As the summer months approach once more and the many fair-weather golfers dust down their clubs and head out for their first round of the year, it seems a good time to consider whether the golfing world has made any in-roads into its long-running match against equality.
Last summer after the Open Championship at the famously men-only Muirfield Golf Club, I blogged on the tension between equality of the sexes and the desire to maintain a time-honoured distinction in the historic and very traditional game of golf.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the short story is that the continued presence of men-only golf clubs confirms that this issue has not yet been resolved. However, there is now a momentum towards change that appears to be gathering pace. In particular, being female, a golfer and a frequent visitor to St Andrews, I was pleased to note that the men-only Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews is planning to vote in September 2014 on the possibility of admitting female members.
The BBC has even reported that the club is "urging its 2,500 members to vote in favour of abolishing its men-only policy". Given that the Royal and Ancient Golf Club was the guardian of the rules of the game from 1754 to 2004 (with this responsibility now devolved to a separate body, the R&A), this is arguably a significant step towards golfing equality. If the "Home of Golf" votes to allow female members, surely this can only result in increased pressure on other men only clubs to follow suit?
Of course, legally there is no pressure on single-sex golf clubs to change. Although section 101 of the Equality Act 2010 states that an association must not discriminate against a person in deciding who to admit to membership, the terms of that membership or by not accepting the membership application at all, there is an exception to this rule. Schedule 16 of the Equality Act allows 'single characteristic associations' to directly discriminate on grounds of a protected characteristic in certain circumstances. Notably, golf clubs can use this exception to restrict membership to persons who share the protected characteristic of being 'male' i.e. men-only golf clubs are allowed. Having said that, there is a quirk in the legislation which means that if a golf club already permits any female members (even just one) it is not viewed as a 'single characteristic association' and must adapt its membership policies to ensure equality for both sexes.
So men-only clubs are not contravening the Equality Act by wholly refusing membership to female golfers. Similarly, it is only fair to note that there are a number of female-only golf clubs in the UK which are likewise not required by the Equality Act to offer membership to men. I suspect that, for as long as the Equality Act provides for this exception, single-sex golf clubs will remain part of the game. Nevertheless, the recent moves by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club to encourage equality are certainly a promising sign.