Muirfield under fire at British Open for being men's club

Peter Dawson of the Royal & Ancient acknowledged Wednesday that the governing body for golf intends to look at the issue of male-only clubs such as Muirfield after the British Open.

R&A to review gender specificity after Open Championship

Peter Dawson of Royal & Ancient talks to reporters Wednesday at Muirfield in Gullane, Scotland. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

The Royal & Ancient intends to look at the issue of male-only clubs after the British Open. Even so, the head of the governing body said Wednesday that gender policies in golf don't compare to racism or religious discrimination.

At his customary media conference on the eve of the British Open, R&A chief executive Peter Dawson faced a barrage of questions about the membership at Muirfield and two other clubs in the tournament rotation, Troon and Royal St. George's.

One reporter, touching on the racial discrimination that once pervaded the game, asked Dawson what was the difference between a male-only club and one that only allowed whites to join.

"Oh, goodness me, I think that's a ridiculous question if I may say so," Dawson replied. "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."

Dawson stressed that he doesn't believe gender-specific clubs stifle the growth of the sport in any way. Still, he conceded it's an issue that won't go away, so the organization that oversees golf outside the U.S. plans to examine it as soon as the Open is completed.

He wouldn't say what steps might be taken.

"To be honest, our natural reaction is to resist these pressures because we actually don't think they have very much substance," Dawson said. "But I'd like to stress we're not so insular as to fail to recognize the potential damage that campaigns like this can do to the Open Championship.

"And it is our championship committee's responsibility to do what is best for the Open and to maximize the benefits which the Open brings. Not just to golf, but also to the local area.

"I'd like to suggest that we get behind it now," he went on. "Let's make it the success it deserves.

"And 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. But I think right now our concentration has to be on this wonderful event and making it a success."

Despite his pragmatic stance, Dawson never conceded that gender exclusion compares in any way to discrimination that wouldn't be tolerated by the R&A.

"We could sit here all day and debate this," he said. "But I don't really think, to be honest, that a golf club, which has a policy of being a place where like-minded men or, indeed, 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.

"I really just don't think their comparable and I don't think they're damaging. It's just kind of, for some people, a way of life that they rather like.

"I don't think in doing that they're intending to [bring] others down or intending to do others any harm."

'Indefensible in the 21st century'

The issue of gender equity is squarely on the British Open after Augusta National, home of the Masters, invited its first female members to join last summer — former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina financier Darla Moore.

Tiger Woods called it "important to golf." Some prominent Scottish politicians won't be attending this year's event in protest.

"I just think it's indefensible in the 21st century not to have a golf club that's open to all," said Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, a huge golf fan who played a round with Phil Mickelson in the pro-am before the Scottish Open this week.

Salmond, who attended the 2011 British Open at Royal St. George's, said Saturday he didn't realize at the time that the club had a male-only policy.

Two British government members — Maria Miller, the secretary of Culture, Media and Sport, and sports minister Hugh Robertson — have also turned down invitations to attend.

"I would really encourage the R&A, when they next come to allocate the Open, to look at this simply because of the message that it sends out," Robertson said in Sunday's Daily Telegraph. "It just looks very, very out of touch and old fashioned in the post-Olympic era."

'Attacking the Open and attacking Muirfield'

Dawson said the R&A would not give in to political pressure.

"At the R&A, we've been through over 250 years of existence without getting into political comment and I don't really intend to break that rule here," he said. "We've got politicians posturing, we've got interest groups attacking the R&A, attacking the Open and attacking Muirfield."

While conceding that something might have to change, it was clear that Dawson believes the issue has largely been contrived by the media and interest groups that have no concern for the game itself. He claimed there are very few gender-exclusive clubs in Britain and that half of those are female-only.

"It's just a way of life that some of these people like," Dawson said. "Realistically, that's all it is.

"You can dress it up to be a lot more, if you want. But 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 anti-Semitism or any of these things.

"It's just what people kind of do."