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Vote Could Open Scotland's Royal And Ancient Golf Club To Women05:46
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Male and female golfers have long played together on the Old Course in St. Andrews, but the prestigious Royal and Ancient Golf Club is off limits to women. (Doug Tribou/Only A Game)MoreCloseclosemore
Male and female golfers have long played together on the Old Course in St. Andrews, but the prestigious Royal and Ancient Golf Club is off limits to women. (Doug Tribou/Only A Game)

Thursday will be a big day for ballots in Scotland. That’s when Scots will vote on whether to sever ties with the United Kingdom and become an independent nation. On the same day in the Scottish town of St. Andrews, one of the world’s most famous golf institutions will announce the results of another ballot.

Men and women have long played golf together on all of the courses in St. Andrew’s, but women have never been allowed to join the prestigious Royal and Ancient Golf Club. The vote could change that.

The Royal and Ancient Golf Club was founded in 1754. The club doesn’t own or operate any of the courses in St. Andrews, but it was a driving force in the evolution of golf. In its early days, the club reduced the local links from 22 holes to 18, the standard still in use today. In partnership with the United States Golf Association, the club would later govern the international rules for the sport for more than a century.

Women tee off in front of the Royal and Ancient, but cannot enter...even as guests. (Doug Tribou/Only A Game)
Women tee off in front of the Royal and Ancient, but cannot enter...even as guests. (Doug Tribou/Only A Game)

The Royal and Ancient has been part of many changes in golf, but one thing has remained the same: all of the club’s members are men.

Another St. Andrews Institution

In 2009, Louise Richardson became the first female leader of this seaside town’s other influential institution: the University of St. Andrews.

“How would you feel if the rule were no blacks could be a member of the R&A?" asked Richardson, whose official title is principal and vice-chancellor. "How would you feel if there were no gays or no Jews could be members of the R&A? Refusal to allow women to be members of the R&A is precisely the same. And as such, it's unacceptable.”

"How would you feel if the rule were no blacks could be a member of the R&A? How would you feel if there were no gays or no Jews could be members of the R&A?"

Louise Richardson

“You see, we’re in this tiny medieval town," she said. "The university is interspersed with the town. It grew up in the town. Golf and the university have dominated this town since the 15th century.”

However, some of her male predecessors have held honorary club memberships — and Richardson has not been offered one. Women can’t even enter as guests. She says that creates some professional problems for her.

“Donors to the university expect that given their links to the university, they might have a link to the R&A. which is a couple hundred yards down the road. It regularly happens that a donor will call and ask to have lunch at the R&A," Richardson said. "Well, of course, I can't take them to have lunch in the R&A because women aren't allowed in.”

Not A Golf Issue

[sidebar title="Golf Cart Hovercrafts" width="630" align="right"]You won't see one on the Old Course, but in 2013, we learned about one of golf's most modern technologies: golf cart hovercrafts. [/sidebar]Richardson doesn’t golf, but this is a clubhouse issue. All of the courses in town are open the public — male and female. In fact, women tee off right in front of the iconic Royal and Ancient clubhouse all the time. “The Old Course” — one of the world’s oldest — attracts golfers from all over, including Donna Forrest who lives in Sydney, Australia.

“I just think that in this day and age, they need to move with the times,"  Forrest said, standing just in front of the clubhouse. "I like tradition, as well. I’m quite a traditional person, but when it comes to being female I don’t think anyone should stop you to go anywhere.”

Forrest’s husband, Lindsay, is originally from Scotland. He says at a time when participation in golf is dropping, exclusion isn’t a smart policy.

“For the game to grow we have to attract women to the golf. We need to attract children to the golf because that’s our future," he said. "And I think going into the clubhouse is part of the experience, is part of the social side because golf is a social sport.”

Richardson on campus with Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011. (Danny Lawson/WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Richardson on campus with Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011. (Danny Lawson/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

'100 Other Places To Go For Lunch'

But there are female golfers who disagree.

Sheena Willoughby and her husband own the Dunvegan Hotel. Their slogan is “Only a 9 iron from the Old Course.” The walls of the restaurant and bar are lined with photos of Sheena posing with professional golfers and celebrities who stop in for a pint after their rounds — Tiger Woods, Arnold Palmer, Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery and astronaut Neil Armstrong to name a few.

Willoughby is an avid golfer and a member of a ladies club. But since everyone can golf in St. Andrews, she thinks the club’s social aspects are fine the way they are.

“There’s 100 other places to go for lunch. I mean, it’s a men’s golf club. That’s what it is. Some people you just have to accept some things in life. It’s a men’s golf club at the moment," Willoughby said. "I don’t see what the fixation is about going into the R&A, personally.”

A 'Major' Controversy

Augusta National in Georgia, the home of the Masters, admitted its first two female members in 2012. Membership rules caused controversy in 2013 when the British Open was held at Scotland’s Muirfield course. The Royal and Ancient vote comes as St. Andrews is preparing to host the 2015 British Open. The club turned down our multiple requests for an interview, but responded to Louise Richardson’s comments with a written statement, saying quote:

"An independently scrutinised ballot of our membership is underway and should the outcome be in favour of welcoming women members the decision would take immediate effect. The first women members in a mixed membership Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews would be likely to have made a significant contribution to the development of our sport."

There are single-sex clubs –- male and female -– all over the U.K. Golf historian and lifelong St. Andrew’s resident David Joy says an equality law passed in Britain in 2010 pushed many clubs to change their membership rules — including St. Andrew’s Golf Club, another historic local club of which he’s an honorary member.

Golf historian and St. Andrews native David Joy. (Doug Tribou/Only A Game)
Golf historian and St. Andrews native David Joy. (Doug Tribou/Only A Game)

“Nobody’s going to be aghast if women are suddenly in the R&A. I mean, the St. Andrew’s Club is very much a working man’s club, but the idea of letting women in socially was like, ‘Oh, you’ll open the floodgates in this place. It’ll never be the same! Women in this club? Your father would turn in his grave!’ And within four months, we didn’t notice them coming in.”

Two-thirds of the 2,500 Royal and Ancient members have to vote in favor of admitting women for the measure to pass. Louise Richardson says she’s confident it will. Either way, the final count will be examined much more closely than the average scorecard.

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This segment aired on September 13, 2014.

Doug Tribou Twitter Reporter/Producer
Doug Tribou was formerly a reporter and producer at WBUR and for WBUR's Only A Game.

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