By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) - It is a simple yes or no vote but Thursday's ballot could end two-and-half centuries of division in Scotland. So, will women be allowed to become members of the Royal and Ancient golf club?
True, it is probably not as pressing an issue as the future of the United Kingdom, also to be decided on Thursday via the referendum on Scottish independence, but in golfing and equality circles it marks something of a landmark.
The Royal and Ancient is one of the oldest - some say the oldest - golf clubs in the world, having been founded in 1754 with its members playing on the links of St Andrews, renowned as the "home of golf."
While Augusta, host of the U.S. Masters since 1934, has secured a special place in the heart of the sport as the only permanent home of a major championship, it is very much a johnny-come-lately alongside the links of St Andrews, which has held the British Open a record 28 times, the first in 1873.
Women are allowed to play golf at St Andrews as the course is administered by a separate operation, and the women's British Open was held there last year. But if the players fancy a drink after their rounds in the imposing clubhouse they have had to think again.
To add to the confusion, the Royal and Ancient was divided 10 years ago to keep the playing side separate from the governance operation, as the R&A is the rulemaking body for the sport around the world apart from the United States and Mexico.
Thursday's vote is to allow women to join the club which will host the men's Open again next year. However, as members of the R&A's various committees can be drawn only from club members, it effectively opens the doors for women to finally have a say in the running of the game.
Members will also be asked that in the event of a yes vote, they agree to "15 females" being given immediate membership, a list already drawn up featuring women who have made a significant contribution to golf.
No names have been officially released but leading former amateurs Carol Semple Thompson and Belle Robertson, former USGA president Judy Bell and Angela Bonallack, wife of former R&A secretary Michael Bonallack, have been mentioned as possibles.
Golf has been under fire for its men-only clubs for many years, with many objecting to the Open being staged at Muirfield and Royal Troon in Scotland and Royal St George's in England which ban women members.
Last year Britain's then-culture secretary, Maria Miller, sports minister Hugh Robertson and Scottish first minister Alex Salmond all turned down invitations to attend the Open at Muirfield in protest at the club's exclusive policy while some sponsors also voiced disquiet at what they considered to be an inequality.
Augusta National finally ended its men-only membership in 2012, when former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and financier Darla Moore became the first female members.
However, as recently as last year the R&A's soon-to-retire chief executive Peter Dawson said: "There are groups of people who like things the way they are and I don’t see much wrong with that as long as people are not disadvantaged. I don’t think every club has to be the same."
That changed in March this year when the R&A finally agreed not only to set up the vote but also recommended that its 2,400 worldwide members voted in favor of change. In another first for the R&A, postal and proxy votes will be allowed.
"We very much hope once the vote is taken we will be welcoming women to the club. It's something that has been expected; I'm not going to say overdue but I'm sure I'll be asked that question," Dawson said when announcing the vote.
"Society is changing, sport is changing, golf is changing and I think it's appropriate for a governing body to take this step."
Louise Richardson, the principal of St Andrews University, certainly thinks so.
Traditionally the holder of that post in one of the country's most prestigious universities, alma mater of Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge, is given honorary membership - traditionally they have always been men.
"Here's St Andrew's University, ranked third in the UK, an organization of 10,000 people, we support 9,000 jobs, I run this place very successfully and I'm not allowed in the clubhouse 600 yards from my house," the American said in a recent interview.
"I should say I have occasionally been invited into the clubhouse. I think once a month on a Sunday, wives that are well-behaved are invited to a lunch, something like that. But I've said, 'I’m not eating in the clubhouse until women can enter'."
Current sports minister Helen Grant added: "It would mark a step in the right direction for the sport and I would hope encourage the remaining golf clubs that still have anachronistic single-sex member policies to follow suit."
Not everybody, however, is automatically in favor of the change.
There are many women-only clubs who desperately want to avoid opening their doors to men and many of their members feel that men-only clubs should also be allowed to go about their mono-sexual fun in peace.
"I go into a lot of golf clubs and no one's ever said to me: 'It’s terrible that we've got single-gender golf clubs'," Shona Malcolm, the chief executive of the Ladies' Golfing Union, which represents the amateur game, told The Guardian.
"We have quite a number of ladies clubs that are associated with the LGU and they want to associate with ladies, they don’t want to associate with men.
"But the outside world has a different perception and perception is a powerful thing."
(Editing by Ed Osmond)