R&A: Gender issue on hold for now

Updated: July 17, 2013, 12:43 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

The head of the R&A said the organization that runs the Open Championship will study the issue of male-only clubs in the future but does not believe the policy compares to racial or religious discrimination.

The Royal & Ancient, led by CEO Peter Dawson, has come up for criticism because the organization has taken the Open Championship again to Muirfield, which excludes women from membership.

Dawson has acknowledged, therefore, that the R&A will look at the issue. He fears it could someday hurt the Open Championship, which provides funding to all of the other tournaments it runs as well as funds for various golf programs, including women's initiatives.

"When things are a bit quieter, after the championship, I'm quite sure we'll be taking a look at everything to see what kind of sense we can make of it for the future," Dawson said.

Three of the nine venues used for the Open -- the others being Royal Troon in Scotland and Royal St. George's in England -- are male-only clubs, although each permits women to play as guests.

Asked about the distinction between men-only clubs and one that does not permit minorities, Dawson was emphatic.

"Oh, goodness me," Dawson said Wednesday. "I think that's a ridiculous question, if I may say so. There's a massive difference between racial discrimination, anti-Semitism, where sectors of society are downtrodden and treated very, very badly, indeed. And to compare that with a men's golf club, I think, is frankly absurd. There's no comparison whatsoever."

The subject received a good bit of attention during the R&A's annual news conference on the eve of the Open, which begins Thursday morning at Muirfield.

The R&A is the business arm of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, a male-only institution that is based at the home of golf. In 2004, due to the scrutiny surrounding the issue, the R&A was formed, although it is closely linked to the club.

Unlike Augusta National, which runs the Masters and hosts the tournament at its course, the R&A moves the tournament around to nine venues that host the Open Championship. Last year, Augusta National for the first time invited women to join the club.

Here, Scotland's first minister, Alex Salmond, said he would not be attending the Open because of Muirfield's policy.

"We do, I assure you, understand that this is divisive," Dawson said. "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.

"We think the right of freedom of association is important, and we've explained our view. We think there is no material adverse effect on participation. 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 be using one to stage the Open Championship. And we understand that view, too."

Asked later by a female reporter to explain "to the 10 women in the room why racism is unacceptable and sexism clearly still is?" Dawson again defended the club's policy, claiming that it paled in comparison to other forms of discrimination.

"I really don't think, to be honest, that a golf club, which has a policy of being a place where like-minded men or like-minded women go and want to play golf together and do their thing together, ranks up against some of these other forms of discrimination," he said. "I just don't really think they're comparable, and I don't think they're damaging."

Several players have been asked about the issue, and they usually have replied with evasive answers.

At first, Rory McIlroy would only say that Muirfield "is an excellent golf course." He also said that he has not been advised on how to address the issue.

"I haven't been advised either way," he said. "I just think it's something that a lot of guys don't want to get themselves into because it's quite a controversial issue. It's something that shouldn't happen these days. It's something that we shouldn't even be talking about."

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com