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R&A's Peter Dawson inflames gender-equality issue at Muirfield

The grand kleagle of the Royal & Ancient defends his male-only association’s support for staging the British Open at golf clubs that ban women from membership.

Rob Carr

The head of golf’s governing body in the U.K., the Royal & Ancient (with an emphasis on “ancient”), fanned the flames of gender equality Wednesday when he contended that male-only membership policies of golf clubs like the host of this week’s British Open were more acceptable than those that discriminated based on race or religion.

“I don’t really think, to be honest, that a golf club which has a policy of being a place where like-minded men, or indeed, like-minded women, go and want to play golf together and do their thing ranks up against some of these other forms of discrimination,” Peter Dawson, chief executive of the U.K. counterpart to the USGA, told reporters from Muirfield, where the Open Championship will kick off on Thursday.

“I really don’t think they’re comparable and I don’t think they’re damaging. It’s just kind of for some people a way of life that they rather like,” Dawson explained to people not living in the 1800s. “It’s just a way of life that some of these people like.”

Dawson, like his cohorts at Augusta National before they acknowledged that even golf had entered the 21st century and admitted women, was besieged by gender-related questions during his annual pre-Open press conference. While suggesting that his own exclusionary organization (the R&A prohibits women members) would give the whole subject a look-see after the Open wrapped up on Sunday, Dawson offered one preposterous remark after another that had Twitter and Golf Channel analysts blasting his antiquated and offensive views.

''Oh, goodness me, I think that's a ridiculous question, if I may say so,'' Dawson scoffed at a reporter asking him to explain the difference between clubs that banned women members from those that allowed only whites to join. ''There's a massive difference between racial discrimination, anti-Semitism, where sectors of society are downtrodden and treated very, very badly indeed. And to compare that with a men's golf club I think is frankly absurd. There's no comparison whatsoever.''

Dawson hinted that the world outside may rear its ugly head at the R&A following the Open but refused to acknowledge that sexism was a matter with which a group of such pompous and self-important white men as he should even bother themselves.

''To be honest, our natural reaction is to resist these pressures, because we actually don't think they have very much substance,'' said Dawson, who observed that he and his cronies were “not so insular” that they could not recognize that they might have to tackle the matter at some time in the future.

Since Augusta admitted two women last Summer, Dawson and his klan remain the standard-bearers for golf-related gender inequality. Several Scottish politicians intend to boycott the Open, with the country’s first minister Alex Salmond terming Muirfield’s membership practices “indefensible in the 21st century.”

Dawson, who earlier this year said his association would not be bullied into changing its outdated ways, blamed the media and posturing politicos for blowing the debate way out of proportion.

''It's just a way of life that some of these people like. Realistically, that’s all its is,” Dawson said. ''You can dress it up to be a lot more, if you want.

“But on the Saturday morning when the guy gets up or the lady gets up and out of the marital bed, if you like, and goes off and plays golf with his chums and comes back in the afternoon, that's not, on any kind of par with racial discrimination or anti-Semitism or any of these things.

''It's just what people kinda do.''

Nevertheless, Dawson conceded that it was becoming “increasingly difficult” to brush the matter under the marital bed, as it were.

“When things are a bit quieter, after the championship,” he said, “I’m quite sure we’ll be taking a look at everything to see what kind of sense we can make of it for the future.”

The guys at Golf Channel were aghast at what Dawson had to say. Comparing discrimination to what Dawson called the “polarizing” controversy over anchored putting was “insulting” to Morning Drive host Gary Williams and others.

NBC’s resident essayist Jimmy Roberts summed up the sentiments of many viewers affronted by Dawson’s pontificating.

“Wow!” exclaimed Roberts, who wondered what in what year Dawson resided. “What I have a problem with is single-sex clubs in a position of authority hosting public events.

“That’s the issue,” Roberts added. “As far as Peter Dawson is concerned, all I would say is, dude, the train is coming; get on board or you’re going to get run over.”

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