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LONDON (Reuters) - After 260 years of exclusion, women will be allowed to join the Royal and Ancient golf club after an overwhelming members' vote opened the doors to the famous St Andrews clubhouse and paved the way for them to play a role in the governance of the game.
More than 75 percent of the club's 2,400 worldwide members, voting in person and via proxy and postal votes, took part and 85 percent were in favor of the change.
"This vote has immediate effect and I can confirm that The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews is now a mixed membership club," R&A chief executive Peter Dawson said in statement on Thursday.
"This is a very important and positive day in the history of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club."
Founded in 1754, the Royal and Ancient's members play on the St Andrews links course regarded as the "home of golf" and host to the British Open a record 28 times.
Although women have been able to play on the course, which staged the women's British Open last year, they were, until Thursday's vote, generally not allowed in the clubhouse and played no significant part in the sport's rulemaking arm, the R&A.
That body, separated from the club 10 years ago, controls golf around the world apart from in the United States and Mexico, runs the British Open and is made up almost entirely of R&A club members.
As recently as last year Dawson said he did not feel there was a need for change but, in the face of sustained criticism and rising concern from sponsors, the R&A announced in March that it would ballot its members and recommend a yes vote.
"I think it is great news," Laura Davies, Britain's most successful female golfer, told Reuters.
"Back when I turned pro I would never have imagined that this could ever happen. I think it is a huge step forward for the R&A and women’s golf and everyone will be delighted with the result."
Leading Scottish player Catriona Matthew was also happy with the outcome of the vote, held on the same day as the referendum on Scottish independence which is expected to produce a much closer result.
"This was certainly an easier result to predict than the other vote going on up here today," she told Reuters.
"I think it is brilliant news and a great start to such an important day in Scotland."
Augusta National, home of the U.S. Masters, 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, and the R&A's new position was quickly welcomed across the Atlantic.
"This decision is certainly a step in the right direction and one that better captures the current diversity and inclusiveness of our great game," the Ladies' PGA Tour said in a statement.
Ted Bishop, president of the PGA of America, agreed, saying his organization "loudly applauds" the decision.
Helen Grant, Britain's minister for sport, said she hoped other clubs "that still have outdated same-sex policies" would follow suit.
Three other clubs on the British Open rota - Muirfield and Royal Troon in Scotland and Royal St George's in England - remain men-only. Muirfield and Royal St George's said on Thursday they were both planning to review their single-sex policy, though Royal Troon, which also has a ladies-only club on the course, said there were no plans to change.
The disquiet felt by sponsors may have helped force the R&A's hand and after saying last year that his company was in an "uneasy position", Giles Morgan, HSBC bank's head of sponsorship and events, was pleased and relieved at the change of tack.
"As a partner of the R&A and a long-term international sponsor of golf, we welcome this news with open arms," he said.
"HSBC is committed to growing the game at all levels and fundamental to this is our commitment to the value of diversity and our support of women's golf which is a cornerstone of our global golf portfolio."
R&A members also agreed to fast-track "a significant initial number" of women to become members in the coming months, and though officials did not release any potential names, several high-profile former players and administrators have been suggested.
Editing by Ed Osmond