existing and emerging golfing nations and the IOC's Olympic Charter, which golf has to abide to being recognised by the IOC, states the following under 'Fundamental Principles of Olympism':

  • The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind; and
  • Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.

Separately, with the plethora of UK and European legislation on equality one may wonder how these clubs can legally continue to have male-only membership? The answer lies (ironically) in the Equality Act 2010 which is the principal piece of anti-discrimination legislation in Great Britain. A guidance note on the Act was produced by the Equality and Human Rights Commission titled 'What equality law means for your association, club or society'. Page 19 of this guidance has a section called 'What equality law means for members of an association' which sets out in plain English the provisions of Part 7 of the Act, "An association (except for a political party) may, if it chooses to, restrict its membership to people who share a protected characteristic." Gender being a 'protected characteristic'. Accordingly private male-only golf clubs, which are 'associations' as defined in section 107(2) of the Act, do not have to accept women members.

However, as with many laws around the world, just because what they are doing is allowed by law it doesn't mean that it is morally defensible. Regardless, for the three courses on the Open rota there may be an argument that they are in effect a 'service-provider' under s.29 of the Act and therefore subject to the same stringent equality laws as non-'associations'. The Minister for Sport Hugh Robertson had this to say, "The defence of the Royal and Ancient is that it is a private club and so has the right to do what it wants. That is legally correct and I have no quarrel when it is acting as a private club. However, I believe that when a private club fulfils a public function, such as staging a major event, then there is a different slant."

There is no right-minded golfer who thinks women should be excluded from becoming members of certain golf clubs purely because of their gender and now major sporting figures have begun to speak out. The strongest of all came from Lord Moynihan, outgoing chairman of the British Olympic Association, "It is remarkable that Augusta has changed, but the Royal and Ancient is still there having not entitled and allowed complete equality of opportunity for women in this country... It should be an embedded characteristic of 21st century sport, especially when you see the contribution the athletes make."

In 2013 I cannot see how the R&A will be able to maintain its tacit support of male-only clubs by having them on the Open rota. With one of those being the host of the Open in 2013 this clamour from pressure groups and the general public, backed by Olympic ideology, is only going to intensify.

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About the Author

Kevin Carpenter

Kevin Carpenter

Kevin is a advisor and member of the editorial board for LawInSport, having previously acted as editor. In his day-to-day work he has two roles: as the Principal for his own consultancy business Captivate Legal & Sports Solutions, and Special Counsel for Sports Integrity at leading global sports technology and data company Genius Sports.

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