She’s a full-fledged member of the Glendale Country Club, and she’d like to hit the golf course early Saturday morning.
But Barbara Neeley, a Seattle advertising executive, won’t get to do it. Tee time for her is 12:30 p.m.
Not because her handicap is too high. Just because she’s a woman.
“Even a guest at my club can get on the course before I can,” she says. Provided, of course, a guest is a man.
Neeley’s friend Elaine Holmstrom, a vice president at a major bank in Seattle, waits for the teenage sons of members to finish their round before she and other dues-paying female members can get weekend tee times.
Holmstrom calls it blatant discrimination: “Everything you try to teach and the principles you instill in your kids is contradicted when my sons see they can use the course when I can’t.
The Number of Professional Women is Growing
A growing number of professional women in this region are ready to take on the private and cloistered country clubs whose men-first policies appear to violate the state constitution’s Equal Rights Amendment.
Neeley and her colleagues have formed an organization called Teed Off, which will, among other things, fight that discrimination by pushing for passage of Senate Bill 6280, sponsored by Sen. Rick Bender, D-Bothell.
Holmstrom and a friend who also belongs to the Mill Creek Country Club in Bothell, frustrated by what they see as their second-class status from tee to green, approached Bender about introducing the “golf course” legislation.
They had been encouraged by the passage of a similar bill in Minnesota, which they adapted for use here.
“We thought this project would be the easiest thing in the world,” Holmstrom recalls, explaining that filing a discrimination lawsuit against her club was out of the question. “We wanted to do this without targeting any particular club.”
Bender and Rep. Jennifer Belcher, D-Olympia, co-sponsored the bill in 1988 and saw its successful passage in the House. And then it hit a wall, foundering in the Senate Ways and Means Committee – headed by Sen. Dan McDonald, R-Bellevue – for two sessions.
But this year may be different. The U.S. Supreme Court has once again demonstrated its support for private club/equal access legislation around the country.
The members of Teed Off are encouraged by the high court’s refusal to hear an appeal by the Burning Tree Club, a men-only golf club in Maryland that lost property tax benefits because it discriminated against women.
The Washington legislation goes for the financial jugular. It would remove from private golf clubs the property tax benefits enjoyed under the state’s Open Space Taxation Act – unless they provide equal access to female members.
According to George Kritsonis, an appraiser for the King County Assessor’s office, six golf courses in the country have applied for and received the Open Space status.
While each applied for the classification at different times, the Vashon Golf & Country Club, Overlake Country Club, Meridian Valley Country Club, Glendale Country Club, Snoqualmie Falls Country Club and Cascade Golf Club have for years received significant tax breaks on their land values. How significant? Tens of thousands of dollars annually.
If the Senate bill is passed this year, all Open Space courses that continue to restrict access to female members will lose their tax break or their Open Space status.
And they could be penalized, via a seven-year rollback provision, for past tax breaks.
The conventional arguments used to justify ladies days are out to launch, says Teed Off member Sue McCoy, a two-stroke handicap golfer and a longtime member of Broadmoor Golf Club.
Generalized charges that women are slower and talk too much are ridiculous, says McCoy, who is a partner in a custom woodworking firm. “Frequently it’s the men who are slower golfers because they’re betting or looking for their golf balls in the trees. Women don’t hit the ball hard enough to reach the trees, and they don’t take betting seriously.”
In any case, says Neeley, courses can counter problems with slower golfers by setting time limits – for both men and women.
The fact is that designating a ladies’ day during the week is no solution for professional women like those in Teed Off. How many of them would skip work to golf at mid-week?
McCoy says, “Even if I wanted to take a client out for lunch and a round of golf, most days I wouldn’t be allowed on the course,”
Not everyone is as teed off as Teed Off
Marsha Gove, acting executive director of the Pacific Northwest Golf Association, says: “It doesn’t bother me go to play at noon Saturday – I don’t want to golf with the men.”
Gove contends that the golf course legislation if passed, would cause problems for her association’s men-only or women-only tournaments because it would limit one-sex tournaments to only two days in a given week.
The bill’s supporters say that’s a red herring. Day-to-day access is the issue, not tournaments.
Lynn Melby, executive director of the Washington State Federation of Clubs, which represents golf and other private clubs, says his organization has sent Rep. Belcher a proposed amendment to her bill that would solve the tournament problem.
He acknowledges that getting clubs to open up their hours to members of both genders has become a heated issue for many golfers. “In what has been traditionally a men’s sport, that prejudice has almost been around since golf started.”
Melby says he is aware of some Puget Sound-area private clubs that are lifting their Saturday and Sunday morning bans on women golfers. “They’re moving slowly. Our organization has taken the position to encourage clubs not to discriminate in any way in providing access to their facilities,”
The Pacific Northwest Golf Association’s handicap listing includes 18,000 women and 49,000 men. “Everyone gets to play these days,” insists Gove.
According to a recent New York Times report, a National Golf Foundation survey shows that women make up 41 percent of new golfers, who join 23.4 million golfers nationwide. A total number of golfers in the U.S. has grown by 15.8 percent in two years.
These figures are likely to spell success for most private and public golf clubs in search of new sources of revenue. But with new members – some of whom pay $25,000 in initiation fees to join a private club and $200 a month in fees – come growing expectations for improved services and benefits, says Neeley.
“Every month when I receive my billing, there’s an insert that says `a part or all of your fees may be deductible as a business expense,’ but my access to the deduction is limited because I can’t take a client to the club Saturday mornings.”
Holmstrom says there are many prominent women professionals who privately support Teed Off but hesitate to take a stand against their clubs.
She says, “I know a female stockbroker who is the top producer in her firm. She can’t even get on the course with her subordinates when they take clients out to golf. There’s one woman developer who was stopped when she tried to golf with a group of male contractors.”
Many women who support the legislation fear club reprisals.
McCoy says, “Women members are being told, `if you want to play here, you play by the rules – don’t rock the boat.'”
For the third year, Bender is trying to do just that in the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
“Many people on the committee are opposed to the whole concept,” says Bender.
“But if the bill ever got to a vote, it would likely pass – people don’t want to be on record voting against” anti-discrimination bills, he adds.
Bender says members of the Senate’s strong Republican majority may want to avoid angering their constituents: “Probably a great majority of country club members support Republicans,” he speculates.
McDonald, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, says he’s willing to reconsider the bill this year and has asked his staff to determine whether private golf clubs have done anything to take care of the equal-access issue themselves.
“I feel strongly that the world has changed regarding business and won’t change back,” he says. “But this issue seems to be something the golf clubs should solve themselves with government intervening only as a last resort.”
If it turns out the golf clubs haven’t done anything about the problem, McDonald says, “The Senate will lose patience.”
The women golfers, he acknowledges, “do have a legitimate issue.”
Members of Teed Off, obviously supporters of Bender, gathered last weekend in the lobby of Broadmoor Golf Club where McCoy has been a member for years.
Contending that they’ve worked hard to accomplish professional, and personal successes, Neeley, McCoy, Holmstrom and their friends say their efforts aren’t self-serving. “This isn’t a golfers’ issue – it’s a discrimination issue,” says McCoy, the top golfer in the group.
Neeley takes it a step further. She asks, “How far is it from saying, `A woman isn’t important enough to have equal access to the golf course’ to saying, `It doesn’t matter if I hit her?'”
Rep. Belcher, who saw her version of the bill glide through the House by a healthy margin earlier this month, echoes these sentiments: “The Senate’s reason for not dealing with the issue is that golf courses should take care of it. But the state allows golf course members to practice any form of discrimination, what kind of message are we sending them about discriminating in their workplace?”