By DOUG FERGUSON
AP Golf Writer
The Royal and Ancient Golf Club at St. Andrews is no longer just for men.
The spiritual “Home of Golf” became the latest club to end years of male-only exclusivity on Thursday when its members voted overwhelmingly in favor of inviting women to join. The vote was effective immediately.
“I can confirm that The Royal & Ancient Golf of St. Andrews is now a mixed membership club,” R&A secretary Peter Dawson said in a brief statement he read just outside the clubhouse at the Old Course.
Dawson said more than three-quarters of the club’s 2,500 members worldwide voted, with 85 percent in favor. It was the first time in the club’s 260-year history that members were allowed to vote by proxy at the annual business meeting.
The result was far more predictable than Scotland voting for independence on the same day, especially when the Royal & Ancient approved voting by mail, and comments earlier this year by Dawson of early indications of support.
Even so, it was hailed as an important step by golf organizations, public officials, sponsors and even a prominent golfer.
“I am thrilled the R&A has voted overwhelmingly to allow female members. This is a great day for golf and a historic one for women in golf,” Annika Sorenstam tweeted.
The members also voted to fast-track a “significant” number of women to join in the next few months. The R&A did not say how many women would be invited, though previous reports indicated it could be as many as 15. The club previously said the first womenmembers would likely have made a “significant contribution” to golf.
“This is a very important and positive day in the history of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club,” Dawson said. “The R&A has served the sport of golf well for 260 years and I am confident that the club will continue to do so in future with the support of all its members, both women and men.”
Augusta National, home of the Masters, decided two years ago to invite women to join. Unlike the R&A, Augusta National did not have a written policy that banned women. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina financier Darla Moore were the first female members.
While the R&A members have access to the clubhouse behind the first tee at the Old Course, they belong to a club, not a golf course. The seven golf courses at St. Andrews are open to the public.
“This is positive news for the sport, and I hope we will now see other golf clubs that still have outdated same-sex policies follow suit,” said Helen Grant, Britain’s minister for sport. “With golf in the next Olympics there is a huge opportunity for the sport to grow and this sends out the right inclusive message that golf is for everyone.”
The Royal & Ancient governs golf everywhere in the world except for the United States and Mexico. It is separate from “The R&A,” a business arm created 10 years ago to handle the Rules of Golf, organize the British Open, and operate other business affairs. But while the R&A has female employees, the committees and board are populated by club members, so there had been no women in leadership roles governing the game or running championships.
“It’s a very positive message for the game of golf and the R&A in its position as the governing body for the game,” Dawson said. “It’s quite right that members have agreed to embrace this concept and welcome women members to the club. It’s a great day for the game.”
When asked if he had contacted some of the all-male clubs in the British Open rotation, Dawson declined further questions.
“This is a night for celebration,” he said.
The R&A was coming under increasing pressure when The Open was held at all-male clubs, most recently Muirfield in 2013. Even some of its sponsors were getting uncomfortable with the centuries-old policies barring women.
Others in the rotation are Royal St. George’s in England and Royal Troon in Scotland, which will host golf’s oldest major in 2016. Dawson said this year that the policies of other golf clubs in the UK were not connected to the R&A vote on its membership.
Royal Troon said in a statement this week to Sky Sports News, “At present, membership of Royal Troon Golf Club is open only to those of the male gender and we have no plans to change our constitution at this time although I must point out that we are quite different from many of the other single gender clubs in that we share our facilities with an active Ladies Golf Club.”
Giles Morgan, the global head of sponsorship and events for HSBC, said the bank welcomed the R&A news.
“Our commitment to the value of diversity and our support of women’s golf …. is a cornerstone of our global golf portfolio,” Morgan said. “We look forward to continuing this successful partnership at St. Andrews in 2015 for what promises to be the start of a new era.”
The Women’s British Open has been played at St. Andrews twice since 2007, and they were allowed in the clubhouse during the championship.
“The LPGA is happy to hear that the members of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club in St. Andrews have voted to include female members,” the LPGA Tour said in a statement. “This decision is certainly a step in the right direction and one that better captures the current diversity and inclusiveness of our great game.”