Banning women from golf is archaic, but it's always been prejudice
Published 23/05/2016 | 02:30
Golfers often seem nice people - the Padraig Harringtons, Christy O'Connors, Rory McIlroys - so it would appear mean-spirited to disparage the sport. But I laughed when I heard someone describe the game as "a good walk ruined".
Yet golf has always had form when it comes to excluding certain people. In Britain and Ireland, and within living memory, Jews have been excluded from some golf clubs (or Jewish members have been restricted to a quota.)
There has always been an issue with women golfers, or "lady members" as they are usually called in the golfing community. Women have been vigorous golfers for many decades - turn back the pages of Irish Tatler and Sketch to the 1930s and observe these sportswomen, feistily wearing golfing trousers, driving their irons over the green.
But admitting women as full members to golf clubs has been a branch of women's liberation, led by the formidable Marguerite Martin in the 1970s.
Feminism itself was rather split on the subject: isn't golf just a little too bourgeois to be a fighting front? Besides, if truth be told, many golfing ladies were content with the status of "associates", as it enabled them to pay a lower sub, and play more cheaply on weekdays.
Still, male chauvinism was said to be the curse of the golf clubs, and that mysterious 19th hole that non-golfers hear so much about. And it all flared up again last week when the renowned Muirfield Golf Club in Scotland voted, once again, not to admit women to full membership. Many of the old golf duffers accept that "the ladies" should join them: just not the two-thirds required to change the rules.
Muirfield has duly paid the price of retaining its all-male rule: it will be barred from hosting the British Open until it changes its manners.
Comply or perish with the protocols of equality is the message.
Private clubs in Britain cannot be forced, by law, to implement gender equality - this would mean that everything from women's swimming groups to Mosque and synagogue traditions of separating the sexes at prayer - could be prosecuted for "discrimination". But leverage can be applied through denial of privileges.
Yet isn't it somewhat incongruous to castigate golf clubs for being "discriminatory", when the practice of golf, globally, discriminates outrageously against anyone who can't afford it? What working-class person could afford, say, the €225 a day, at weekends, to pay to play at Dublin's Portmarnock Golf Club?
And if you look at the swish profile of golf club fees at the top world golf locations, you can see how much it is a rich person's game. At Muirfield itself, the green fees are £220 for one round: £290 for two rounds, and an annual sub of £2,398 for those over 36. Nearby Archerfield, also in East Lothian - golf started in Scotland and Scots still claim it is a "democratic" pursuit - charges £11,150 annually.
That's peanuts, next to the price of golf at Surrey's Wentworth club, now at £180,000 a year, or Gary Player's club in South Africa, Fancourt in the Western Cape, where you'd fork out getting on for a million Rand annually (€51,718).
In Abu Dhabi you'd pay around €29,000 to be a golfer at the Yas Links, and in Dubai, in the region of €32,000. Donald Trump's golf links in Los Angeles charges $180,000 annually and Bears Club in Florida, €188,000. A famous New Jersey golf club charges a sub of $348,000.
Broadly, we accept that golf is a game that often attracts the wealthy - and the powerful, too. At least three American presidents have been passionate golfers: Dwight Eisenhower, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. If Donald Trump makes it to the White House, he'll have his own golf course in Doonbeg, Co Clare.
There are seldom any complaints about the class basis of golf, since the game brings revenue, and status, to the communities which host it. (Environmentalists do protest that golf greens can use up a disproportionate amount of both land, and water resources, which might be more usefully employed otherwise).
Yet golf's prejudices on the basis of gender always make the headlines. The golf commentator Peter Alliss was widely deplored when he defended Muirfield's vote to keep the "ladies" out. If a female wants to join Muirfield, he said, then their best bet was to go off and marry a member!
Sure, such attitudes are archaic, but golf has always been a repository of crustiness - despite the fact that many ace golfers seem to be amiable coves.
The Royal St George's golf course at Sandwich, Kent - often host to the British Open - has attracted royal patronage ever since its inception in 1887. It was a golfing spot for the previous Prince of Wales, (afterwards the Duke of Windsor), who would bring along his favourite caddy.
The club, however, tried to bar the working-class caddy because he wasn't a "gentleman". "If he doesn't get in, I don't come in," said the prince, and thus the protocols were changed.
But I think it will be a long time before we see a genuinely diverse group of egalitarians wielding the irons in any of our grander golf clubs.