Lawsuits tee off against male golf clubs

New men-only course in Phoenix reignites debate about fairness.

Some men golfers wish women would stick to tea-time rather than competing for tee times - and supposedly slowing down the links.

At least that's the apparent sentiment behind the Southern Dunes Golf Club, a tough new course being designed with help from PGA star Fred Couples. The low-handicap course on 320 desert acres near Phoenix will be a bare-bones, membership-only facility with no accouterments such as a clubhouse, tennis courts, or swimming pools.

And women need not apply.

Southern Dunes has reignited a debate over sports clubs that prohibit women, and sparked widespread criticism of Mr. Couples, who, through his agent, declined to comment. But Brian Curley, whose Scottsdale firm is working with Couples on the project, says the club is aimed at ultra-serious golfers.

"This isn't about being antifemale," he says. "If women wanted a course just for them, we'd love to design that, too."

Mr. Curley says his company, Schmidt Curley Design, is marketing Southern Dunes to men who think women golfers play 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," he adds. "But many men prefer a traditional golf environment, and our marketing is associated with that perception."

In this case, perception carries a hefty price tag: Dunes memberships start at $25,000.

Judy Temple calls it expensive, outdated bunk. An avid golfer and women's studies professor at the University of Arizona, she says she outplays many men she runs across. And courses such as Southern Dunes simply perpetuate a sense of exclusivity for wealthy male golfers.

"It really becomes kind of a fantasy for them," she says. "I think they find it comforting - it's the last vestige 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 women. Women fought back by starting their own groups, such as the Ladies Club for Outdoor Sports on Staten Island in New York 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 in Washington.

She doesn't think the ranks of gender-restrictive clubs are growing, however. "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, Ms. 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, juries often think it's the right thing to do as well. Private clubs that don't allow women at all so far have proved judgment-proof. But plaintiffs have successfully brought discrimination suits against clubs that, although allowing women members, restrict them to less desirable days and tee times. Court rulings can also hinge on whether other club facilities - clubhouses, swimming pools, and tennis courts - are typically used by both sexes. Both of these scenarios make the club a public accommodation, according to a legal definition.

For example, in 1999, a jury found that the Haverhill Golf and Country Club in Massachusetts discriminated against women by denying them full membership, as well as equal access to preferred tee times such as Saturday and Sunday mornings.

Southern Dunes is avoiding this trap by offering no facilities beyond the golf course. As a male-only bastion, it joins others like the Gator Creek Golf Club in Sarasota, Fla., which was established in 1973. Gator Creek representatives say few women have even tried to join.

"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."

Other court cases have focused on whether businesswomen are unfairly excluded from informal business networking at private men's clubs.

Curley says many clubs protect against this by "restricting their members from carrying cellphones and beepers in the club." Southern Dunes will follow that policy, he says.

But the ACLU's Ms. Eisenberg says - cellphones or no - there's no way to restrict informal business chats. "Certainly, networking will go on."

Regardless of the legal fine points, many top golf organizations publicly oppose male-only clubs, including both the men's PGA and the Ladies Professional Golf Association. 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."

Curley contends that men and women tend to segregate anyway, even at gender-mixed clubs. Such clubs often 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 the wrong direction, says Professor Temple. "These arguments that men and women naturally segregate - that smells of the same arguments once used to justify racism."

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