Are You Man Enough to Play at a Women-Only Golf Course?
Are You Man Enough to Play at a Women-Only Golf Course?
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There is only one women-only golf course in North America, and it is in Canada.
It is called “The Ladies Golf Club of Toronto,” and it opened in 1926. The founder, Ada MacKenzie, a two-time Canadian Ladies Open Winner, had to pretend she was purchasing the land as the wife of Canadian golf course architect Stanley Thompson to get financing in those days.
I played The Ladies Golf Club of Toronto when I lived there in the late 1980s. It is a wonderful golf course, and the club is not at all “fru-fru.” Men are still not welcome as Members but can play the course and can even buy a season pass. However, as many female golfers have experienced at other clubs, men can’t get a morning tee time!
This whole concept is controversial, given the fight for equality in all aspects of life by women in the last century. Heck, even the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews opened their membership to women in 2014.
Tell me, guys, will you play this course if invited?
When I first got wind of a golf club just for women, I imagined a dour stronghold of stern-faced feminists. Presiding secretary: Gloria Steinem. No leaving the seat up. A lack of single malt.
I initially read about the Ladies’ Golf Club of Toronto — North America’s lone women-only golf club — about a decade back, when golf had its big gender conversation.
Martha Burk was picketing in Georgia, bemoaning Augusta National’s lack of female members. The green jackets were saying that change would come on their terms, not “at the point of a bayonet,” and it has. The Ladies’ made headlines again last summer, as Scotland’s Muirfield, which has no women members, played host to the British Open.
Defenders of the old guard liked to point to the Ladies’ Club, among other women-only institutions, as proof that gender bias could work both ways. “They’ve got theirs,” they sniffed. “Why can’t we have ours?”
Now another British Open nears, and same-sex clubs have become big news once more, a hot-button pushed by the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, whose members run the British Open and oversee the Rules of Golf outside the United States and Mexico. In September, the club will vote on whether to allow women into its tweedy midst for the first time in its 260-year history.
All of which has got me thinking of the Ladies’. Could the tales be true? Is it the female Muirfield? Augusta National on estrogen?
The reporter in me hopes so.
It’s a sun-dappled morning, and I’m driving through the leafy outskirts of Toronto. The turnoff to the club lies ahead.
It’s not Magnolia Lane. No guard sits at the entrance. But the road leads past a nest of pretty paw-print bunkers and toward a hilltop clubhouse done in classic Butler Cabin colors: milky white with pine-green trim.
Loryn Crothers, the club’s membership director, is waiting for me outside. “A lot of people tell us, ‘We want to be mad at you,’ ” she says. “But then they see what the club is like, and they say, ‘But we just can’t.’ ”
As we step into the clubhouse, my first assumption crumbles. It’s less Martha Stewart Living, more Merion.
On one wall, displayed as reverently as Hogan’s 1-iron, is a hickory-shaft putter used by the club’s founder. On another is a painting of the matriarch herself: the late Ada Mackenzie.
Born in Toronto in 1891, Mackenzie was the youngest of four kids.
She excelled in hockey, tennis, basketball and cricket. She took up golf at 10 and became a star, she later noted in a history of the club, “when women were supposed to know more about a cook stove than a niblick.”
Expectations hadn’t changed in 1923, when Mackenzie won her second Canadian Ladies Open. She ranked among the most accomplished players in the country, but couldn’t land a weekend tee time at the club where she belonged. The same was true everywhere she went, with the lone exception (sort of) being the British Isles, where Mackenzie competed in her prime.
At top clubs there, women’s golf was half-embraced. Behind the clubhouse at St. Andrews sat the Ladies’ Putting Club, one of 14 women’s short courses or “hen runs” scattered across the countryside at the time. Never mind that only putting and chipping were permitted, the better to spare women from the unladylike act of lifting their arms above their heads. The mere existence of such courses inspired Mackenzie. She would do the British one better, although she couldn’t let the world in on her plans.
“If I had said I was looking for a ladies’ golf course site,” she would acknowledge a decades later, “I might still be looking.”
Instead, she concocted a ruse. Posing as the wife of the noted Canadian golf course architect Stanley Thompson, who played along and eventually would design the golf course, Mackenzie purchased farmland on Toronto’s fringes. She had backers, and although there were hiccups and hang-ups along the way, the club took root and opened for play in 1926.
Here’s a crucial point to note about the Ladies’: from the start, men have been welcome — just not as members, or, in the early days, in the clubhouse. They didn’t and still don’t, get prime tee times. But while women enjoyed top billing (the original men’s locker room was a chilly basement chamber below the pro shop), they’ve never tried to make their club a statement. It’s not a protest but a place to play.
“I went there for the golf on a beautiful and challenging course,” says longtime Ladies’ member Marlene Streit, winner of the U.S. Women’s Amateur and the British Ladies Amateur, and the first Canadian elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame. “I never thought of myself as a feminist.”
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