Gentlemen Only: Southern Dunes Golf Club in Maricopa ignites debate

By Rebecca Larsen, Contributor

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- When word first got out last fall that a male-only golf club was being planned south of Phoenix, with golfer Fred Couples as a co-designer, the news stirred up a bit of a fuss.

Southern Dunes Golf Club in Maricopa
When word first got out that a male-only golf club was being planned south of Phoenix, the news stirred up a bit of a fuss.
Southern Dunes Golf Club in Maricopa
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But now the dust has settled, and the golf course, called Southern Dunes Golf Club, is actually under construction 30 miles south of Phoenix off Highway 238 near the town of Maricopa. At the time, Eleanor Eisenberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, told the Arizona Republic, "I find it rather shocking that there are still such bastions of intolerance."

Brian Curley of the golf course architecture firm, Lee Schmidt and Brian Curley, in Scottsdale, which is helping to develop the course, says that the project has a "good number of members already, including athletes and other sports figures."

After the initial hubbub, Curley went on radio talk shows to discuss the idea and react to questions from callers. "We felt we should be upfront about this," he says. "We had to defend ourselves. It's not about being intolerant. And I have to tell you that nine out of 10 callers that we had, including lots of women, did not object to the idea."

Curley also points out that such clubs restricted to men are very common on the East Coast. "Pine Valley is a good example," he says, "and Burning Tree near Washington, D.C., where all the congressmen play. Have these clubs caused the demise of civilization? Everybody believes that Augusta National has no women members, but they won't tell us. If you found out they didn't, would you move the Masters away from that club because of it?"

"Our posture is that in any given golf club where there are men and women members, the clubhouse design would have a women's locker room and lounge where the women go to relax and a men's locker room and lounge where the men go to relax. This is not that different from that."

At least one Arizona women's golf expert, Linda Vollstedt, director of golf promotions and marketing at Arizona State University, says, "The idea of an all-men's golf club doesn't bother me as long as it's a private club. It would be different if women had no places to play, but they do."

Vollstedt also suggested to Curley that "it would be great to have an all-women's golf club."

"They came and visited with me to talk about the idea," says Vollstedt, who previously coached the women's golf team at ASU. "They asked me, 'Is there a market for a club for women.' I don't know. It's a question mark. Would it be profitable? I do think that women would want a club where there were social things planned, where there would be fun activities for kids."

In response to the news about Southern Dunes, Sports Illustrated ran an article reporting that there are more than 20 men-only courses in the United States including Burning Tree in Bethesda, Md., Bob O'Link in Highland Park, Ill., and Pine Valley in Clementon, N.J. All these clubs have varying levels of restrictions on women; Pine Valley, for example, does allow women to play at some restricted times.

So what differences would there be in a golf club designed for men only - concepts that they might find attractive?

For one thing the club itself would be strictly designed for golf alone. "There would be no swimming pools or dinners, no Sunday brunches, no housing or residential area," Curley says.

The course itself with be "stouter, longer, tougher. We wouldn't be trying to accommodate all types of players."

Curley likes to make an analogy to snow skiing to explain what often occurs at many golf courses and what the difficulty is for golf-course designers. A ski resort, he says, wouldn't aim to put all skill levels of skiers at the same time on the same slope. "You wouldn't put Olympic skiers and those who are strapping on skis for the first time on the same slope," he says.

Yet golfers of all levels expect to play the same courses and designers are expected to accommodate them. At the same time, what he expects to be a "good, demanding course" at Southern Dunes will not be so difficult that only Tiger Woods would be comfortable there. "I didn't want to build a course so difficult," says Curley, "that I couldn't take my father out there to play with too many forced carries over the desert and obstacles of that kind."

There will be three sets of tees with the tips set at about 7,400 yards and the forward tees at 6,200 yards on a par 72 course. Players can walk, ride in carts or use caddies. "We want to push the caddy program," Curley says.

Southern Dunes Golf Club, he expects that the majority of members will be pretty good players. "There will be a club environment with a game waiting for them," he says.

Initiation fees are relatively low, compared to many exclusive clubs: about $20,000 to $25,000. "For many of these men, this will be their second or third club membership," Curley says. "It's not about money; it's about membership and people."

The course is located some distance from Phoenix, which may make it harder to get to, but Curley says it's only a 35-minute drive from the McCormick Ranch area of Scottsdale. "If we built this course in Scottsdale, the memberships would cost $125,000 because the cost of land is so much greater."

We drove out to the site of Southern Dunes and found that the bulldozers and construction workers are there. Actually, the drive from Scottsdale was about 50 miles and took 45 minutes. It's a treeless desert site just north of the town of Maricopa and is near two Native American reservations. There are not a lot of restaurants or motels that are close by, but there are some local Indian casinos. It's also close to some tribal golf courses. There are no spectacular mountain views or great stands of saguaros either, just a lot of big sky and open land.

A course of this kind isn't an entirely new idea for Curley. He has already built two other private clubs with Fred Couples in the Palm Springs area: the Palms and Plantation courses.

A call to the Palms course indicated that members are men, but women guests can play the course. At that course, the initiation fee is $36,000 and there are memberships now for sale. A packet of information about the Palms also indicated that there is a women's locker room on site.

At the Plantation, membership is by invitation of current members only and there is a waiting list of nine months to a year, we were told. The initiation fee is $50,000.

Another note: When a caller asked at the Palms, if it is a men-only club, a desk attendant said, "No, that's the Plantation."

In a world where everyone now tiptoes carefully around issues of gender bias, the initial suggestion that men might exclude women from a golf course at first may seem shocking, but there certainly have been women's clubs of various kinds that exclude men. To be truthful, most women would also have to admit that the higher the green fee at a public golf course, the fewer women players you seem to see. Why? An unanswerable question perhaps.

"I grew up in Pebble Beach," Curley says. "I have to admit I had never heard of this concept either until I was 32. It comes as something of a shock to people. I said, 'Wow, you can do that?'"

EDITOR'S NOTE: Now under new ownership, Southern Dunes Golf Club went public and welcomed women in November of 2008.

Rebecca LarsenRebecca Larsen, Contributor

Rebecca Larsen is a former features and assistant features editor for the Marin Independent Journal, a medium-sized daily paper located north of San Francisco. She has also worked for the Milwaukee Journal and for a Chicago public relations firm. She has a bachelor's in journalism from Northwestern University and a master's from the University of California at Berkeley.

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