Elite private golf clubs are not my thing, and one may argue that almost everything about them already reeks of privilege and exclusion. But here’s news that one such club is now a little less exclusionary.
“Muirfield—the historic, privately owned Scottish golf club that has staged the British Open 16 times—has finally voted to admit women for the first time since it was founded in 1744. Fewer than 12 months after its last vote on the matter, 80 percent of its members opted to allow female members.”
Last year, after 64% members of Muirfield voted for and 36% against extending membership to women (falling just short of the two-thirds majority required to change the rule), Muirfield lost its right to host the British Open. Until that point, Muirfield had hosted the famous golf championship 16 times in its 125-year history. No doubt that this contributed to the change of heart among some of its members.
At the time of the 2016 vote, Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first female first minister (i.e., the leader of the Scottish government) had this to say:
A well-known golf commentator Peter Alliss came under fire for defending last year’s vote by saying: “The women are there as wives of husbands… If somebody wants to join, well you’d better get married to somebody who’s a member….I believe clubs were formed years ago by people of like spirit: doctors, lawyers, accountants, bakers, butchers…And they joined in like spirit to talk amongst them and to do whatever. ”
Nice guy, right? But seriously, if Alliss would hunt down and befriend one female specimen each of a doctor, lawyer, accountant, baker and butcher (I’ve heard such things now exist), I would return the favor and start to follow professional golf more closely just so I could listen to his patronizing chatter.
Buried somewhere in Alliss’ discriminatory nonsense, there is a valid question: when are private golf clubs allowed to make their own rules about who they can exclude without breaking anti-discrimination laws?
In the US, the rule appears to hinge on whether a private club is private enough. Many states prevent discrimination based on factors such as gender, race, sexual orientation, and religion for places that count as public accommodation. What falls under the umbrella of “public accommodation”? Well, that varies from state to state. But the idea is that if a privately-held golf club operated as a “public accommodation” in some ways (e.g., served food or opened up for social events to nonmembers), it would have to follow state anti-discrimination laws. If, on the other hand, it operated as a truly “private” facility, then yes, it could discriminate in whatever way it liked.
A 1995 NYT article – worth a read if only because most of us don’t read a lot of newspaper articles written in 1995 anymore – describes the struggles of women to be full members of golf clubs, including detailed accounts of two women who lost their full membership because of divorce and death. One of them, a real estate agent, considered golf to be essential to her business (and was a “champion golfer”). However, these challenges were largely unsuccessful. The article notes that “private clubs are protected by First Amendment rights of associations. Traditionally, courts have been reluctant to invade the sanctity of private country clubs unless the clubs have a “public” character in their commercial and business operations.”
By 1997, NYT was publishing stories about recent challenges to gender discrimination in private golf clubs based on the clubs’ “public character.” A private club could be considered somewhat public in several ways, e.g., if it received property-tax incentives, received economic benefits from corporate golfing events, social receptions or other outside events (or was open to non-members for social events), had relatively lax rules of membership that say, allowed men to join the club with little effort (but not women), or accepted property tax deductions under state “open spaces” laws.
Private clubs in the U.S. have continued to be accused of gender discrimination in recent years, both in courts (usually by appeals to “public accommodations” laws) as well as more publicly by women’s rights activists. The allegations have included outright denial of membership to women, as well as unfavorable treatment to women when they are allowed to be members (e.g., inconvenient tee times for women, women being unwelcome in or barred from the grill area, etc). For instance, there were well-publicized and successful legal challenges to private golf clubs in Spokane County in 2011 and Phoenix in 2009. Augusta National, a famous private golf club located in Georgia (which does not have a “public accommodation law), opened its membership to women for the first time in 2012 after coming under public pressure from women’s rights group and others (Condoleeza Rice was one of the club’s first two female members, which may tell you something about the club). The club had previously denied entry to IBM’s (female) CEO, Virginia Rometty, and one issue that women’s activists emphasized when protesting against this was the importance of golf clubs as power centers for businesspeople (“Million-dollar deals are not going down at Curves [a local women’s gym], but they are going down at golf clubs”). In other words, such exclusion had tangible economic effects on women’s careers, for both female professional golfers as well as for other professional women in careers where the golf course was the preferred venue for wheeling and dealing.
Augusta also has a rich history of racial discrimination, and did not admit its first African-American member for almost 60 years. More generally (and perhaps not surprisingly), private golf clubs have historically had a serious issue with race as well as gender.
So there you go – a post about private golf clubs. I can’t stand them, but if they must exist, they should not discriminate.