There are more than 26,000,000 golfers in the United States, and nearly one-quarter of whom are women. Yet on some fairways in the Chicago suburbs, there are still "no girls allowed," and it’s all perfectly legal.
Twenty-five golf courses in the United States limit their memberships to men only. Perhaps the best-known is Augusta National Golf Course in Georgia, host of the prestigious Masters tournament.
Augusta made news this past spring because it traditionally offers a membership to the main sponsor of the Masters. This year, however, Augusta offered no such membership, because the Masters’ main sponsor was IBM, and its chief executive officer was Ginni Rometty – a woman.
However, that did not preclude Rometty from playing at Augusta as a guest. In fact at many all-male golf courses, a woman can still visit the clubhouse, eat the restaurants, and play golf, just as long as she is invited by a member.
But in Chicago, that is not the case. NBC Chicago found four all-male golf courses in the Chicago area, and they are all even more restrictive than Augusta.
Among them is Butler National Golf Course in west-suburban Oak Brook. Because of its admissions policy, it has not hosted a PGA or USGA tournament in twenty years.
Two out of the four clubs are in north-suburban Highland Park: Old Elm Club and Bob-O-Link Golf Club. Another -- Black Sheep -- is in west-suburban Sugar Grove.
As a rule, these clubs do not allow women anywhere: No women golfers; no women guests; no women in the clubhouse. In fact, no women are allowed anywhere on the property.
At least one of these courses will not even allow a woman to drive into the parking lot to drop off her husband or son. Old Elm does allow women inside once a year, but only to buy holiday gifts in the pro shop at Christmastime.
"All of these are signals to women to say that they are second-class citizens," said Veronica Arreola, a professor who studies gender issues at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Arreola said the implication is that a woman is simply not as valuable.
"Not only that they’re not worthy of membership, but they’re not even worthy to walk through the door," she said.
Arreola pointed out that golf has a long-standing tradition as a setting for business meetings and connections, and she said the idea that in some places women can't take part is "insulting."
Cathy Aducci, president of CMA Associates in Chicago, is a member at Ridgemoor Country Club and has a second membership pending at Oak Park Country Club. She said members at the men-only golf clubs are hurting themselves – more than women – with their policies.
"II think they’re limiting their access to some very powerful, influential, and wealthy women," said Adduci.
In fact, 18 women now head Fortune 500 companies, more than ever before. Many of them play golf and could easily afford the six-figure initiation fees that are often a staple at these private clubs.
"Is it really going to kill your afternoon if you see women golfing a few fairways down?" Adduci questioned. "It’s unimaginable in today’s modern society that [a men-only club] still exists."
It may be unimaginable to some, but it’s not illegal. As long as a club is officially private, and does not take certain tax exemptions or federal exemptions, and adheres to certain laws, it can operate with rules restricting its membership.
"You have to be careful that you are truly a private club, that you don’t allow people to come off the street, and you don’t use the facility for public functions," said Vince Solano, the owner of Black Sheep, the all-male course in Sugar Grove.
Solano contested any notion that those laws allow for unfair discrimination.
"It might be discriminatory, because every time you make a choice, you’re discriminating against the other non-choice," he said. "But it’s not illegal. It’s a private club, and under the rules of the land you have a right to gather, and have your own club."
But Solano was willing to do something the other three courses declined to do: He allowed NBC Chicago’s Peggy Kusinski to come in to Black Sheep for an interview. She was, in fact, the first woman ever to walk past an institution at Black Sheep: A large and well-known rock, located at the end of the club’s driveway.
"'No Women Past The Rock,' is a slogan," Solano told Kusinski. "We have fun with that. It’s just kind of a little joke," he said, adding that Kusinski was the first woman ever allowed in the clubhouse – at least the first woman who was not a firewoman or health inspector conducting official business.
And to those who might accuse Black Sheep and the three other Chicago-area courses of being old-fashioned – or even politically-incorrect?
"Why is it not politically correct to have a place where men can gather and enjoy themselves, playing a sport?" Solano countered. "It really isn’t about women. It’s simply about golf."
View Men-Only Golf Clubs in the Chicago Area in a larger map