When you enter the parking lot of the National Golf Club of Canada in Woodbridge, Ont., it feels like many private golf clubs. There are many fancy cars and you're immediately met by a greeter who wants to know which member you're playing with and when you're teeing it up.
It isn't until you hit the driving range that you notice that the National is different. There's a lot of testosterone, and no women in sight. That's because the National is a club for men only. Sure, they say that women can play, but I've never seen one on the fairways in the dozen or so times I've played the prestigious course.
Contrast that against the Ladies Golf Club of Toronto and its historic course on Yonge Street. It's the only club in North America where women are the only full members. Unlike the National, it's far more receptive to men. I played there last week, and was greeted by a male attendant at the bag drop. There was a male starter at the first tee. You'd never see a female starter at the National. At Ladies, men can join on a restricted basis, with limited tee times. The exclusion of men is seen as empowering, whereas the National's policy is viewed as exclusionary.
There's been a focus on these clubs in the days since Augusta National, home of golf's Masters tournament, announced that it would accept two female members for the first time in its history. Augusta doesn't comment on its membership policies other than to say it has allowed the two – former U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and executive Darla Moore – to enter its exclusive ranks.
For most of a decade, Augusta had been under fire for excluding women, especially while it held such a prestigious public tournament, one of golf's four major championships.
Some would like to compare Augusta to the National or Toronto Ladies under the basis they all are exclusionary based on gender. But the truth is, they are nothing alike. In fact, there's really nothing particularly onerous about gender-specific golf clubs. As long as golfers support them, they will exist. And I've played several, including Pine Valley in New Jersey, which is generally regarded as the best course in the world.
Why do gender-specific clubs exist within golf? At the National and other clubs like it (including Muirfield, which will hold next year's British Open), boys can be boys. They can take on the sport's toughest courses (an almost universal theme among male-only clubs), gamble (also common) and drink beer over card games without worrying about offending. It may sound like a Mad Men throwback, but these clubs present a strange mix of refined rules – suit jackets and ties are required in Muirfield's dining room, for instance – and relaxed social conventions. In fact, some male-only clubs have very few rules, aside from the fact that women can't play, or sometimes even enter the property.
Toronto Ladies isn't so different in its own way. The member I played with recently told me she joined because of her desire to belong to a club where women took their golf seriously. To her, golf isn't simply social; it's a game to test herself against. Many courses talk about wives playing with their husbands, but at Toronto Ladies the dynamic is flipped – husbands play with their wives. At the National, women can only play on certain days and at certain times, whereas Ladies is less restrictive – but men are limited.
Augusta National is its own unique situation. One week a year, it becomes the public face of the game, unlike Ladies and the National, which are quiet, very private clubs. Augusta National chairman Billy Payne, a key influencer behind the Atlanta Olympics, has been very vocal in recent years about the need to grow the game, a stance that seemed hypocritical when the club excluded half the population from its membership.
At last year's Masters, a reporter asked Mr. Payne how he would explain to his granddaughters that they couldn't join the club. He couldn't dodge the question and surely recognized what everyone already knew: that Augusta and the Masters has tremendous influence and power within the sport. If it wanted to use its tournament as a bully pulpit to promote the game, it would have to change its position on women members. It seems the club has decided that the time is right.
Will the National or Toronto Ladies change their policies, in time? Members I spoke with said they wouldn't be surprised if that was the case, although those at the National seem shocked that any woman would want to play their ultra-challenging course. In the meantime, both clubs remain anachronistic examples of a time when gender was one of the sport's primary defining characteristics.
Robert Thompson is a golf writer based in London, Ont., and author of three books on the sport.