Gullane - Golf's custodians the Royal and Ancient Golf Club (R&A) were back on the defensive on Wednesday as the issue of male-only golf membership at Muirfield continued to dog the build-up to the British Open.The R&A's traditional pre-tournament press briefing was meant to prepare the scene for what chief executive Peter Dawson called "the best course set-up" that he had seen since he took over the job in 2000.But instead he faced a barrage of questions over why the R&A allowed golf's oldest and most prestigious tournament to be hosted by a club that still banned women from becoming members.Dawson firstly said that there was no legal requirement for a private club like Muirfield, which is run by The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, to admit women members and that it was not up to the R&A to tell them what to do."Obviously the whole issue of gender and single-sex clubs has been pretty much beaten to death recently. And we do, I assure you, understand that this is a divisive issue," he told reporters."It's a subject that we're finding increasingly difficult, to be honest. In recent months we've been at great pains, I think, to try to explain some of the facts about this matter."They (male-only private clubs) are perfectly legal. In our view they don't do anyone any harm."Muirfield is one of three clubs out of the current nine used on the Open rotation that has a male-only membership policy. The two others are Royal Troon in western Scotland and Royal St George's in southeast England.But pressure to act was cranked up on Muirfield and the R&A two years ago when the Augusta National Club in Georgia, which hosts the Masters, finally opened their doors to women members after years of resistance.Then Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond, a keen golfer himself, announced last month that he would boycott the Muirfield Open to protest the "women not allowed" stance, saying it was unacceptable in this day and age.Dawson said he had not had any direct contact with Salmond over his stance."I think at the R&A 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.Dawson was then outraged when asked whether there was any difference between a club having a men-only membership policy and one having a whites-only policy."Oh, goodness me, I think that's a ridiculous question, if I may say so," he said."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."All in all, he said the R&A would keep the issue under review but that at the moment there was no question of removing Muirfield, Troon or Royal St George's from the Open rotation."I don't quite regard it as quite such a moral issue. I think the practical side of it takes over in my mind," he said."But we're aware of the view (against). And to think that it would be a good thing for The Open Championship not to play it here, and perhaps to reduce the number of venues from nine to six in the UK, I could only imagine would do great harm to the championship, and not enhance it at all."Players taking part in The Open this week have in general been reluctant to enter the membership debate, although defending champion Ernie Els said that the policy was "unfortunate"Hard on the heels of the Dawson presser, Rory McIlroy initially declined to comment on the matter before admitting that many players felt uncomfortable with it."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."And I guess it's something that shouldn't happen these days. It's something that we shouldn't even be talking about. So that's why I guess a lot of people don't want to talk about it."