Not long after the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews was founded in 1754, the members trimmed the local course from 22 holes to 18, setting the modern standard.
During the 20th century, the club was one of two groups that set the game’s rules. Golf has changed a lot in the past 260 years, but one thing is the same: All of the Royal and Ancient’s members are men.
“How would you feel if the rule were no blacks could be a member 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,” says Louise Richardson.
She is the first female leader of this seaside community’s other influential institution, the University of St. Andrews.
“Golf and the university have dominated this town since the 15th century,” she adds.
Richardson doesn’t golf, but this is a clubhouse issue. All of the courses in town are open to the public — both men and women. But some of Richardson’s male predecessors as head of the university have received honorary memberships at the Royal and Ancient; Richardson wasn’t offered one. Women can’t even enter as guests. She says that creates some professional problems for her.
“It regularly happens that a [university] donor will ask to have lunch at the R&A,” she says. “Well, of course, I can’t take them to have lunch in the R&A because women aren’t allowed in.”
Women tee off right in front of the iconic Royal and Ancient clubhouse all the time. The Old Course, as it’s known, is indeed one of the oldest in the world and attracts golfers from all over, like Donna Forrest, who’s from Sydney, Australia.
“I just think that in this day and age, they need to move with the times,” she says. “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.”
There are female golfers who disagree. Sheena Willoughby and her husband own the Dunvegan Hotel. Their slogan: “Only a 9-iron from the Old Course.”
Willoughby is an avid golfer and a member of a ladies club. But since everyone can golf at all the courses in St. Andrews, she thinks the Royal and Ancient’s social aspects are just fine.
“There’s 100 other places to go for lunch. I mean, it’s a men’s golf club. That’s what it is,” she says. “Some people, you just have to accept some things in life. I don’t see what the fixation is about going into the R&A, personally.”
The Royal and Ancient vote comes as St. Andrews is preparing to host the 2015 British Open.
The club turned down NPR’s multiple requests for an interview. But in a written statement, it said if the measure to admit women passes, it would take immediate effect, adding that the first female members “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 Great Britain. Golf historian and lifelong town resident David Joy is an honorary member of another historic local club, the St. Andrew’s Golf Club, which began admitting women a few years ago.
“Nobody’s going to be aghast if women are suddenly in the R&A,” Joy says. “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 must vote to admit women for the motion to pass. University of St. Andrews Principal Louise Richardson says she’s confident it will. Either way, the final count will be examined much more closely than the average scorecard.