GULLANE, Scotland — Pragmatic yet defiant, the head of the Royal & Ancient issued a Hootie Johnson-like salvo in the latest battleground over male-only golf clubs: The British Open will not yield to pressure over three of its venerable clubs refusing to admit female members.
The way Peter Dawson looks at it, to compare this to racial or religious discrimination is “absurd.”
At his customary news conference on the eve of the British Open, the R&A chief executive faced a barrage of questions yesterday about the no-women-allowed membership at Muirfield and two of the other nine venues in the tournament rotation, Troon and Royal St. George’s.
He was prepared for the issue, reading from notes that made it clear he believes single-sex clubs do little harm to the game and have largely been targeted by the media, politicians and interest groups.
“Obviously the whole issue of gender and single-sex clubs has been pretty much beaten to death recently,” Dawson said. “And we do, I assure you, understand that this is divisive. It’s a subject that we’re finding increasingly difficult, to be honest.”
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 allowed only whites to join.
“Oh, goodness me, I think that’s a ridiculous question,” he 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.”
He later added: “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.”
Dawson disputed any suggestion that male-only clubs stifle the growth of the sport.
Still, he knows it will continue to be a point of contention — especially since Augusta National admitted its first female members last year — so the organization that governs golf outside the U.S. and Mexico plans to take it up once the Open is completed.
He wouldn’t say what steps might be taken.
“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.”
The debate has lurked over golf since Martha Burk and her women’s advocacy group targeted the home of the Masters in 2002 for admitting only men as members. Then-chairman Johnson famously said the club would not be bullied into accepting women “at the point of a bayonet,” even at the cost of cutting loose television sponsors for two years.
Eleven months ago, with no advance notice and an understated announcement, Augusta National invited former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina financier Darla Moore to become members. Tiger Woods called the move “important to golf,” and now the battle has moved across the pond to the oldest of golf’s four majors.
Dawson said the issue will be addressed.
Just not right now.
“When things are a bit quieter, after the championship,” he said, “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.”
Eleven of the 24 questions to Dawson during the half-hour news conference involved male-only clubs or related issues. Most golfers have shied away from the debate leading up to the Open, including top-ranked Woods.
When Rory McIlroy, the world’s No. 2 player, was first asked about it Wednesday, there was a long pause and a forced smile before he said, “Muirfield is a great golf course.”
Later, when someone asked McIlroy if the players had been advised not to comment, he was more forthcoming.
“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,” he said. “It’s something that shouldn’t happen these days. It’s something that we shouldn’t even be talking about.”
Ernie Els said it’s “weird” that some clubs won’t admit both sexes, while Luke Donald said “we’d love to see these policies be a bit more inclusive.”
“Wherever the governing bodies decide to play a tournament, it’s my job to turn up and be ready and play, and that’s what I am going to,” Donald said. “I think the R&A is certainly trending in the right direction.”
But the leading Scottish politician 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 last week.
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, though Robertson downplayed the impact of his decision.
“I haven’t had a call from the R&A saying we are going to change our policy next year, nor would I really expect one,” the minister said.
Indeed, Dawson said the organization would not give in to political pressure.
“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 some changes are likely, Dawson made clear he believes the issue has largely been manufactured by those who don’t necessarily have the best interests of the game at heart. He claimed there are very few clubs in Britain that allow only one sex, and that half of those are female-only.
“You can dress it up to be a lot more, if you want,” Dawson said. “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.”