R&A open door to women's elite

The Royal and Ancient Golf Club have formally abandoned their ban on women competing in the Open Championship.

Their decision came on the day teenage sensation Michelle Wie made her professional debut.

As expected, next year’s entry form will no longer restrict the event to “any male professional golfer” or “male amateur golfer whose playing handicap does not exceed scratch”.

Instead, any woman finishing in the top five of any of their four majors can try for the Open at Hoylake next July through regional and final qualifying.

In addition, any women meeting the entry requirements for international qualifying, final qualifying and the Open itself can enter at these stages directly.

For instance, if 16-year-old Wie was again invited to the John Deere Classic and was the leading non-exempt player she would go straight through to compete in the Open.

Sports Minister Richard Caborn told PA Sport: “I really do welcome this. I think it’s an important step forward for women’s sport.

“The Open really is now truly open. Everybody can play in it regardless of their sex. I think the R&A have listened to what people think and I’m very pleased they are changing the rules.

Peter Dawson, the R&A's chief executive, said: ``Our championship committee pledged to review entry conditions and to assess how women golfers might compete on equal terms with men for a place in the Open.

“As a result I am delighted that a qualification route has now been established for the best women players to gain access to the championship, competing alongside men on the same courses and from the same tees.”

Before the Weetabix Women’s British Open, the last of their four majors, takes place after the Open it will be the top five from this year’s event who can enter the qualifying.

That includes Wie and Annika Sorenstam, who finished joint third and joint fifth respectively at Royal Birkdale in July. The others are winner Jeong Jang, Sophie Gustafsson, Young Kim, Christie Kerr and Liselotte Neumann.

The new eligibility rules conform to two guiding principles set down by the championship committee.

Firstly, that entry to the Open “should be based on playing ability irrespective of gender” and, secondly, that “the strength and quality of the championship and qualifying fields should be maintained at the highest level.”

The issue of women being able to play against men has been a matter of debate for the past two years, ever since world number one Sorenstam became the first female to play on the US Tour since 1945.

Other sponsors saw the potential and while Laura Davies’ European tour appearance in Australia saw her finish last but one, Wie really got people talking again when she missed the cut by only one stroke at the Sony Open in Hawaii in January last year. She was only 14 at the time.

Two more appearances on the US Tour have followed this season, as well as attempts to qualify for the US Open and Masters, and in signing multi-million pound contracts on turning professional last week Wie made it clear she still wants to take on the men in the future.

Aware of the changing situation the R&A championship committee discussed their entry regulations as regards women early last year, but no decisions were taken in time to change the entry form for this year’s event.

However, in April Dawson stated: “The hesitancy is in the detail, not in the principal.

“I don’t think there is any problem in principal with women playing in the Open, but it’s new ground in sport as a whole. The only Olympic sport where the two sexes compete together is equestrianism and it is not surprising therefore it is taking a long time.”

Committee chairman Martin Kippax added: “We are not dragging our feet in any way. We are giving it the consideration it deserves because there needs to be a level playing field. We are perfectly happy about it.

“We are not resentful – there is no resistance to it here. It’s novel and something that is new needs to be considered.”

Now the details have been decided upon.

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