Teed Off

Women golfers hit divots of discrimination.

Women golfers are hitting the grass ceiling on some Arizona courses. They may cuss like a man, spit like a man, even play better than a man--but that doesn't mean they can get prime tee-times reserved for men. Sometimes they can't even show their purdy little faces, period.

At least one local course morphs into a male-only bastion on much-coveted Saturday mornings. Tucson Country Club still follows the dusty rationale that women have plenty of leisurely weekdays, since of course we all know it's men who bring home the 9-5 bacon. Besides, women "can slow down the course," says one guy golfer.

That's right, folks: Set your retro dial to 1954 and hit rewind.

According to a Tucson Country Club staffer named Fred, women can play darned near anytime they want--except on Saturday mornings. "This club's over 50 years old, and it's always been that way," Fred says. When asked why fellows still rule the popular weekend time slot, Fred replies that "obviously Saturday is when all the men who work can play. It's when we get the biggest demand for tee-times."

Perhaps beefy breadwinners at this upscale club can afford to keep the missus at home. "Not too many women around here are [working gals]," Fred says. "I can assure you of that."

But it gets better. Soon the Southern Dunes Golf Club, slated for a barren stretch of dirt between Tucson and Phoenix, will offer tee-times for guys only. Women need not apply.

The 320-acre, low-handicap course is being designed with the help of PGA star Fred Couples. To skirt anti-discrimination laws, Dunes will be a bare-bones, private facility with no accoutrements such as a club house, tennis courts or swimming pools where men might be tempted to talk shop. This is quite clever, since being excluded from good-ol'-boy business chats at male-only clubs has gained women a few courtroom triumphs in the past.

Not surprisingly, Couples has taken a beating over his involvement in this chauvinist venture, and now refuses to comment on the matter.

But Brian Curley, whose Scottsdale firm is working with Couples, says the club is aimed at ultra-serious golfers. "This isn't about being anti-female," he says. "If women wanted a course just for them, we'd love to design that, too."

Curley says his company, Schmidt Curley Design, is marketing Southern Dunes to men who perceive women golfers as playing too slowly. Most top courses cater to men, he says, "and those are the courses that attract the better players. Personally, I think women play just as fast as men, if not faster. But many men prefer a traditional golf environment, and our marketing is associated with that perception."

Besides, Curley intimates, many wives don't want their executive hubbies snagging golf-course chirpies for a quick hole-in-one.

At Dunes, these tired misperceptions carry a lusty price-tag: memberships start at $25,000.

Judy Temple calls it expensive, outdated bunk. An avid golfer and women's studies professor at the UA, she claims to outplay many men she runs across. She says courses such as Southern Dunes simply perpetuate a sense of exclusivity for wealthy male golfers. "It really becomes kind of a fantasy for them. I think they find it comforting--it's the last vestiges of an Old World way of thinking."

That mindset has been catching flak since the late 1800s, when country clubs became social centers for the upper classes--but clamped restrictions on sports-minded females. Women fought back by starting their own groups, such as the Ladies Club for Outdoor Sports on Staten Island and New Orleans' Crescent City Archery Club.

Today, it's difficult to gauge how many men-only clubs span the United States, since most avoid publicizing their policies.

"We protect the clubs' right to not disclose that information," says Sue Wegrzyn, executive vice president of the National Club Association. She doesn't think the ranks of gender-restrictive clubs are growing, however. "I couldn't really tell you the numbers. But if anything, the trend has been, in recent years, for some of those gender-restricted clubs to open up their membership to the other gender."

That trend is due to "changes in culture and society," Wegrzyn says. "I don't know if it's pressure, or just something [clubs] feel is the right thing to do."

JUDGING FROM RECENT court cases, many juries certainly think it's the right thing to do. Particular targets for lawsuits are golf clubs that allow women, but restrict them to less-desirable days and tee-times. And court rulings can also hinge on what kinds of facilities the clubs offer, and whether those facilities--clubhouses, swimming pools and tennis courts--are typically used by both sexes, making them "public accommodations" from a legal standpoint.

For example, in 1999 a jury found that the Haverhill Golf and Country Club near Boston discriminated against females by denying them full membership and equal access to preferred tee-times such as Saturday and Sunday mornings. Jurors agreed with nine women, most of them members' wives, who claimed that Haverhill manipulated course schedules to favor men, while other areas of the club were equally available to both sexes.

For his part, Fred at Tucson Country Club says he's heard no such complaints. And Southern Dunes is avoiding judicial traps by offering only a golf course, with no facilities. It joins others like the Gator Creek Golf Club in Sarasota, Fla. Founded in 1973, the exclusive, 250-member club openly prohibits women. Gator Creek representatives say few women have even tried to join.

Still, blatantly gender-restrictive clubs tread a fine legal line. "Unless it is a public accommodation or entity, it doesn't call into play equal protection [clauses] in the constitution," says Eleanor Eisenberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona. "But I'd like to know what they'd do if Laura Bush showed up and wanted to play. They'd probably open that facility to accommodate her."

Other court cases have focused on whether women are excluded from informal business networking at private clubs. Curley says Dunes will protect against this by "restricting members from carrying cell phones and beepers in the club."

But the ACLU's Eisenberg calls that a red herring; cell phones or not, she says there's no way to restrict informal business chats. "I think it's interesting that [Southern Dunes officials] would say that. Certainly networking will go on."

Regardless of the legal fine points, many top golf organizations publicly oppose male-only clubs, including both the Ladies' Professional Golf Association and the men's PGA. Neither organization will schedule tournament stops at such facilities.

"The LPGA is against discrimination of any form," says Libba Galloway, chief legal counsel for the group. Male-only clubs are "not a concept we endorse. I don't think it's good for the sport. Golf should be as inclusive as possible."

But Brian Curley contends that men and women tend to segregate anyway, even at gender-mixed hubs like Tucson Country Club. Many have separate grills for each sex, he says, "and the common rooms are usually like ghost towns. It's human nature. We're just taking it another step."

But it's a step in exactly the wrong direction, says Judy Temple. "These arguments that men and women naturally segregate, that smells of the same arguments once used to justify racism. Unfortunately, as golf becomes more and more democratic, I think you're seeing a resurgence of this kind of thinking."

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