Next week on September 18th, the democratic process will be put to the test in Scotland. The great and the good, and the less great and very much less good will be all given due opportunity to have their say on a matter of such importance that the world will stop to watch.
In fact, if truth be told, there will be two great questions asked on this day. The first will be some mere political issue related to Scottish independence that is attempting, probably in vain, to undo the agreeable act of union of 1707. Yes it might glean a few column inches, but despite Mel Gibson’s cry of freedom in 1305, the two races have by and large got on reasonably well over the centuries and so while a few fervent nationalists want to spoil the party, if the polls are correct, most Scots are far too sensible to want to undo a good working arrangement.
Of more import, however, will be the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews announcing the results of a poll on whether to admit ladies to membership.
Since its inception in 1766, the R&A has been a club exclusively for men, not an uncommon situation at the time, but one that has increasingly shown itself to be untenable.
The R&A has for some time been in a difficult position. Its membership policy is historical, dating back to its roots as just a normal little golf club, but its preeminent position in the golfing world outgrew that structure long ago. In 2004, in an attempt to circumvent the issue of ladies in wake of protests at Augusta National, and to avoid the need for a membership vote, the R&A split. The Royal and Ancient Golf Club would go its separate way and fall back to being little more than a nice place for the chaps to have lunch, while a new, more egalitarian commercial organization called the R&A would be created to administer the game. This seemed a cunning plan at the time but in reality fooled no one and was seen by many as little more than a legal sleight of hand. Technically speaking, yes there was separation, but the names behind the scenes were are all too familiar and in the eyes and ears of the world, the game was still run from that old grey building behind the 1st tee of the Old Course.
Eventually then something had to give and the club had few option—it could not simply give up its position and take its bat and ball and go home. Controversy last year at Muirfield cemented in their minds that debate would only increase and so they had to move in advance. The Open was slated to be at St. Andrews in 2015 and Troon in 2016, two venues where the issue would be very much front and center and the potential for more controversy and possibly protest was very real. The committee to their credit saw that changed was needed, but that also they must be the ones to lead that change. The other male only clubs on the Rota, Royal Troon, the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers and Royal St. Georges, had the right to make their own decisions in their own good time, but the R&A correctly surmised that it had no moral authority to waggle its finger at them while it itself excluded half of the world’s population from its venerable halls.
The powers behind the move at the R&A are enthusiastically in favor of the change, for which they should be congratulated, but there were political and logistical issues to be overcome.
Firstly there had to be a reasonable degree of confidence that the required two-thirds majority would actually support the move. Having the motion rejected would almost certainly be more damaging than not holding a vote at all and so presumably many backroom discussions were held before the date was set, to ensure it had the support.
Second there was the issue of process. The R&A is an unusual club in that its membership of roughly 2500, is spread across the globe, with only a small percentage actually living within stumbling distance of the clubhouse. There was, however, no provision in the club constitution for postal votes or proxies—members must actually be present in order to cast a valid vote. This raised the specter that those present could defeat the motion on the day despite the overwhelming majority of absent members being in favor. Fortunately this issue seems to been circumvented by the R&A ’s announcement in late July that the previously scheduled vote on the 18th of September, would be replaced by a prior postal vote, with the results instead to be announced on that day.
Critics of outside pressure to conform would argue that with any proper democracy comes the implied right of freedom of association. We all have the right to decide who we spend our time with, and examples abound the world over where people associate along any number of color, race, gender, or religious lines. This is a valid point, but such questions are rarely that simple, especially when that discrimination is overt and public. Discrimination on the basis of ethnicity for example, is howled down as racism, and seen as an evil to be stamped out, yet gender discrimination has up until recently been somewhat laughed off as the archaic eccentricities of a bunch of old duffers napping in their leather chairs. Times are changing, but change is painful and the question then is not so much that change should occur, but rather, how it should occur.
In some cases it just sort of happens by itself.
The Masters didn’t have its first black competitor until 1975. The club had been under significant pressure for some time but had staunchly stuck to its line that it had set the selection criteria purely on the basis of performance and when a black player met them, he would most certainly be invited. A rather cunning response as it immediately threw the debate back to the lily white PGA Tour. As it turned out, the selection criteria had been recently modified to grant a place to all winners of PGA Tour events in the previous 12 months. African American golfer Lee Elder then won the Monsanto Open a week after the 1974 Masters and so had to suffer 12 months of harassment from a rabid media before teeing it up the following year. Augusta got a pat on the back, but Lee was a mess.
In some cases it happens in its own good time.
Martha Burk had been firing slings and arrows at Augusta National’s good old boys for years at their reluctance to allow some good old girls to join. After little success, she took the shrewd step in 2002 of targeting the tournament’s major sponsors hoping this would bring Augusta Chairman Hootie Johnson to the table. Not one to negotiate at the point of a gun, Hootie politely thanked all of his sponsors for their years of support, but informed them that he had no wish to drag them into this debate and as such their money would not be required. Augusta would go it alone and the 2003 event was televised advertisement free. Eventually the ladies joined in, but only after Martha had stopped annoying them.
In some cases it doesn’t happen at all.
The famous Cypress Point Club in California had always been a popular tour venue for one leg of the Bing Crosby Clambake for as long as anyone still standing cared to remember. But in 1990 an ambitious young deputy tour commissioner named Tim Finchem informed them and several other clubs that they would be no longer be welcome as part of the PGA Tour, unless they opened their membership books to a more ethnically diverse cross section of the community. One of those clubs, Shoal Creek was slated to host the PGA Championship that year and so despite some protest, had little option but to acquiesce, much to the relief of Wayne Grady who went on to win. But the others, including Cypress Point decided not to conform. They promptly shut their doors to the public and presumably to this day continue to enjoy their facilities in splendid isolation.
And I some cases the question never comes up.
Pine Valley, regularly put forward as the premier course in the world, has always been and presumably may always be, a male only club. But as it carries on its business quietly behind closed gates, seeks no public attention and does not promote itself in any way, it has remained largely unmolested.
The issue then is that by and large we may carry on as we like in private as long as what we do is reasonably harmless and does not seek to cause mischief or ferment hatred. But as soon as we have a public profile, make use of public facilities, or put ourselves forward in some role of authority, we to a large degree lose the privacy protection. The current trend of thought then is that clubs have a choice, be exclusionary, or be public, but not both.
The question of how we bring about change remains a tricky one. Golfers are by nature a conservative lot, and we hate to be told what to do, especially by non-golfers. The Shoal Creek example aside, almost every shrill demand for change has been met with stony silence and has thus been shown to be the least effective strategy in that it more often than not, achieves nothing but the stiffening of resistance. Having a rant to raise the issue and then stepping back to let the club move slowly, pretending that it was all their own idea seems the best approach and we shall watch with interest.
Should the vote succeed however, the biggest question to be asked is whether the new lady members will be required to kiss the Captains balls, as the men are required to do. Equality after all comes at a high price.