English Golf Courses

Royal Troon 'controversy' is a never-ending frustration

Furore over Ayrshire club hosting the Open has been entirely predictable

There are three certainties in life: death, taxes and fury at the Open Championship being played at a single-gender golf club. After more than a decade of covering golf, I’m well aware of that. That’s why I really wasn’t even remotely surprised that one of the first things asked of the R&A at the recent Open Championship Media Day was for an update on Royal Troon’s review of its membership policy.

Almost as inevitable was the R&A’s well-rehearsed reply. “Don’t ask us,” they shrugged. “That’s a club matter.” I’m paraphrasing but you get the gist. Only one problem with that - nobody was there to speak on behalf of the club. Or should I say ‘clubs’: the male-only Royal Troon and the female-only Ladies Golf Club, Troon. For over a year, the two organisations have been undertaking a ‘comprehensive review to consider the most appropriate membership policy for the future’.  With no end date for that review, it looks likely they will, as planned, jointly stage this year’s Open.

Cue mass hysteria.

“The Open shouldn’t be played at a ‘male-only’ club,” some said. Others shared their disgust at golf’s “blatant sexism”. Maureen McGonigle, representing something called the Scottish Women in Sport Foundation, even went on national radio to say: “They [Royal Troon] have to come into the 21st century and look at the benefits women bring to a club.” Sorry, Ms McGonigle, but isn’t that what the aforementioned ‘comprehensive review’ is doing? And is the onus not equally on the ladies’ club to look at the benefits that men could bring to their club?

Here’s the thing. I have no interest in defending male-only clubs but to make this matter about them is wrong. To me, there are two issues that need addressed, namely the ongoing, lamentable existence of single-gender clubs - female-only as well as male-only - and the R&A’s persistence with staging one of golf’s most prestigious championships at clubs where gender division endures.

Let me first deal with the first of those, and l want to make this abundantly clear: I don’t like single-gender golf clubs. I think they’re weird, old-fashioned and in no way representative of golf.

Still, they’re breaking no laws. Their membership policies might be objectionable and offensive on a moral level but, legally, they’re doing nothing wrong. That could change if our politicians were prepared to do something about it. They are happy to wag outraged fingers from afar at the mere suggestion of sexism in golf but if they are genuinely so outraged, why have none of them ever legislated against single-sex organisations? Because who, if not our elected representatives, can affect change?Their objections amount to nothing more than pandering and electioneering in my eyes.

But let’s for a minute assume they were to intervene. Where would they draw the line? Would female-only gyms have to change in the interests of all things being fair and equal? What about the Women’s Institute? Would it, too, have to admit men? Or is it just the case that we find some things (male-only golf clubs) more objectionable than others (the W.I.)? It’s a convoluted mess.

Of course, nobody would bat an eyelid were it not for the Open going to places such as Royal Troon. After all, where is the political pressure on Royal Burgess, which isn’t just male-only but voted last year to remain so? Nobody cares because it doesn’t host the Open.

That’s why the R&A has to accept responsibility for this mess. Does it need to play the Open at single-gender golf clubs? Of course not and, in all truth, it really shouldn’t. With the one hand, it pushes its ‘Grow The Game’ agenda, a commendable initiative built around the principles of opportunity and inclusion, and designed to increase participation in golf irrespective of age, gender, ability, wealth and so on. With the other, however, it appears to do the opposite by staging its most high-profile event at clubs where barriers to participation still exist. It’s entirely backward and, sadly for those of us who love and understand the game, it reinforces negative misconceptions. It tells people that, yes, golf is stuffy and populated by misogynistic bum-slappers. Sure, these people exist, but they’re in the minority and reducing all the time. Golf is more progressive and inclusive than ever but all this good work is being undermined from the top down. Our decision-makers are shying away from tough decisions - and the game is suffering as a result. That cannot, and must not, continue.

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