Protecting Open at heart of R&A’s charm offensive

Graeme McDowell of Team Europe in action during the pro-am event prior to the EurAsia Cup
Graeme McDowell of Team Europe in action during the pro-am event prior to the EurAsia Cup

– Published 27 March 2014 02:30 AM

GOLF’S evolution into a thoroughly modern sport has quickened with news that the Royal and Ancient Golf Club is “strongly in favour” of admitting female members for the first time since its foundation 260 years ago.


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In a timely about-face, the club has written to its 2,500 all-male membership recommending that women should be allowed to join when the matter goes to a vote on September 18 next. A two- thirds majority will be required for the motion to be carried.

An end to the archaic exclusion of women by the RA will be of far greater significance than Augusta National’s 2012 decision to overturn its men only policy, giving Green Jackets to former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and business mogul Darla Moore.

Though the arm of the RA, which governs global golf, is at one remove from the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, this technicality is not enough to spare the rule-making body ever-increasing discomfort in the new Olympic era.

Changing their own club’s membership policy is the crucial first step if they are to evade recurring headaches and stave off a significant threat to the earning power of their greatest championship and cash cow, the British Open.


Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond was prominent among several politicians who declined to attend last July’s Open at Muirfield because of the club’s male-only membership.

However, the huge financial implications of this controversial policy became abundantly clear last January when a spokesman for one of the Open’s major corporate sponsors, HSBC, spoke publicly of being placed in an “uneasy position” by the staging of the championship at Muirfield.

At January’s HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship, the bank’s outspoken head of sponsorship and events, Giles Morgan, revealed the RA “are acutely aware that that things need to change and move on.”

Adding that the RA were “spending some proper consultancy time looking at this rather than knee-jerking to a sort of populist decision”, Morgan said: “I think they will end up with the right answer.”

So far, the RA has remained staunchly loyal to tradition and going back to great links courses, but single-sex clubs like Royal St George’s (2011), Muirfield and Royal Troon, venue for golf’s oldest and biggest Major in 2016.

Yet their overriding duty is to fostering the growth of golf worldwide. This is financed largely by profits generated from the Open, so any potential threat to the earning power of the event would have huge ramifications for the RA.

Before they can address this matter, however, it’s essential for the RA to get its own house in order. The chairman of the club’s influential general committee, William Sibbett, suggested to members – ranging from US billionaire Herb Kohler to James Bond star Sean Connery and three-time Open winner Jack Nicklaus – that “now is the time” to ask them to “welcome female members.”

Given a ‘yes’ vote, the RA would be in a position, if it desired, to take a more proactive approach on the male-only issue, not only to ease the discomfort of their corporate backers, but to salve the reputation of the sport.

Should any gaps arise in the Open rota, there’s no shortage of famous seaside links capable of hosting the event, with 1951 venue Royal Portrush prominent at the head of the queue alongside Welsh contender Royal Porthcawl. Regardless of the membership issue, strong rumours persist in golf circles that the Open will be played on the revered Dunluce Links in 2019.

The hugely successful staging of the Irish Open at Portrush in 2012, when record crowds outnumbered the attendance at Turnberry in 2009, clearly indicated the Open would be as financially viable in Co Antrim as on the Scottish west coast.

Yet Royal Portrush secretary manager Wilma Erskine yesterday insisted that there were no further developments on this front, pointing out the RA had pledged at Lytham in July 2012 to research the matter fully and that this process was “ongoing”.

Meanwhile, Padraig Harrington needs to win the Valero Texas Open on Sunday or next week’s Shell Houston Open to stretch his unbroken run of appearances at the US Masters to 15.

It’s a tall order. Yet the ever optimistic Dubliner – undaunted by last Sunday’s slump into 67th place and encouraged instead by an overall improvement in his problematic short game over the first 54 holes at Bay Hill – looked forward to building on his 10th place in San Antonio last April. With Harrington, hope springs eternal.


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