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Money talks, and it is telling the R&A they should not support male-only golf clubs

WE are a few weeks into 2014 and it finally looks as if golf might - just might - be pulled, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century.

HSBC, major sponsors of the Open, are "uneasy" about the R&A's stance on male-only golf clubs.
HSBC, major sponsors of the Open, are "uneasy" about the R&A's stance on male-only golf clubs.

The sport's governing body, the Royal & Ancient, have been heavily criticised for continuing to award the Open Championship to male-only clubs, but the wheels of change have, belatedly, creaked into action.

When Muirfield hosted the third major of the year last July, it was the second time in three years that the most famous golf tournament on the planet had been held at a club which does not permit women members. While Royal St George largely escaped a torrent of criticism regarding their men-only policy in 2011, Muirfield certainly did not.

The R&A were pilloried left, right and centre for allowing the most prestigious week of the golfing calendar to unfold at a club which, fundamentally, endorses sexism. Augusta National, which hosts the Masters, dispensed with their men-only stance in 2012 when two women members were admitted, but in the lead-up to last year's Open Championship, Peter Dawson, the R&A chief executive, said that it would take a "hard push" to make them change their policy.

Well, that push has now come.

HSBC are a key sponsor of the Open Championship and, speaking at last weekend's Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, Giles Morgan, global head of sponsorship and events for HSBC, said that "the R&A are very clear that we are uneasy; that it is an uneasy position for the bank".

Morgan pointed out that his company had received very few complaints from customers about their association with the event but "it would be much more palatable if the events were played where there wasn't a sense of segregation".

If Dawson was waiting for a push, it could not have been more forceful had it been executed by Geoff Capes.

The disappointing aspect of the men-only issue last year was the lack  of a dissenting voice among influential people within the game. Few high-profile male players were willing to comment on the policy, never mind criticise it, and - perhaps surprisingly - there was a similar reticence from female golfers to condemn this anachronism.

While some commentators advocated banning men-only clubs altogether, I would be inclined to support a stance which saw the Open Championship awarded only to clubs which endorse equal rights. Golf clubs, just as with any other private members' club, can set whatever membership criteria they see fit and there are a similar number of women-only golf clubs to men-only. But there can be little argument that this furore over the Open Championship taking place at men-only clubs is acutely damaging to the sport.

In reply to Morgan's comments, an R&A spokesman said: "We promised a period of reflection immediately after last year's Championship and this process is ongoing. Naturally, we have taken soundings within the game and we will report the outcome of our deliberations in due course." When you consider that Morgan has said he expects the R&A will end up with the right answer, it does not take a genius to work out what he is implying. HSBC's dilemma is that continued tolerance to this misogyny implies acceptance and so the message to the R&A appears to be: change your policy or risk losing HSBC's support.

This would be catastrophic and Dawson and his R&A cronies will categorically not let that happen. Money talks, and Dawson is as aware  of this as anyone.

The timescale will be interesting, though. Royal Troon, another men-only club, is to host the Open in 2016 and the issue will have amplified tenfold by then if it has not been resolved. Dawson is not stupid and will realise that a speedy resolution would benefit all parties, even if alacrity is not in the DNA of the organisation.

While ending the exclusion of females from the 20-or-so men-only golf clubs which exist in the UK is relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of the fight for gender equality, the platform these clubs are afforded in hosting the Open continues to do significant damage to the reputation of golf.

The apparent reluctance of the R&A to acknowledge this is depressing and that it has taken the concerns of a significant sponsor to initiate action on the issue says little for their self-awareness. The trophy presentation party at Muirfield last year consisted of half-a-dozen white middle-aged (or older) men in blazers, epitomising almost every denunciation of the association.

It was beyond parody. The parochialism of the R&A is, at times, quite astonishing.

The governing body appear reluctant to show any sign of capitulation in the face of public pressure, neglecting to acknowledge the fact that they have a responsibility to promote the game for both sexes.

While women are unlikely to be queueing at the door to join once female members are permitted, advocating men-only clubs quite so resolutely does little to attract young girls to the sport.

HSBC's stance has ensured that change will be forthcoming. Whether it happens sooner rather than later remains to be seen.

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