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R&A defends all male policy

Vivien Saunders would love to become the first woman member of the Royal & Ancient golf club. She knows it's not going to happen.

``No, it would just be so hopeless,'' the former British Open champion said. ``No one would ever bother. You'd never get a man to propose and second you. And then another 20 people have to be supporters.''

The R&A, a private club of 2,400 male members based in St. Andrews, Scotland, is the world governing body of golf outside the United States and Mexico.

Founded in 1754, it has never had a female member.

The R&A is a bastion of tradition, located at the ``home of golf.'' Members watch the action on the first tee and 18th green of the ``Old Course'' links while sipping gin and tonics from their leather chairs in the clubhouse.

While Augusta National Golf Club's all-male membership has sparked widespread debate in the United States and led to threatened protests at the Masters, the R&A wonders what all the fuss is about.

``It's hardly life-threatening, is it?'' R&A secretary Peter Dawson said in an interview. ``It is a game, after all. People play it and have fun. Men's and women's golf coexists extremely well.''

Saunders doesn't buy that logic, accusing the R&A of being an ``old boys club.''

``Well, if it's not life-threatening, then why not let us in?'' she said. ``There's nothing in the rules that says you can't have a camel carrying your clubs when you go out and play, but it wouldn't be very welcome.''

Saunders, who won the 1977 British Open, called the organization ``undemocratic, elitist, discriminatory and secretive.''

``The R&A purports to govern women's golf without allowing women to belong to it,'' she said.

As golf's governing body, the R&A doesn't receive any funding from the British government. Its committee structure and membership are secret, and the only way to join is by invitation. Candidates must be proposed and seconded by existing members.

Dawson doesn't have much sympathy for Martha Burk, the head of the National Council of Women's Organizations who has waged a high-profile campaign against Augusta's all-male membership. Burk is fighting to lead a protest outside the club during the Masters, which starts April 10.

``I am not going to comment on the situation at Augusta National, that is entirely a matter for them,'' Dawson said. ``But members of clubs do have the right to associate freely. I understand there is nothing against the law about that and I as I see it, there's nothing wrong with it.''

Dawson said he's received only two letters on the membership issue in his four years in the job.

``There is actually no particular pressure,'' he said. ``This is not to be complacent, but there's no particular pressure from inside of golf about this, but the media clearly have it on their agenda.''

Dawson says 99 percent of the 3,000 golf clubs in Britain have male and female members.

``Equally, we don't have a problem if people want to exercise their right of association and just have single-sex clubs,'' he said. ``We don't see why all clubs have to be the same.''

Glenda Jackson, the actress and member of Parliament, called the R&A's membership policy ``gender apartheid.''

``It's pathetic isn't it?'' the two-time Academy Award winner said in an interview. ``I think they're very misguided. It's taken a long time to achieve equality in other areas, I have no doubt that equality will one day be achieved in this area.''

Changing the status quo won't be easy.

In early March, Oxford University's only all-female college, St. Hilda's, voted to keep men out -- by one vote. Various court cases in Britain have both upheld and disagreed with the requirement of a man to wear a tie to work.

On Feb. 3, Labor Party parliamentarian Parmjit Dhanda introduced a bill proposing to outlaw sexual discrimination in private clubs with more than 25 members. That would include the R&A.

``There is a loophole for clubs to be able to discriminate against women,'' Dhanda told the House of Commons. ``It is ridiculous that this still goes on.''

But Dhanda's bill -- backed by the government -- failed to pass, blocked by two opposition Conservative Party legislators. Dhanda said he hoped the proposed bill could be revived and reintroduced.

``There can be no justification for treating women as second-class citizens,'' Minister for Women Patricia Hewitt said. ``Such practices are out of date.''

Seven years ago, Judy Bell had a chance to be the first female member of the R&A when she was elected as the first female president of the U.S. Golf Association.

Unlike previous USGA presidents, she wasn't invited to become a member. Bell, who served for two years, said she felt no strong desire to join the R&A.

``How can you say women would be better off if I had been a member of the R&A?'' she said in a recent interview with The Times of London. ``What's it going to benefit? Matter of fact, if I joined tomorrow, I can't imagine I would be as effective as when I worked with the R&A as president of the USGA.''

Dawson said that the three all-male clubs will continue to host the British Open. Of the nine clubs that stage the Open, three are public courses, three are mixed and three are men-only clubs.

Last year, the Open was held at Muirfield, Scotland. This year, it's at Royal St. George in Sandwich, southern England. Both are all-male clubs.

``We don't see the Open championship being used for social engineering. We don't see that as valid,'' Dawson said. ``We have no problem with women-only clubs, or men-only clubs or mixed clubs. Therefore, we don't actually think there's a problem in that sense.''

 

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