GLASGOW, Scotland — The referendum on independence isn't the only historic vote taking place in Scotland on Thursday. While around four million Scots are choosing whether to go it alone or to stay with the United Kingdom, about 2,500 male members of The Royal & Ancient Golf Club in St. Andrews will decide another issue that has split opinion across the land: whether women should be allowed to join one of the world’s oldest and most famous golf clubs.
The all-male Royal & Ancient Golf Club, a regular British Open venue, has for years resisted attempts to admit female members at the famous “Old Course.” But on Thursday, as most Scots are lining up to their cast their referendum ballots, the club is expected to pass a motion allowing women to join its ranks.
Like the one to the independence referendum, the road to Thursday’s decision has been a long one. The Royal & Ancient, established in 1754, has a fusty image and a reputation for sexism. In recent years, sponsors and politicians have expressed reservations about international championships being held at exclusive clubs. Two years ago, the famous Augusta National Golf Club changed its stance on single-sex membership.
Leading female golfers have long called for the all-male policy to be overturned. Earlier this year, Louise Richardson, principal of the University of St. Andrews, spoke out about the ban on women after she was denied honorary membership at the club, an honor given to her male predecessor. Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond has previously called on the Royal & Ancient to admit female members. Last year the Scottish National Party leader turned down an invitation to attend the British Open at Muirfield, another Scottish club that does not allow women as members.
“Can you imagine how mortifying it would be if they voted to uphold the ban? It could be catastrophic for the sport, in a PR sense and in a commercial sense”
Last summer’s Open was marred by heated debate about the club’s male-only policy. Peter Dawson, the Royal & Ancient chief executive, said at the time that the policy was “not on any kind of par with racial discrimination or antisemitism or any of these things.” That belief aside, Dawson has been increasingly aware of the potential commercial impact of continuing to prohibit women from becoming members.
In January, Giles Morgan, global head of sponsorship at HSBC, said that the all-male policy would have significant repercussions for the bank’s continuing support of the open.
“Primarily it is commerce that is driving this [vote],” said Tom English, a BBC journalist who regularly covers golf. “I’d like to say that there has been an awakening among the grand old members of the Royal & Ancient that the policy has been sexist and discriminatory for all these years but I don’t think that’s the case.”
Previous attempts to change the all-male policy have failed, but the latest initiative is expected to be successful. The constitution of the Royal & Ancient has been changed to allow proxy votes: previously voters had to be in the room when the ballot was held, but now members, many of whom live overseas, can vote by mail.
Anything other than a “yes” when the results are announced on Thursday evening could have dramatic consequences for golf, said English. “Can you imagine how mortifying it would be if they voted to uphold the ban? It could be catastrophic for the sport, in a PR sense and in a commercial sense.”
“I think if they’re honest they are bowing to pressure, because they would probably like to keep it as it is, as it has been for the last 200 years,” said Laura Davies, a four-time major champion and England’s most accomplished female golfer.
“I’m sure a lot of people won’t like it. Everyone [else] probably thinks it should happen but it’s their club, they’re the members and, if they want to keep it the way it is, that’s their decision. But I think, in a modern world, it’s about time they did have some lady members.”
There are currently two other men-only clubs in Scotland: Royal Troon, where next year’s British Open is to be played, and Muirfield, which was the host club for the Open last year. The latter has said that its policy on women is currently under review.
Scottish nationalists might struggle to win their referendum on Thursday, but the BBC’s English expects that there will be at least one vote for change: “I suspect that there will be one yes this week, even if there’s not another.”
This story originally appeared at GlobalPost.
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