Does it matter that there are still a few single-sex clubs both in the UK and in the States? Probably not.
When the Equality Act was introduced in the UK in October 2010, most peoples’ focus was on how the major championship venues would react. None among these establishments was in any great hurry to go along with the concept of equality but, from the moment Augusta took two women on board, the rest were under pressure to do the same. It took two special ballots for Muirfield members to agree. But agree they did when they realized how much the Open meant not just to the club but to local businesses.
Ironically, all these Open rota clubs have adapted pretty well to being mixed establishments.
Women have hardly been hammering at their doors, but there is no question that the lower-handicap women have enjoyed being allowed to play among men on some of the toughest courses in the land. As for the men, it seems that the arrival of women is not the earthshattering event which they had feared.
True, there were some dark mutterings when a woman, a former Curtis Cup player, won the first of the mixed medals at the R&A in 2015. But there would not appear to have been too many follow-on complaints. (Either that or the women have not won a medal since.)
America’s Butler National in Chicago is an example of a club which chose to exit the big stage and stay single sex. Formed as a men’s club in 1972, it hosted the PGA Tour’s Western Open from 1974 to 1990. When, in the summer of 1990, the PGA Tour announced new guidelines forbidding any club with discriminatory membership policies to host its tournaments, Butler National had a choice: let women in or lose the Western Open. They chose the latter.
As Shona Malcolm, former chief executive of the Ladies’ Golf Union has stressed, the single-sex clubs are covered by the legal concept of freedom of association. “You choose your golf club because you want to mix with like-minded people. And if you want to play at an all-male or an all-female club, it’s up to you,” she explains. “It’s only when you are in the business of hosting events involving the public that the situation changes. It would be sending out all the wrong messages if, say, the Open venues had been allowed to stay as they were.”
In the case of the smaller all-male clubs, the time has long gone – at least we hope – when men did not think twice about letting people know why they preferred their own company. In their eyes, women played too slowly, they couldn’t hit the ball out of their shadows, and the majority did not come close to playing at the same level as they did.
That the women, in turn, preferred not to have to deal with such hackneyed criticisms was entirely understandable. They used to have the best of both worlds in being able to operate as an all-women’s establishment while choosing a handful of “honorary” male members whom they had presumably singled out as suitable candidates. Yet once the new rules came into play, they had to go through the embarrassment of asking those men to leave. (In the case of the St Rule Club in St Andrews, Sir Michael Bonallack, the former chief executive of the R&A and a real catch of an honorary member, offered to stand down before he was approached.
St Rule, incidentally, was typical of the kind of all-woman club which, had it wanted to go mixed, simply did not have the space and/or the finances to offer the like-for-like facilities which would have been required.
Overall, the main problem resulting from the Equality Act has attached to those clubs where men were full members and women were labelled “associates.” In many cases, this did not work for either party. The women were upset because their cheaper membership fees – often two-thirds or maybe even half of what the men were paying – were no longer possible. As for the men, they wanted to stay with the upper hand.
According to Malcolm, not a few women were lost to the game at this point. “Why,” she asked, “would they want to pay more when they did not want to play more than a couple of times a week? It made no sense.” Almost inevitably, those women who did fork out the full amount, soon found that they were not being afforded the equal rights they had anticipated.
Intriguingly, the reason the situation in these mixed clubs is well on the way to resolving itself is largely down to COVID-19. Courses which were closed during the early months of the pandemic were soon crying out for members and, by the time they started up again, the only way they could save themselves was to come up with more innovative membership arrangements. Such, for example, as anything from a two-day membership to a seven-day affair.
In other words, it’s probably as much down to luck as judgment that things have taken a turn for the better. What’s for sure, is that there would seem to be no danger of going backwards as happened in 1919 at Hunstanton. That was the year when a member used the club’s book of complaints to note that during the hostilities, many privileges had been granted to ladies – such as letting them in the bar and the lounge – and that the time had come for these privileges to be withdrawn. “Notices,” said the complainer, “should be placed on all doors leading to the men’s quarters to keep the ladies in their proper part of the clubhouse.”
Underneath, someone had penned the word “Agreed.”
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