The history of golf is intricately tied to the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews. The modern game of golf was created in its homeland of Scotland. In modern years, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club served as a governing authority of the game. Royalty, top golf professionals and high-powered businessmen have called themselves members of the prestigious club.
For 260 years, the history of golf was intricately tied to the Royal and Ancient Golf Club. And unfortunately, part of that history is marked by the exclusion of women and minorities from some of golf’s leading and most prestigious clubs.
The Royal and Ancient Golf Club led the way in excluding women from the ranks of its membership. As women rose the corporate ladder and up golf’s leader boards, it held onto its status as a “boy’s club” for nearly three centuries.
Yesterday, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club announced that in September 2014 it chose to break from history. For the first time in its 260-year existence, it decided to allow female members. Notably, while the club granted honorary memberships, it also afforded some women the chance to become full, dues paying members.
While the Royal and Ancient Golf Club’s decision should be celebrated, the question remains, why now? How does one of the most prestigious golf venues decide 260-years into its existence to break with tradition and let women into the “boy’s club”?
To answer that question, one needs to look to Rio de Janeiro, the host site of the 2016 Olympic Games. What could the lively, South American city have to do with changing a stale tradition born in Europe? The answer is simple: Everything.
Golf hasn’t been part of the Olympic program since 1904. In a history spanning centuries, golf has only made the Olympic program twice. For a sport that now counts 60 million players on six continents as game participants, being held off of the sports world’s biggest stage is detrimental.
The greatest detriment golf has missed out by being held out of the Olympic Games is not having its sport played out on the millions of televisions that tune into the Olympic Games every four years. The ability to participate on a world stage in front of millions of viewers could have propelled golf to participation levels beyond the 60 million it sees today.
When it comes to selecting which sports make up the Olympic program, the International Olympic Committee considers a number of factors. Global public and media interest make up several of those factors. Beyond interest in the sport, though, the IOC also considers social issues surrounding the sport, including discrimination existing within the sport.
Golf was added to the 2016 Olympic program in 2009, when two of the game’s leading clubs–the Royal and Ancient Golf Club and Augusta National–still precluded female members. Yet, given the factors the IOC considers in selecting a program, it’s arguably unsurprising that in the years leading up to the Rio Games that golf is distancing itself from its discriminatory past. Along with the Royal and Ancient Golf Club accepting female members, in 2012 August National–where The Masters is played–admitted two female members.
These clubs and golf’s leaders know that if the game wants to keep its spot on the Olympic program, it must work to be more inclusive. In order for golf to remain on the program–and not see another century long absence from the Olympic Games–it must continue to make progress in terms of inclusivity. One way to ensure that happens, is by eliminating discrimination at the highest level of the sport and working with top clubs to admit female and minority members.
One must question whether access to some of golf’s greatest clubs would have come sooner for women if golf remained on the Olympic program during the 20th century. Given the power of the Olympic Games on sport–in terms of global television viewership numbers and licensing revenue–one may think that the IOC could have provided the pressure necessary for golf to move further towards inclusivity. Regardless, though, of the reasons or timing, that women have been given an opening to a more equal footing into the game of golf is something for the young girls teeing off at the local course to celebrate.