GULLANE, Scotland — Part defiant and part pragmatist, the head of the Royal & Ancient conceded Wednesday that all-male clubs are a bedeviling issue but insisted the British Open venues won't be pressured into opening their doors to women.
At his customary news conference on the eve of the British Open, R&A chief executive Peter Dawson faced a barrage of questions about the no-women-allowed membership at Muirfield and two other clubs in the nine-club tournament rotation, Troon and Royal St. George's.
He was prepared for the issue, reading from notes that made it clear he believes the issue does little harm to the game and has largely been contrived by the media, politicians and interest groups.
"Obviously the whole issue of gender and single-sex clubs has been pretty much beaten to death recently," Dawson said. "And we do, I assure you, understand that this is divisive. It's a subject that we're finding increasingly difficult, to be honest."
One reporter, touching on the racial discrimination that once pervaded the game, asked Dawson what was the difference between a male-only club and one that allowed only whites to join.
"Oh, goodness me, I think that's a ridiculous question, if I may say so," he replied. "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."
He later added: "It's just kind of, for some people, a way of life that they rather like. I don't think in doing that they're intending to (bring) others down or intending to do others any harm."
Dawson emphasized that he doesn't believe gender-specific clubs stifle the growth of the sport. Still, he knows it's an issue that won't go away — especially since Augusta National admitted its first female members — so the organization that oversees golf outside the U.S. plans to address concerns once the Open is completed.
He wouldn't say what steps might be taken.
"Our natural reaction is to resist these pressures, because we actually don't think they have very much substance," Dawson said. "But I'd like to stress we're not so insular as to fail to recognize the potential damage that campaigns like this can do to the Open championship. And it is our championship committee's responsibility to do what is best for the Open, and to maximize the benefits which the Open brings, not just to golf, but also to the local area.
"When things are a bit quieter, after the championship," he went on, "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. But I think right now our concentration has to be on this wonderful event and making it a success."
Eleven of the 24 questions to Dawson during the half-hour news conference revolved around the topic of male-only clubs. The issue of gender equity is squarely directed on golf's oldest major since Augusta National, home of the Masters, invited former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina financier Darla Moore to become members last summer. Tiger Woods called it "important to golf."
Most golfers have shied away from the issue leading up to the Open, including the top-ranked Woods. When Rory McIlroy, the world's No. 2 player, was first asked about it Wednesday, there was a long pause and a forced smile before he said, "Muirfield is a great golf course."
Later, when someone asked McIlroy if the players had been advised not comment on the issue, he was more forthcoming.
"I just think it's something that a lot of guys don't want to get themselves into because it's quite a controversial issue," he said. "It's something that shouldn't happen these days. It's something that we shouldn't even be talking about."
Ernie Els said it's "weird" that some clubs won't admit both sexes, while Luke Donald said "we'd love to see these policies be a bit more inclusive."
"Wherever the governing bodies decide to play a tournament, it's my job to turn up and be ready and play, and that's what I am going to," Donald said. "I think the R&A is certainly trending in the right direction."
But some prominent Scottish politicians won't be attending this year's event in protest.
"I just think it's indefensible in the 21st century not to have a golf club that's open to all," said Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, a huge golf fan who played a round with Phil Mickelson in the pro-am before the Scottish Open last week.
Two British government members — Maria Miller, the secretary of culture, media and sport, and sports minister Hugh Robertson — have also turned down invitations to attend.
Dawson said the R&A would not give in to political pressure.
"We've been through over 250 years of existence without getting into political comment, and I don't really intend to break that rule here," he said. "We've got politicians posturing; we've got interest groups attacking the R&A, attacking the Open, and attacking Muirfield."
While conceding that some changes are likely, Dawson made clear he believes the issue has largely been manufactured by those who don't necessarily have the best interests of the game at heart. He claimed there are very few gender-exclusive clubs in Britain, and that half of those are female-only.
"You can dress it up to be a lot more, if you want," Dawson said. "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 kind of do."