In a potentially historic move, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews has asked its membership to consider admitting female members for the first time, with a vote scheduled for September.
Although the club itself no longer administers the rules outside the United States and Mexico nor runs the Open Championship, its close association with both and its proximity to the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland -- viewed as the spiritual home of golf -- has prompted the effort.
"We have been considering this, and it's been on our radar for quite some time," said Peter Dawson, who serves as secretary of the club as well as the chief executive of the R&A -- a separate business entity that now runs the Open and administers the rules.
"As society changes, as sport changes, as golf changes, it's something the R&A needs to do, and we're trying to be as forward-looking as we can today."
Dawson, who was made available via conference call after the news was released Wednesday, made it clear that this will not necessarily affect the playing of the Open Championship at all-male clubs. Last year, his organization came under scrutiny because the Open was played at all-male Muirfield in Scotland.
He also stressed that members are being encouraged to support the measure but that it will still require a vote.
"It's an exciting day for the club," Dawson said. "There's been quite a bit of internal discussion as to how this will work. It is a matter for the members to determine -- and I stress that this is a members matter -- and we'll see what happens in September."
The Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews was established in 1754. Upon its 250th anniversary celebration in 2004, a separate company called the R&A was formed to run the Open Championship (among other tournaments), administer the rules of the game and other duties.
The R&A is not a club but a business that employees both men and women.
Adding to the confusion is that the Royal & Ancient clubhouse sits behind the first tee and 18th green of the Old Course, perhaps the most famous course in the world. But it does not own or run the operations of the course. The St. Andrews Links Trust runs the seven town courses, including the Old Course, and all are open to the public.
Dawson joined the club as secretary in 1999 and kept the role when being named CEO of the separate R&A in 2004.
"In 2004, we split the external duties into a corporate structure, the R&A," Dawson said. "The connection between the two is that the committees [at the R&A] are populated by members of the club.
"The media and others have always refused to recognize the distinction and describe us as a single organization, a single-sex organization."
Dawson said Augusta National's announcement in late 2012 to admit its first female members and corporate sponsorship had little or no bearing on this decision.
"This has to do with our perceived governance role in the game and the right thing to do," Dawson said.
He added that that role and the selecting of Open venues are not connected.
Dawson has spent considerable time in recent years defending the R&A's decision to play the Open at venues that have all-male membership policies, including last year's tournament at Muirfield won by Phil Mickelson.
"We do, I assure you, understand that this is divisive," Dawson said last July. "It's a subject that we're finding increasingly difficult, to be honest. In recent months, we've taken great pains to try to explain some of the facts about this matter.
"Single-sex clubs are in a very small minority in the U.K. Half of them are women-only; half of them are men-only. They're perfectly legal. In our view, they don't do anyone any harm. And we think the right of freedom of association is important.
"On the other hand, the media are with seemingly boundless energy and enthusiasm, giving out the message that this is an issue and that such clubs should be condemned to extinction, and that we should not be using one to stage the Open Championship. And we understand that view, too."
Dawson said Wednesday that neither he nor the R&A will be exerting influence on all-male clubs. In addition to Muirfield, Royal Troon and Royal St. George's in England are male-only membership clubs.
Royal Troon is scheduled to host the 2016 Open Championship. Royal St. George's last hosted the major in 2011.
"We're not here to put pressure on these other clubs that have supported the Open over the years," Dawson said. "We value hugely that we can take an Open to Muirfield, Troon or Royal St. George's. They are a big part of the Open rota. To think we would not take an Open there would not be good for the Championship."
Dawson said that to become a member of the Royal & Ancient requires being sponsored by an existing member. He said if the vote passes, he expected the procedure to "accelerate in some way."