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R&A splits to allow women to join

On the eve of its 250th birthday in 2004, the Royal and Ancient golf club of St Andrews has embraced a reorganisation plan which separates the governance of the game from the activities of the private member club. The move will open the doors of the august body to women, young people and greater representation from around the world.

The historic changes in set-up have been approved in principle by the R&A’s membership after a three-year consultation process and are due to be ratified in detail at a further meeting in September. "There’s no going back now," revealed Peter Dawson, the secretary of the R&A, yesterday. "This is the end for the old ways."

While there is no prospect of the private club, which has been men only since 1754, admitting women members in the near future, the R&A has moved to eliminate the damaging anomaly whereby a men-only organisation was administering the rules of the sport around the world for both men and women.

Now women as well as men will make those rules. And R&A club members will no longer vote on any rule changes.

Dawson, who doesn’t view the reorganisation of the club purely as a gender issue, reiterated the R&A’s stance on single sex clubs. "I’m quite happy to defend both our private membership club and our right to continue taking the Open to championship courses which have single sex memberships," he said.

"Yes, we support equal rights but, no, we don’t see the need for all clubs to be the same.

"On the other hand, as I’ve also said before, if we had an issue, it was in our governance role where we make the rules. I do feel this reorganisation takes that problem away. Let’s say we now go to the European Golf Association looking for two people to sit on the rules of golf committee. It will be up to them to recommend the best people for the job irrespective of gender, age or nationality. I’m sure these changes will put the legal structure in place which will help us to do the same job as before, only better."

Dawson believes the modernisation process, which legally separates the worldwide rule-making, championship and commercial activities of the R&A from the private members’ club, will attract broader representation from outside the club on influential committees.

In addition, the R&A plans to invest its profits from the Open and other commercial activities in a new charitable foundation which is expected to distribute £50million around the world over the next seven years in growing the game.

"We’ve been advised that a lot of the work we do in the areas of education, building public courses and providing facilities for all will count as charitable," said Dawson. "So, in these areas, there are benefits for us to set up a foundation. It should mean we’re giving less to the tax man and able to invest more in the kind of projects we’ve undertaken recently, building public courses in places such as Brazil and Argentina.

"Obviously some of the work we do in elite coaching and helping organisations like the Ladies’ European Tour won’t qualify for this kind of charitable status. But we will continue to operate in those areas as before."

While there are no plans to re-brand the public face of the R&A (although the various individual companies will have their own names), Dawson didn’t attempt to minimise the significance of the modernisation process.

"We celebrate our 250th anniversary next year and it was important we got this process right," he said. "We’ve taken a lot of advice from a variety of legal and accountancy experts and what will happen in September is more about dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s as we move into a corporate structure."

One important consequence of the change will be the removal of unlimited personal liability on R&A committee members, as well as all club members.

In the past if the R&A took a decision that displeased a rich and powerful golf manufacturer which decided to sue, the committee members as well as the R&A itself could have lost all their assets in the event of a successful legal challenge.

"I think that issue was a problem for us in as much as it made it all but impossible to attract broader representation onto the committee," added Dawson.

"How could we ask, say, someone of limited means from the Czech golf association to join a committee if there was a chance, though not a huge one, that person could lose everything.

"It would be wrong to think we ever took decisions in the past which were based on fear, but this is certainly a helpful change."

The R&A’s move to encompass broader representation is also expected to appease government ministers who have been keeping an eye on the activities of a high profile organisation which runs the Open as well as governing the game.

Tessa Jowell, the minister for culture, media and sport, wrote to Dawson earlier this year asking that the R&A ensured all arrangements for the championship at Royal St George’s in July were open equally to both sexes. When the content of the letter was leaked, it was widely interpreted as a warning shot across the R&A’s bows.

The single-sex issue in golf came to renewed prominence when Martha Burk, the head of the National Council of Women’s Organisations in America, petitioned Augusta National, the home of the Masters, to admit a woman member.


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