NO ONE COULD ever describe the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews as a radical organisation. Nor is dynamism the first noun one thinks of when considering the decision makers of the game’s most influential club.
Over the last decade or so the most headline grabbing changes to emanate from the grey stone clubhouse has been the banning of various golf clubs.
First up was the illegal driver that was a huge boon to many amateur golfers especially more senior ones. The R&A decided that drivers such as Callaway’s ERC II and Nike’s SQ that had a spring-like face which catapulted the ball off the club delivering an unfair advantage, so were outlawed in 2008, causing howls of anguish from manufacturers and retailers alike, and not just a few club golfers.
Then the R&A turned its collective eyes on grooves, specifically on clubs with 25 degrees of loft and more. The objection here was that golf professionals and the world’s top amateurs were no longer finding rough difficult enough.
Rather than insist that the grass was simply grown longer at major tournaments the R&A decided that it would demand a change in the depth and shape of grooves on any club from a five iron upwards therefore preventing players from getting check and spin when hitting out of rough, thus rewarding those who hit fairways more regularly.
Although it will not affect most club golfers until 2024, professional tournaments from 2010 have been using lofted irons with less volume and sharpness in the grooves that accordingly do not deliver so much height and spin from poor lies.
The last big change was regarding putters, particularly those known as ‘belly’ and ‘broom handle’ putters that a number of top players were favouring, and which were held to the player’s stomach, chest or chin rather than the more traditional method with two hands on the club away from the body. Recent majors’ winners Adam Scott, Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson and Ernie Els all used long, anchored putters in their victories.
The putters will not be banned but from 2016 anchoring to any part of the body is illegal. Peter Dawson, chief executive of the R&A, said, ‘ Our conclusion is that anchored strokes threaten to supplant traditional strokes, which with all the frailties are integral to the long-standing elements of the sport.’
This year, however, the R&A membership is embarking on a far more emotive measure when it votes on a decision to allow women to become members of the club for the first time. That most conservative of US golf clubs, Augusta National, invited women into its men only bastion after 80 years in 2012, although the fact that the two were former US Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice and Darla Moore, one of the wealthiest women on Wall Street, has been criticised for tokenism.
Recently one of the biggest sponsors of the Open Championship, HSBC, expressed its concern about the tournament visiting male only membership clubs. Royal Troon, Royal St George’s and Muirfield are the three clubs on the nine course Open roster that do not allow women to become members.
HSBC head of sponsorship, Giles Morgan, said, ‘It’s not something we are going to hold a gun to their heads about. But the R&A are clear that it’s a very uneasy position for the bank. We would like to see it solved so we don’t keep talking about it. When you are showcasing one of the world’s greatest tournaments it would be much more palatable if it were played where there was not a sense of segregation.’
The golfing press state confidently that this October the R&A membership will vote in favour of women becoming members although there are still one or two rumours that say that the outcome is nowhere near so clear cut as the media is maintaining. However, the situation at the three Open venues is far more uncertain.
One member of Royal St George’s said recently, ‘If it came to a straight decision between accepting women as members and losing the Open Championship I am certain that the club would be prepared to lose the Open Championship.’ The likelihood of Muirfield being content to be told what to do regarding its membership also seems highly remote.
Should one or all of the three male only clubs change their minds there remains the small yet practical matter of who is going to fund the necessary facilities such as changing rooms, new tees, scorecards, additional parking and the like to welcome women members. If the R&A insists on it then the R&A should pay for it seems to be the immediate reaction from those who would consider allowing women in.
The R&A vote this October will increasingly bring male-only golf clubs under greater scrutiny but it may well be, with strong rumours emanating from the Antrim coast that Royal Portrush has bagged the 2019 Open Championship, that the R&A could soon be casting around to find a couple more alternative venues as well.