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In this file photo a golf ball is seen at The National Golf Club of Canada in Woodbridge (Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail)
In this file photo a golf ball is seen at The National Golf Club of Canada in Woodbridge (Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail)

Rubenstein: A look at the men-only National Golf Club Add to ...

With the news that Augusta National now has its first two female members, a spotlight has focused on the storied National Golf Club of Canada in Woodbridge, Ont., which has steadfastly resisted changing its men-only policy.

As a member of the National from the late 1980s through 2001, I grappled with the same issues being debated today.

I joined the National, which the 1946 Canadian Open winner George Fazio designed with his yet-to-be-famous nephew Tom, because of the quality of the course and its proximity to my home. At the time I didn’t care that the club restricted its membership to men. It was a tremendous course, usually No. 1 in ScoreGolf Magazine’s ranking of the top 100 courses in Canada; National ranks there now, in fact. The National was a golf club more than it was a social club. Members knew and rejoiced at the formidable course that would challenge every part of their games. That’s what I wanted, and that’s what I got. I played to a low handicap there for some years, and I felt great about that because the course was so demanding.

The National’s reputation as a course that would beat you up if you made mistakes had been around since it opened in the summer of 1974. I’d played it a number of times before I joined, and I caddied there for Jim Nelford in the 1979 Labatt’s International for the Canadian PGA Championship. Lee Trevino won and Lanny Wadkins finished second. Nelford finished fourth when Tom Watson holed a greenside bunker shot on the final hole to take third place.

As I played the National over the years, it became impossible not to realize that I rarely saw women there. They could play as guests, but they couldn’t join. The club was constituted that way from Day 1. Gil Blechman, Harvey Kalef, and Irv Hennick, three members of Maple Downs Golf and Country Club, where I now play, wanted a brute of a course and they wanted it to be men-only. That was the case at Pine Valley Golf Club in Clementon, N.J., at Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, Fla., and at Augusta National. What was good for these renowned courses was going to be good for the National.

It didn’t bother me in the early years of my membership that women weren’t members. I did think it a bit odd that wives and mothers of members happily showed up for the annual Mother’s Day brunch; did it bother them that they were supporting a club that didn’t want them as members? But the food was tremendous, and every woman was given a rose. Women were treated like queens on Mother’s Day – served in the main by women, who comprised most of the staff in the dining room. They were also treated well when they played. That was apparent to me.

As the years passed, I became uncomfortable with the men-only membership policy. But I stifled the feeling because I relished the course. I’d played it before I joined with the late George Knudson, who thought the course was the strongest test in Canada, and just about anywhere. Knudson loved to play in the late fall when the weather was raw and the wind might be blowing hard. He’d get to the rip-your-heart-out par-four 17th hole, with water on the right, trees on the left, a small, elevated green, and he’d look at the guys he was playing with and have at them.

“Boys, I don’t care how much we’re playing for or how many presses [doubled bets, or more, that is]. I know where my ball’s going, and you don’t.”

Golf and only golf permeated the National. My golfing pulse raced as I turned into the club. I remain convinced that the majority of members were there because of the course. One member who remains there for that reason told me this week that the men-only policy is “irrational, immoral, impractical, and unnecessary.” Another said, “I couldn’t care less about the subject [of men-only clubs]. I just like the course and want to play it. That’s it.”

Still, I did encounter members who thought women would slow them down if they were allowed to join. Some said they simply didn’t want women around. They believed the presence of women would water down their golf experience, or somehow inhibit them.

Such comments started to bother me. I got on the club’s board of directors and tried to encourage them to allow women to join. I got nowhere. Eventually I allowed the feeling that I had stifled reach the surface. I’d grown up playing my golf at Uplands in Thornhill, Ont., and I loved the club and course. Men could tee it up with men, women with women, or they could play together. I could no longer reconcile the discomfort I felt about the National’s men-only policy with the fact that I was a member. And so I left after the 2001 season.

People have the right to join any club they choose, and a private club has the legal right to determine its membership rules. But personally, I’m no longer comfortable with belonging to a gender-restricted club.

I finally chose, then, not to belong to a men-only club. As for Augusta National, it painted itself into a corner. It’s the most public course one week a year, during the Masters in April. If it’s going to set itself up as a club that wants to grow the game, and for the world to know that, well, it’s incongruous for it to be men-only. It made the move it had to make.

The National is an awesome course, relentless yet fair. The conditioning is impeccable, and the club improves the course year after year. It added a superb short game area a while ago, and is making changes to the back of the range now to allow members to practice a greater variety of shots. These ongoing changes continue to make it that much more of a serious golfer’s club.

But many women are also serious golfers. There’s nothing the matter with a rose for a serious female golfer, but I think she would prefer the opportunity to make a birdie at the National.

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