Friday, May 27, 2016

The R&A Battles for Gender Equality: Or Does It?

The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews(R&A) recently announced Muirfield Golf Club would no longer be considered as a site for The Open Championship.  The announcement was pure political theater since Muirfield was not up in the rotation for a considerable number of years.  The R&A’s intent was to show its enlightenment on issues of gender equality to placate sponsors of its golden goose—The Open.  The R&A had a lot of work to do to clean-up its bona fides as a civil rights champion.  After all, for 260 years the R&A had the same policy of barring women from membership that Muirfield was now being pilloried for.  Here are some alternatives the R&A might have considered for image control and why it chose to do what it did (i.e., alternative 4):

1. Cancel this year’s Open Championship at Royal Troon Golf Club which also does not allow women members - This step would dramatically demonstrate how seriously the R&A takes the issue.  While it might punish Royal Troon, it would wreak more economic harm on the R&A.  Better to argue Troon was awarded the Open by a previous administration of the R&A, have the television announcers “tsk, tsk” the men only policy, and reap the millions The Open will bring. 

2. Atone for years of discrimination by putting itself on probation and granting sole control over the Rules of Golf for 5 years to the United States Golf Association (USGA) - The problem with this alternative is some of the nabobs of the USGA were members of the R&A during the heyday of sexual discrimination.  The USGA should not benefit from a crime in which it abetted.  David Fay, former Executive Director of the USGA comes to mindWhile he famously resigned form the all male Pine Valley Club, he kept his membership in the R&A. It is more likely the notoriously parsimonious Fay left Pine Valley because he didn’t want to pay the dues rather than from any moral convictions.

Mike Davis, the current Executive Director of the USGA does not appear to have cleaner hands.  He too is probably a member of Pine Valley since he posts scores from there.  He was a member at Trump National, New Jersey until Donald Trump found disfavor with the liberal elites.  When The Donald was a fringe candidate and given little hope of winning, Davis was quick to announce the USGA was reconsidering holding the US Women’s Open at Trump National.[1]  Since Trump won the Republican nomination, Davis has been mute on relocating the tournament. 
If the R&A were to cede control, it must find an organization with a much better record on gender equality and that also has the courage of its convictions.  That would not be the USGA.

3. Assume control the Women’s British Open and give equal prize money to men and women - The R&A is in the process of merging with the Ladies Golf Union which owns the rights to the Women’s British Open.  Currently, the difference in total purses between the two Opens is about $7 million.  To get rid of the title sponsor of the Women’s Open (Ricoh) would probably cost an additional $1 million or more.  What price is the R&A willing to play to demonstrate its commitment to full gender equality?  It is probably somewhere south of $8 million a year.

4. Issue a press release chastising Muirfield and announce its removal from the rota until Club members vote for a more inclusive membership policy – This alternative would give the R&A moral high ground and be cost free.   In the meantime, Muirfield would be encouraged to follow the R&A’s lead by inviting a few women to join. The three main arguments would go like this:
  • Women want the right to be a member more than they want to be a member.   If the membership becomes open to women, the Club may have to recruit women to prove it has an inclusive membership policy. It is likely women memberships will top off at 1 percent of the total membership as they do at the R&A and Augusta.  Does Muirfield really want to take to the barricades over this minor incursion?
  • It’s not like Muirfield is all male club where women are not permitted on the grounds.  Female tourists and member’s wives are mulling around all the time.  A few more women will not be noticed and they have the upside of paying dues.  True, Sir Edgar will have to more careful about where he takes a leak.  Lose the Open or fit Sir Edgar with a catheter?  Take your pick.
  • If Muirfield is not in the rota, tourists will not pay as much to play it.  This will be an income hit for the club.  The only way to make up for the loss is for the members to pay more for dues and/or liquor.  Will single malt scotch taste as good at twice the price?  

There is little doubt the Muirfield membership will eventually find these arguments compelling.  With that settled, Muirfield will resume its place in the rota.  The R&A will be praised for its tough stand that brought about change, and Muirfield will be extolled for its enlightened, if belated, policy.   In essence, everything appears to change, but nothing really changes--the perfect bureaucratic solution.

[1] Mell, Randell, “Davis: USGA ‘evaluating things’ regarding Trump, Golf Central Blog, July 9, 2015.

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