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Having seen the light over membership issue, the R&A is now leaving little to chance

By Sam Weinman

However resistant the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews has been to inviting women members in the past, the club sure appears intent on getting them in now. In the ballots that went out last week to its roughly 2,500 members, the club asked two questions: Are you in favor of women members? And if so, would you be open to letting 15 women in at once?

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In a departure, the R&A is allowing members to vote on the women's issue remotely. 
Photo by Getty Images 

More telling than the questions themselves are the revised conditions for voting. For 260 years the bylaws of the club required members to show up in St. Andrews to cast a ballot. Now it says members can vote remotely. Once requiring two-thirds to change a bylaw, this time it's merely seeking a majority. 

Both are reflections of an organization that wants to eliminate any risk of an old-school local faction within the club conspiring to halt progress. 

"Society is changing," outgoing R&A secretary Peter Dawson said in March when announcing the General Committee's recommendation to invite women. "Sport is changing. Golf is changing. And I think it is appropriate for a governing body to take this step."

Curiously, the results of the voting will be announced the same day Scotland will vote on whether to secede from the United Kingdom. Coincidence or not, there's always a chance, as Golf Digest contributing editor John Huggan joked, R&A members will get confused in casting their ballot and women will be banned from Scotland.

For all the hand-wringing over Augusta National's former all-male membership -- the host of the Masters finally invited women members in 2012  -- the R&A membership issue carries far more significance. As opposed to Augusta National, where women have long been invited to play and stay, the R&A literally bans women from its clubhouse -- a symbolic indignity, sure, but also one with practical and professional consequences.

In July, Louise Richardson, the principal of the University of St. Andrews, described to the New York Times the disadvantage of not having access to the R&A down the road from her office. Her two immediate predecessors were granted honorary memberships to the club, but Richardson said she was often left to conduct important university business from afar.

“A supporter of the university got in touch and asked if he could possibly have lunch at the R&A today,” Richardson said to the Times. “I had to arrange for somebody I know to take him to lunch at the R&A because, of course, I can’t. And I had to arrange  for another member of the staff to take his wife to lunch some place in town because, of course, she can’t get into the R&A, either.”

Should the resolution pass to invite 15 women in an inaugural "class" of new members, Richardson is likely to be one of them. Other names mentioned as possibilities include former USGA president Judy Bell, and Lady Angela Bonallack, a past Curtis Cup player and the wife of former R&A captain and secretary Sir Michael Bonnallack.

But that's all contingent upon the R&A first allowing any women at all. It would seem like a foregone conclusion, but then, with something that's taken this long, it's probably best not to assume.

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