Men and Women Only Golf Clubs

31 August 2014

An overview of the position of historic men and women clubs

Golf has come along way since the beginning of last century, when Joyce Wethered, four times winner of the British Ladies Amateur Championship, had to wait for her male playing partner in the car park at Sandwich Golf Club, as she was not allowed in the clubhouse. She said that she kept her hands and fingers warm on the radiator of someone’s Rolls Royce. Golf club prejudices at the this time did not exclusively relate to women. In 1920, Walter Hagen, as a professional, was refused admission to the clubhouse at the Open at Deal and he ate his lunch in the car park. Nowadays, all clubhouses are open to men and women, amateurs and professionals as visitors on an equal basis. 

Next month the Royal and Ancient golf club will vote on whether to admit women members. This is of less significance inside golf than many people think, as the courses on which the R&A play are public and the main obligations which the R&A discharge are run by separate organisations that already have widespread representation. None the less, the club itself represents golf to the world and the change is generally seen as an essential move forward. It is expected to be supported, but, if not, then it will undoubtedly be in the near future. (Update: On 18th September 2014, the R&A formally announced the result of its vote in favour of admitting women members with immediate effect.)

Earlier in the year the Royal Burgess GC held a similar vote, which was not carried. However, given that they have already built facilities for women players and have a suitable course of play, then it is likely that the vote will be carried in time.

Less well known is the fact that there are several historic women only clubs. There are three in St Andrews as reported on the R&A website, and the R&A change may affect them.

As at the beginning of 2014, there are 22 women only Scottish golf clubs affiliated to the SLGA, listed in Early Women's Golf with at least four others not affiliated. Of these, 9 are cited in this website, as prominent early clubs and are still women only clubs. (The other Scottish women’s clubs mentioned here are now amalgamated with the related men’s club.)

Comparing these 9 women’s clubs to the oldest 18 Scottish societies (all originally male) gives the following result at today's date:

Men OnlyWomen onlyMixed
No clubhouse 1 1 1
Clubhouse, 3rd party course  2 6 1
Course and clubhouse 3 2 8
Not active 2

Mixed

The mixed older clubs are Royal Musselburgh, Fraserburgh, Crail, Cruden Bay, Dunbar, Royal Montrose, Scotscraig, Innerleven (Leven). All except Royal Montrose run their own course. The oldest mixed golf club therefore at present is Royal Musselburgh, who were of course the first to 'sponsor' women's golf at Musselburgh in 1811. Following the Royal and Ancient's vote in 2014 The Honorable Company voted to accept women members in 2017.

Men's Clubs

Of the first 18 golf clubs, Kingsbarns and Thistle are effectively no longer active and Burntisland owns neither a course nor clubhouse. The St Andrews Thistle club uses the St Andrews GC clubhouse and plays on St Andrews Links Trust public courses.

The Royal Perth have their own clubhouses but play public courses. Royal Burgess, Bruntsfield Links and Glasgow golf clubs own both courses and clubhouses.

Women's Clubs

Though it is the oldest women's golfing club, the Ladies Putting Club St Andrews does not own a clubhouse.

Aberdeen Ladies, Carnoustie Ladies, Ladies Panmure Monifieth, St Rule St Andrews, St Regulus St Andrews and Troon Ladies all have their own clubhouses but play 3rd party courses, the majority of which are public courses.

Lundin Ladies and Machrihanish Ladies manage both clubhouses and courses.  

Time and Tide

Assuming that Royal Burgess and R&A will soon elect to have women members, then that will mean only 3 of the oldest 18 men’s clubs with courses will be men only golf clubs. Most of the remaining men only clubs have extensive rights of play for wives on the same terms as members and all clubhouse facilities and courses are available to men or women equally as visitors.

There are, of course, other Scottish men only clubs, such as at Prestwick and St Andrews, as well as other women only clubs elsewhere, not included in the above.

The UK women’s golfing associations were all older that their male equivalents and most have merged with them. The Scottish Ladies Golfing Association, founded 1904, is currently discussing an amalgamation with the Scottish Golf Union (1920).

Less than 10% of people in the developed world play golf. Women’s participation in golf is about 20% that of men. In US there 29 million golfers of whom 78% are male and 22% female. Worldwide, there are about 50 million golfers, playing on about 34,000 courses.

In Europe, the overall average women's club membership is 25% but this marks a considerable disparity between England, with only 14% of club members being women, and elsewhere in Europe, such as in Germany, Austria and Holland, where women are 35% of club membership. It is likely the different subscription arrangements have an effect, such as where partners can play for free, as opposed to 'couple' subscriptions, more common in some countries than others. 

About 9% of the British Golf Collectors Society are women, indicating a lower level of interest in golf heritage than in golf in general, which may be relevant to whether women will want to join the historic, older, formerly male clubs.

It is possible extended membership at older men only clubs will have an effect on women only clubs in the same way as the opening of Rotary membership to women affected the Inner Wheel and Soroptimists. Course suitability for high handicap golfers, clubhouse facilities, team numbers and social activities are likely to be as relevant as membership rights. The likely changes to subscription levels, if spouses' rights of play were withdrawn, would also be a consideration. With lower participation, then women would remain minority stakeholders in any mixed golf club arrangements.

There is nothing so unequal as the equal treatment of unequal peoples.

Attributed to Thomas Jefferson and in variation to Aristotle but actually derived from Dr Anton Menger 1890.

Page updated 4th Nov 2014 and 16th April 2017

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