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It is 2013: time to consign 'tradition' of men-only golf clubs to the rough

IT is amazing that Scotland boasts such a rich heritage in golf.

Muirfield is such a revered course that the club is able to quell criticism of its outdated gender regulations but firmer action is needed
Muirfield is such a revered course that the club is able to quell criticism of its outdated gender regulations but firmer action is needed

In this country we are truly blessed. We live in a land with stretches of terrain, such as by the Moray Firth, where towns and villages boast gems of golf courses, marvelled at the world over. And yet, next week, the Open Championship will be staged at Muirfield in East Lothian, a club which bars half the Scottish population from being members on account of gender.

Let's pause for a moment. This is July 2013, not 1813 or 1913. We live in the modern age. We are well on our way into the 21st century. Yet we are still lumbered with this idea that, at some prestigious golf clubs, women cannot be members due to arcane notions of "tradition" or "freedom of association".

That is the great mantra of Peter Dawson, the Royal and Ancient chief executive: "freedom of association". Dawson, a decent cove who is stuck in a time-warp, is prone to ask (when challenged about the men-only Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews): "What is so wrong with freedom of association? Sometimes men just want to socialise with men . . . "

Mr Dawson, the answer is this: nothing is wrong with it, so long as no-one is prejudiced or discriminated against by your "freedom". On such issues, gender can be no different from race, colour or religion, can it? No reputable person in their right mind would say of a sports club today, "white men just want to be free to associate with fellow whites", would they?

Dawson's defence of men-only clubs has become wearying. As a leading golf executive, he hangs about like Mr Micawber, waiting for something to happen on the issue, rather than pro-actively fixing it himself.

Dawson is by no means alone in fudging the issue, though. It is strange, for instance, how many women golfers turn a blind eye to the subject, or don't want to face it, or go mute when invited to address it. Over the last few days I've tried and failed to get a number of women in golf to pipe up on the subject . . . no such luck. Privately, they think men-only clubs are ridiculous but, publicly, they don't want any controversy. I have also found the Scottish Ladies Golfing Association pretty lame on the subject over the past year. This organisation gives an impression of not wanting to rock the boat or cause any fuss. "Och, silly men, let them be!" is almost the SLGA's subtext.

Such a stance finds favour with quite a number of women golfers in Scotland. The Equality Act of 2010 has sought to tighten up issues of parity between men and women in golf clubs, yet many women have grouched about its effects. They liked things the way they were. They used to pay lower subscriptions at clubs for less playing time, but all that has changed. At some clubs, where the Equality Act has forced club committees to make playing-times available to men and women equally, many women have demurred.

The fact is, it appeared to suit some women, especially those who need not work, to amble up to the golf club and enjoy their restricted rights. No Equality Act for them. In fact, they view it as piffle.

Meanwhile, Muirfield is protected in its 19th century world view by dint of its privacy. The law openly protects it. I discovered this to my cost when I recently sought to tackle Alastair Brown, the Muirfield secretary, on the subject. "The state of the membership of Muirfield is a private matter for the members to decide," he said at the time. "Single-gender clubs cannot be classed as discriminatory. The Equality Act is very specific: it allows for gender-only private clubs. It comes down to this issue again: are men and women not allowed to keep their own company?"

Every one of us shows a level of hypocrisy on this subject. A joke does the rounds about a number of sports hacks who, in their liberal zeal, deplore men-only clubs, but still rush to play these courses if they are lucky enough to be invited. Back in 2001, I relished being invited to play Augusta National and felt giddy with excitement on that first tee, not long after I had panned the club in print for its (then) all-white, men-only status. Apparently my contempt for Augusta National didn't spoil my love of playing there.

Moreover, Muirfield is a very, very special course. This is its great power. Ask any of the top players and they will cite Muirfield as among the greatest – if not the greatest – of the Open venues.

As such, the club has the power to curb people's protests, to bring them to heel. At Castle Stuart this week, if any imminent Open competitor had been asked about Muirfield's men-only status, do you think any of them would have stopped to throw a brickbat? These guys are about to go and play in the Open, at one of the greatest courses in the world . . . they are not going to criticise it.

The point here is both about reality and perception. In reality, only a tiny fraction of clubs are men-only, so it hardly counts as a major blight. In truth, scarcely anyone is actually affected. Yet, in a country like Scotland where golf thrives, the perception is pretty embarrassing. The idea that a woman cannot join a golf club is self-evidently absurd. Come on Mr Micawber at the R & A. Don't hang around. Do something.

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