A Private Golf Manifesto: Debates on the merits of exclusive golf

There has been a pretty good back-and-forth on the Marine Drive case that I mentioned on Friday.

In essence, the question is: Is a private club outside of the rules of [photopress:marine_drive_1.jpg,full,alignright]Canada’s charter because it is a private club? The judges apparently think so, as do a majority of Marine Drive members. However, a handful of female members at Marine Drive disagree.

The Globe and Mail has an interesting op-ed on the subject.

I’ve also received some intriguing comments:

Weekend Enthusiast said:

The Marine Drive court ruling is concerning. Part of joining a club is access to the clubs facilities, relationships, and networking. If woman are offered the ability to join the club (presumably at the same rate as men) but are restricted from certain areas (even though this was known when making the application), then there is an inequity.

That was countered by Peter Maguire, who said:

The judge pointed out that applicants are aware of the limitations that go along with any type of private membership. As long as everyone is aware of the rules when you apply then I think it is entirely fair.

So what do I think? I think the ruling shows that people should be careful in plunking down $50,000 and joining a private club. Private clubs are much like men: they are often set in their ways, and regardless of whether some think they can be changed, they will probably remain as they were in the first place. Marine Drive, like many clubs, is one with a lot of tradition. Part of that tradition is a men only lounge. If one doesn’t like it, they should find a different club to join. It is that simple — and Marine Drive isn’t the only club in town.

Boards and committees are part of private clubs. At private clubs these boards and committees have a lot of sway, but the membership has the final say. Taken as a whole, apparently Marine Drive’s membership doesn’t have a problem with the issue of a men only lounge. Whether one’s social standing, networking ability or handicap is impacted by the lack of ability to enter that lounge is really moot. That should have been the end of this case.

Interestingly, as I noted in an email to a Marine Drive member who wrote me yesterday, the articles in the newspapers written about this (as well as the op-ed in the Globe) seem to have largely been written by people who have no understanding of private clubs or how they work. Typical news stories, where no one bothered to actually turn to experts on the subject — people who understand club culture. Instead these articles largely seem to have a disdain for private clubs and they way they operate. That bias then seems to lead most to side with the women in the case.

I’ve had the good fortune of playing many private clubs without ever having had to fork out thousands to join. In fact, I’ve played almost all of the good or great private clubs in the country. My favourites (Toronto GC, Oviinbyrd, London Highlands, Calgary G and CC, Capilano, St. George’s, Mount Bruno, Coppinwood, Lookout Point, Cherry Hill, Scarboro, Hamilton) all appeal to me for a variety of reasons, some of which have to do with the course, other the atmosphere and occasionally the membership.

So here is my private club manifesto — 10 key points I’d want in any private club I join:

1) The course must be exceptional and full of character. In this case I lean toward classic works by Thompson and Colt, but occasioanlly a newer course (Coppinwood, Oviinbyrd) can get this right as well.

2) The course must be walkable. Members at the course must also enjoy walking.

3) The club must know what it is. By this, I mean the club must have a focus. Some private clubs are focused on golf (The National, Coppinwood), some of providing service (Magna), some on access to the tee (Toronto GC, Oviinbyrd). When a club isn’t sure what it is and who it is serving, it’ll have a difficult time attracting members.

4) History is good. I love a club with a great history that it celebrates without getting too stuffy about it. In otherwords, I don’t want to have to wear a jacket into the dining room. But I love clubs that celebrate their historic designers, tournaments they’ve held and great players who have tested their tracks.

5) My favourite types of private courses are inclusive and encourage juniors to play the game. There are several great examples of this — including Hamilton G and CC (with its great caddy program), and Bayview (which offers several juniors playing privileges each year).

6) The club must be relatively local to where I’m located — For example, I love Devil’s Paintbrush — as do many others — but it is simply too far for most people located in Toronto.

7) I want an average practice facility. I don’t need something quite as great as Coppinwood’s range, or the service of Magna, where there always seems to be someone hanging over me ready to clean my 9-iron after every shot. But I do want to be able to hit everything from wedge to driver before I go and play.

8) I hate ridiculous clothing restrictions. A few years ago I was told at St. George’s that I could wear my new Ashworth mock, logoed nicely with Kingsbarns over the breast. I respect history and tradition, but was silly (and has since been changed). I’m also never going to wear long socks with shorts, like members had to do at Royal Montreal for years.

9) If you’ve got a great historical course, I won’t join if your crazed membership suddenly thinks it should host the Canadian Open and needs to lengthen it to 7,200 yards, destroying its character in the process. Similarly, I don’t want a handful of 1-handicap players controlling the green committee and deciding exactly how the course should be set up and play.

10) I want a round to be no longer than four hours — ever. If it is going to be more than that, I might as well play at a public course.

If I course were to do these things, I might — and I say MIGHT — spend my money to join. These would be the barrier of entry for me. For me, the course — and how it is managed — is the most important factor in most of my decisions. I can’t truly understand why anyone would pay thousands of dollars to join a club if they weren’t thrilled by the course on a regular basis. That said, the Marine Drive situation — with its men only lounge — would be well down the list of factors I would use to make a determination about the club. Clubs are not a reflection of society — nor should they be. And in Canada, a free country, we need to give these clubs the freedom to operate as they decide, regardless of whether we find that culture distasteful.

In the end, clubs will change based on the almighty dollar. These days, clubs that didn’t admit members of various religions and races for decades have changed because their desire for additional members (and resulting revenue) outweighs their desire not to have these people as members. In doing so, the culture at those clubs changes with these new members. If this issue at Marine Drive is so significant, in time the club’s membership will decline and the club will have to determine whether the policy needs to be changed to attract new members. However, in this instance, all bad publicity aside, I doubt Marine Drive is suffering.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

3 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I think they can all do what they want – I don’t think this is a charter issue – because there are other clubs to join. That said I would not join a club with restrictive policies to my family. They are far more important than playing cards in my underwear.

  • The long socks with shorts is still in effect at Royal Montreal. So ridiculous is this rule that the pro, Bob Hogarth has to have them specially made because no manufacturer actually makes them anymore!!

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