The Sept. 18 announcement that the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews had approved a bylaw change allowing women to become members for the first time in the organization’s 260-year history seemed inevitable ever since news that a vote would be held surfaced six months ago.
Peter Dawson, the retiring chief executive of the R&A, had helped make possible a postal vote of the roughly 2,500 members rather than require them to be present at the annual Autumn Meeting. And instead of a two-third vote in favor of a bylaw change, all that was needed was a simple majority. As it turned out, this latter measure wasn't necessary, as the R&A revealed the bylaw passed with an 85.5-percent approval (1,581 voting yes, 268 voting no).
While certainly historic, exactly what does the Royal and Ancient's decision mean for the organization -- and golf -- moving forward? Here's are some takeaways:
For several years external pressure on the golf's governing body outside the United States and Mexico to allow women members had grown more vocal. In turn it moved beyond merely disappointment over the unseemliness of not allowing women into the Royal and Ancient clubhouse to larger, financial implications. In January, Gil Morgan, global head of sponsorship and events for HSBC, one of the biggest corporate sponsors of the Open Championship, stated that his company was "very uneasy" with the Royal and Ancient's all-male membership policy.
"We would like to see it solved so we don't keep talking about it," Morgan said at the time. "When you are showcasing one of the world's greatest tournaments it would be much more palatable if it were played where there was not a sense of segregation."
Meanwhile, with Augusta National G.C. having admitted its first female members in 2012, the Royal and Ancient's position seemed to lose even more credibility.
How big a factor was Dawson in this?
The timing of the membership vote and Dawson's retirement, which he announced last April and goes into effect in September 2015, are hardly coincidental. Having overseen the R&A for 16 years, Dawson had guided the organization toward becoming a more progressive operation, helping with the creation in 2004 of "the R&A" as a separate entity from the Royal & Ancient Golf Club to oversee the administrative operation of the Open Championship. Dawson (below) had seen the membership issue as the final significant hurdle in his tenure, hoping to have it be a part of his legacy as well as to have the matter put to rest when his successor takes over.
What does this mean practically?
While women work for the R&A and are involved in the day-to-day operation of the governing body, committee and board roles are filled by Royal and Ancient Golf Club members. Opening up the membership to females allows women to begin to take leadership roles in the organization, which previously had not been the case.
In addition to voting on adding female members at all, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club also agreed to allow the club to let in as many as 15 to join as Ordinary Members. The timing for when specifically first female members would join is expected to be within the next few months.
Who might be among the first female members?
Various names have been speculated, including Condoleezza Rice, Annika Sorenstam, Carol Semple Thompson and Lady Angela Bonallack (wife of former R&A secretary Sir Michael Bonallack). Louise Richardson, the principal of the University of St. Andrews, also would seem a logical choice to be among the first to join. THe last two principals (or presidents) at the school has been extended honorary membership into the Royal and Ancient, and Richardson (shown) has publicly criticized the club for not having female members.
"The first women members," Dawson previously said, "are likely to have made a significant contribution to the development of our sport."
So all clubs that host the Open Championship will now allow female members?
No. The Sept. 18 vote applied only to the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews. All-male memberships remain at Royal Troon, which hosts the 2016 Open, Muirfield and Royal St. George's.
Dawson has said previously that the membership practices at these clubs would not impact their status on the Open rota. However, with the Royal and Ancient having changed its stance and presumably sponsors such as HSBC still looking unfavorably toward being associated with clubs that don't have female members, this stance might potentially change.
Isn't there some other vote going on in Scotland?
On the same day of the Royal and Ancient vote, all Scots go to the polls to decide whether Scotland should leave United Kingdom and become an independent nation. Suffice it to say, the outcome of that measure is far more unclear.