The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews is to ballot its 2,500 members on permitting women to become members of the club, reversing its 260-year policy of admitting men only.
The vote will take place on 18 September. Although some golf clubs have permitted female membership for many years, the R&A’s move is symbolic given its historic role in overseeing the rules of golf since 1754.
St Andrews is due to host one of the most high profile golfing championships, the Open, in 2015. If the R&A maintained a men-only membership policy, it could potentially lead to damaging boycotts of the event by key political figures. Alex Salmond, the Scottish first minister, Maria Miller, the UK culture secretary, and Hugh Robertson, the UK sports minister, all declined to attend last year’s Open at Muirfield in protest at its male-only membership policy. Gordon Brown has also criticised the R&A’s stance on female membership.
Ahead of the vote, the R&A has written to its members urging them to vote in favour of the proposal. A spokesperson for the organisation said: “Members of The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, the founding club of The R&A, will vote on a motion to admit women as members. The Club’s committees are strongly in favour of the rule change and are asking members to support it. The vote is scheduled to take place in September of this year.”
Speaking to the Guardian, Peter Dawson, chief executive of the R&A, said: “We very much hope once the vote is taken we will be welcoming women to the club. It’s something that has been expected; I’m not going to say overdue but I’m sure I’ll be asked that question.”
Last year, Mr Dawson commented that “our natural reaction is to resist these pressures, because we actually don’t think they have very much substance… on the Saturday morning when the guy gets up or the lady gets up and out of the marital bed, if you like, and goes off and plays golf with his chums and comes back in the afternoon, that’s not, on any kind of par with racial discrimination or antisemitism or any of these things.”
The issue also came under scrutiny when Professor Louise Richardson, the current principal of the University of St Andrews, was not invited to become a member of the R&A upon taking up her position in 2009. The R&A has invited two of Professor Richardson’s predecessors to become honorary members of the club, and the apparent snub was widely criticised at the time, including by Mr Salmond.
When asked about the principal’s position in light of the latest developments, a University spokesperson said: “Membership of the R&A is a matter for the R&A.”
Although the R&A has retained a men-only policy, the seven golf courses in St Andrews (including the Old Course) are managed by the St Andrews Links Trust. The trust is separate from the R&A and the courses are open to the public, so they can be played by everyone.