Interesting enough, the R&A press conference kicked off with Jim MacArthur, chairman of the championship committee, reading a prepared speech that included platitudes about the greatest golf championship in the world and the advancements in technology, like WiFi, that have enabled them to bring the Open into the modern era. All the while, the massive gender elephant loomed and it felt like they were filibustering the uncomfortable questions regarding Muirfield’s all-male membership policy.
Alas, just before putting the room overflowing with members of the media to sleep, the R&A finally opened up the presser to questions, which were mainly directed at the R&A chief Peter Dawson.
Now, to be clear, I don’t really care if a private club wants to exclude half of the population, though I do think it’s a bit silly and outdated in this day and age, but the R&A is one of the two governing bodies in golf that set the rules of the game, not to mention hosts the Open Championship, one of the four majors championships and perhaps the most prestigious. It all seems a bit hypocritical for the R&A, which has so much influence, to talk about growing the game when they hold this event at an all-male club.
This event is always my favorite of the year, but given it’s held at an all-male club, it makes me cringe a bit — which is exactly how I reacted to Dawson’s remarks throughout the entire press conference.
“In our view (single-sex clubs) don’t do anyone any harm,” said Dawson on Wednesday. “And we think the right of freedom of association is important. And we’ve explained our view that we think they have no material adverse affect on participation. On the other hand, the media are, with seemingly boundless energy, I think, and enthusiasm, giving out the message that this is an issue, and that such clubs should be condemned to extinction, and we shouldn’t be using one to stage The Open Championship. And we understand that view, too. We’ve got, as you mentioned, politicians posturing, we’ve got interest groups attacking the R & A, attacking The Open, and attacking Muirfield.
“As you can see, I’ve made a few notes about it. To be honest, our natural reaction is to resist these pressures, because we actually don’t think they have very much substance. 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. And, by the way, in huge funding for women’s golf. I think in the last ten years we’ve put, as best I can estimate, looking at the figures, about 30 million pounds into women’s golf.
“And that’s what The Open Championship’s success brings with it. So it’s not all bad. I think we’re on the verge of what promises to be one of the very best Opens and a huge number of people have put in an enormous amount of work to make this championship happen. I’d like to suggest that we get behind it now. 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.”
Well, as I mentioned earlier, the rules are different for the an organization, like the R&A, given their influence as one of golf’s governing bodies that puts forth directives to “grow the game.” Please, don’t even try to compare this to “women’s health clubs” — that argument holds absolutely no water.
Now, let’s take a look at the rest of the unsatisfying comments that Dawson gave in response to questions on all-male clubs…
Q. Just in reference to your earlier remarks, I mean you made it seem as if there was a restless urge to drive Muirfield into extinction. But I’m not sure that’s really the case. No one disputes Muirfield’s right to cite its membership policy, but is the issue that not that the R & A is avowedly committed to growing the game throughout the world, and yet you bring The Open, the greatest championship, to a venue that excludes half the population. Is that not a morale dilemma?
PETER DAWSON: I understand the point, obviously. What I dispute is the fact of the matter that it does harm participation. I think The Open Championship at this absolutely magnificent venue enhances participation hugely. It’s going to be watched by hundreds of millions of people around the world, whatever the numbers are. And I think that we will find that golfers, men and women, are inspired by what they see. I don’t think people are seeing there thinking, “oh, this wonderful place, but…” I really don’t. But we’re aware of that view. I don’t quite regard it as quite such a morale issue. I think the practical side of it takes over in my mind. But we’re aware of the view. And to think that it would be a good thing for The Open Championship not to play it here, and perhaps to reduce the number of venues from nine to six in the UK, I could only imagine would do great harm to the championship, and not enhance it at all.
Q. You mentioned how difficult the buildup has been with this championship, with the ongoing debate about the men-only membership. Do you accept that realistically something has to change, whether it’s from the R & A’s point of view or from the clubs, simply to avoid this debate rearing its head every time we come back to a club like Muirfield?
PETER DAWSON: Well, I don’t think we’re in the business of doing something to avoid debate, frankly. We will have a good look at what people are saying, and try to take a view about all of this and find the most sensible way forward. We understand it’s a polarizing issue. We’ve been through other polarizing issues – recently with anchoring, for example – and you eventually come out with a conclusion. I’m absolutely not going to pre-empt what’s going to come out of this. I wouldn’t even want to call it a review, but we’re very conscious of the disparity of view on this subject.
[Ed. note: yes, he just equated sexism to the anchoring controversy!]
Q. I guess you’re not going to elaborate at all on what discussions might be after this Open on the gender issue. Has there been any discussion with the three clubs with considering changing their membership policies?
PETER DAWSON: I’m absolutely not able to say anything more. We do believe that membership policy is a matter of the club’s. And we take a long way, I think, to be a hard push to push us off that position. We happen to believe that very strongly.
[Again, it becomes an issue when you’re holding a major championship at one of these clubs.]
Q. You got a bit upset earlier about the comparison between whites-only and men-only clubs, but you said, you don’t regard it as a moral issue. It doesn’t do anyone any harm. Could you just explain to the ten women in the room why racism is unacceptable and sexism clearly still is?
PETER DAWSON: Well, I don’t really think, to be honest, and we could sit here all day and debate this, 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. And 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 do others down or intending to do others any harm. It’s just a way of life that some of these people like. And 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.
[By my count there were at most 7 women that were members of the press.]
Q. You’ve painted a jolly picture of how much fun can be had as a member of a single-sex club, but would you accept that the rules are slightly different for the R & A given that you’re making the rules for the game worldwide?
PETER DAWSON: Well, the R & A is conscious of that. As you know, it’s not the club anymore that does this, but there’s still a very close connection between the R & A companies and the club. And I think it’s certainly beholden on us to insure that our governance committees are representative of the world at large in golf. We have taken some steps in that direction, but I’m sure there will be more to come.
Q. Peter, Alex Hammond, we understand, has written, as has the sports minister, to the club, Muirfield, protesting the policy of exclusion for members. Has he petitioned you about this issue?
PETER DAWSON: Not directly, no.
Q. I’m wondering about the view of your sponsors and patrons to the gender issue. And are they part of the discussion? And secondly, is there a concern that the issue puts off sponsors and their future relationship between the golf and the commercial sector?
PETER DAWSON: We are very fortunate at The Open Championship to have a very strong group, and a growing group, a group that has been growing, at least, of patrons, as we call them and official suppliers. I think those companies value being associated with the oldest Major Championship in golf and being associated with everything that the R & A does with the commercial success at The Open Championship. And I think they see those as great positives. That’s not to say, of course, that those companies are not aware of these wider social issues. And as I say, we’ll be thinking about these things in the months ahead.