R&A Holding Firm On All-Male Golf

Peter Dawson and the Royal & Ancient are not about to be pressured in making a change | AP photos

It was a fortunate twist of fate or a well-planned release. My bet is on the latter.

Having ESPN’s newest 30 for 30 documentary coincide with the beginning of the Open Championship was an obvious move.

The film, Let Them Wear Towels, examines the sexual harassment faced by female sports journalists in the 1970s and ’80s. To see the events 30 years later is to be shocked at the open violation of civil rights that was common practice. What it was like to suffer through such indignity is something only those women can fully appreciate.

Peter Dawson is the CEO of the Royal & Ancient, the business arm of Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, which not only governs the rules of golf outside of the U.S., but runs the game’s oldest and perhaps most prestigious tournament. Timing and obligation meant Dawson was going to be the face of all that is wrong with male-only clubs hosting The Open.

Muirfield, the site of this year’s Open Championship, is one of three courses in the Open rotation that have a males-only membership policy – the others being Royal St. George’s and Royal Troon.

Dawson was ready. Using two pages of notes, Dawson echoed those of his Augusta National counterparts, who until this year allowed no females into their Victorian boys club.

“To be honest, our natural reaction is to resist these pressures because we don’t think they have very much substance,” said Dawson, who generally looks more pleasant than the accompanying photo would suggest. “But we are not so insular as to fail to recognize the potential damage that campaigns like this can do to the Open Championship. 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.”

In Dawson’s eyes, there is a tremendous difference between a club’s racial and sexual policies. When asked about the difference between whites-only and males-only membership rules, Dawson was even a bit dismissive.

“Oh, goodness me, I think it’s a ridiculous question, if I may say so. There is a massive difference between racial discrimination, anti-Semitism and all of those things where sectors of society are downtrodden and treated very, very badly indeed, and to compare that to a men’s golf club I think it frankly absurd. There is no comparison whatsoever.”

Such an explanation would likely mean very little to Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern – the women who made the documentary. Likewise for his statement that the Open has generated some £30 million for women’s golf over the years. This is an issue of access, not finance.

Dawson was very wrong when he compared the conflict about sexism in golf to those regarding the ban on anchored putters. He was very right in his explanation that not all prejudice is the same.

There is nothing proper about segregation based on sex – even if the practice is widely accepted. Sexism is the second-most accepted form of prejudice in the U.S., behind only anti-Arabic/Muslim (often celebrated) and just ahead of anti-gay (protected by religious dogma). But context is important.

Comparing struggles is difficult and often inaccurate. Racism has been responsible for the slaughter of millions and the subjugation of billions. Racism created Nazi Germany and the resulting extermination of Jews, Gypsies and Slavs in the name of racial purity. It also is responsible for the continued refusal to acknowledge that such events ever happened. Sexism, for all the roadblocks it has created, cannot match the intended horror of racial prejudice. To compare the two is not only wrong, but insensitive.

If you haven’t watched Let Them Wear Towels, do so. It’s an important film that is shocking in its revelations and unnerving in that the events happened such a short time ago. It also is inspiring to witness how courageous and professional these women were in the face of such blatant harassment.

As broadcaster Jimmy Roberts said on the Golf Channel’s Morning Drive last week, change is coming to golf. The R&A and its male-only clubs can either jump on board or get run over. It’s their choice. Single-sex clubs may always exist, but ruling bodies don’t need to condone their behavior by continuing to hold events at sexually exclusive clubs.

Twitter @SteveMurray84