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Moves afoot for equality at the R&A?

Springs, streams and rivers all have sources. So do journalists.

Remember the Watergate affair in the US that led to the downfall of President Nixon? Remember Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward and Deep Throat, their source, who would put a flower pot on a window sill of his office when he had something to say to Woodward?

One day last week, outside a greasy spoon in a dingy street in south London, a man whose face was shielded by a hat pulled down over his eyes sidled up to me. “Pssst” he said out of the corner of his mouth, flicking some cigarette ash on to the street and nodding his head in the direction he wanted me to go. I followed him into the café, took a corner table and sat with my back to the wall, as you do so no one can sneak up on you. Moments later my source sidled into the other seat and started talking.

Actually, that last paragraph is not true. But I did meet an old friend and valued source and in no time the discussion turned to the Open, all-male golf clubs and Giles Morgan, who is global head of sponsorship and events at HSBC, the company that puts a huge amount of money into sports sponsorship, quite a lot into golf and a significant sum into the Open. Last month Morgan had spoken publicly about the concern HSBC has at the R&A’s policy of playing the Open at all-male golf clubs such as Muirfield, Royal Troon and Royal St George’s. He said that for HSBC the men-only policy of certain golf clubs where the Open was staged was “a niggle” and “we are uneasy about it.”

He spoke those words on the Saturday morning of the recent HSBC Abu Dhabi Golf Championship while sitting at a round table fielding questions. Tim Henman, the tennis player and a HSBC ambassador, was talking at another table and George Gregan, the Australian rugby player who won 103 caps for his country and another HSBC ambassador, was at a third table. Morgan looked sleek after a run around the perimeter of the resort with Henman before breakfast. Though he is a big man who played in the second row of his school team in Wales, he is not a loud man. He does not go around shouting instructions or banging his hand on the table. His fist, which may or may not be iron, is sheathed within a velvet glove.

So when he said what he said it had significant resonance not only because of the money HSBC puts into the Open but because it was, to the best of my knowledge, the first time an Open sponsor had been critical in public of the R&A’s policy. It was all the more effective for being quietly-spoken, and understated. He didn’t overegg it and sound self-righteous as politicians are wont to do on radio or television. He didn’t say the policy was “appalling” and that HSBC were “shocked”. Had he done so, it might well have been counterproductive.

In reply, the R&A pointed out it had said at last year’s Open that it would research this matter and report back and it reiterated this. When will it be ready? What will it find? Could we be on the point of a significant change in the structure of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, as the R&A, its commercial arm, seeks to protect the Open?

A few months ago my source had suggested that a key question the R&A would have to address in future would be: how valuable is the Open? Would the R&A risk repeated rows by continuing to stage it at all-male golf clubs and if it did and there were, then would the Open as a source of income and prestige be diminished?

In theory, the Open could be moved from Royal Troon in July 2016 because of this issue. It is not too late, nearly 30 months in advance, for another club to take it over. Some years ago the PGA Tour in the US announced it would no longer play tournaments at clubs that did not allow women or blacks to be members. Shoal Creek in Alabama, where the 1990 US PGA Championship had been held, disappeared from the list of PGA Tour venues and so did Cypress Point in California. Tim Finchem, commissioner of the PGA Tour, said that the Masters was too important a tournament for this policy to be applied to Augusta National golf, which did have black members at that time. It has since admitted two women members.

Now though my source suggested another way of looking at the problem, clearly recognising that Phil Mickelson’s thrilling victory in last year’s Open at Muirfield was marked to an unfortunate degree by the row about it being held at an allmale club. What about this he said, looking quizzical for a moment. What if the members of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews voted to admit women, as Augusta National has done? That would take the pressure off the R&A staging the Open at the all-male golf clubs. With that there was a squeak as his chair slid along the floor and my source, a man who knows his golf, was gone as quickly as he had arrived. Thinking back on this remark of his, I find it hard to put my finger on why I feel this suggestion has such significance. Perhaps it was the way he said it? He made it seem as though this might not be so far from happening. Now there’s a thought. Male and female members of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews.

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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