If you’re searching for silver linings in the massive dark cloud that is 2020, it’s worth noting that this year marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed and protected voter rights for women. So it’s fitting that during this centennial year, one of the most outdated traditions in sports appears to be on the edge of extinction — at least in the United Kingdom. The U.S. needs to catch up, it seems.
In late August, Royal Troon Golf Club in Scotland hosted the AIG Women’s Open for the first time. England’s Laura Davies, 56, hit the historic first tee shot on Aug. 20 to begin the event formerly known as the Women’s British Open. Four days later, 28-year-old Sophia Popov of Germany emerged as the improbable winner on the spectator-free course. She was ranked No. 304 in the world heading into the event and has battled Lyme Disease.
Members of Royal Troon voted in 2016 to begin admitting female members at the club, which was established 1878. The club has hosted The Open Championship nine times, most recently in 2016.
Royal Troon has set in motion a domino effect, with three of the next five AIG Women’s Opens slated for courses that will be hosting the event for the first time: Scotland’s Muirfield (2022), England’s Walton Heath (2023) and the United Kingdom’s Royal Porthcawl (2025).
“It’s a huge statement of their commitment to the game and their commitment to the women’s game,” Martin Slumbers, chief executive officer of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, said when announcing the future sites. “But the whole five years is intended to be a huge statement of intent, about how we want to provide the platform for the best women golfers to play on some of the best golf courses that we can offer in [Great Britain and Ireland]. It’s a five-year run that really should whet the appetite of every great golf lover.”
R&A hosts 21 championships, including the AIG Women’s Open, The Open Championship and the Women’s Amateur Championship.
Muirfield was founded in 1744 and required a two-thirds vote to invite women members, which it began formally doing in the summer of 2019.
More recently, other golf clubs have made the decision to admit women, too. The Royal Burgess Golfing Society, the world’s oldest golf club, voted in March to allow females after 285 years of operating as a males-only facility. More than 80 percent of the members of the club — founded in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1735 — voted to change the rules effective April 1, 2020. According to Golf News Net, the decision “came six years after less than one-third of the membership supported a similar measure.”
“As the world’s oldest golf club, the Society enjoys a position of leadership in Scottish and world golf, including the promotion of golf at [the] junior level,” read a statement issued by the club. “The Society looks forward to welcoming an open and diverse membership, affording everyone the chance to be part of its ongoing success.”
Kenny Walker, a former world junior champion and one of the club’s best-known golfers, welcomed the news.
“I’m glad to hear that and about time,” he told The Edinburgh News. “It was getting a bit embarrassing to be one of the only all-male clubs left. I’m not sure how many women will want to join, but this is certainly good news.”
The Royal Burgess Golfing Society’s decision was made mere months after the Glasgow Golf Club announced in November 2019 that after 232 years, it also would begin allowing female members.
In the U.S., the golf industry has been working on efforts to bring more women into the game over the years; one of the latest, the #InviteHER campaign, debuted about two years ago. It was supported by the LPGA Women’s Network and the women’s task force of WE ARE GOLF, a coalition of leading organizations working together to communicate the game's economic, charitable, environmental and fitness benefits.
Muirfield’s decision in 2019 to invite females was, at the time, SI.com’s legal analyst Michael McCann noted, “reminiscent of Augusta National Golf Club’s move to allow women members in 2012. The decision by the invitation-only club in Georgia followed years of controversy and criticism over its only-male membership policy — a policy that sparked a high-profile movement led by women’s rights activist Martha Burk and contributed to lost sponsorship opportunities. Augusta’s policy even denied memberships to U.S. Supreme Court Justices who happen to have been women until the landmark switch seven years ago, when former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice became one of the first two women to join Augusta.”
At least two of the U.S. clubs mentioned in McCann’s piece from a year ago — Butler National Golf Club in Oak Brook, Ill., and Burning Tree Club in Bethesda, Maryland — remain closed to female members.
“How is undisguised and unvarnished discrimination against women still lawful as our country nears the third decade of the 21st century?,” McCann asked, before explaining:
As a starting point, the fact that clubs are private businesses does not, on its own, authorize them to discriminate.
The federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion and national origin. In the context of employment, Title VII of the Act also prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.
Further, the Act does not exclusively regulate public entities. It also governs private businesses and, when those businesses are places of “public accommodation,” how those private businesses serve customers. A business is considered a place of public accommodation when it is generally open to the public. Examples include sports arenas, movie theaters, restaurants, day care facilities, gyms, gas stations and banks. Other federal laws, including Title IX in 1972, prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex in education and related fields.
These federal laws do not, however, regulate private membership clubs with respect to their membership policies. A private membership club, as it is sometimes called, is one that is explicitly not open to the public. This type of club also determines—and is expected to provide clear notice of — specific criteria for membership. Such criteria must be ostensibly relevant to the club’s purpose.
McCann also wrote that “the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld private associations’ right to expressive association” — which refers to organizing for the purpose of attracting others with similar viewpoints, interests or values — “even in cases when relevant fact-patterns feature explicit discrimination.”
As clubs in the UK have proved, reversing tradition can pay off in the form of hosting high-profile events. On GolfDigest.com’s list of “100 Greatest Golf Courses” of 2019-20 (on which Butler National ranks No. 47), one panelist pointed out that “it’s too bad the membership policies prohibit the club from hosting a tour event in the near term. This is one of the best tests of golf there is.”