MINNEAPOLIS — Women are heading to golf courses in unprecedented numbers nationwide, but they don't always find the welcome mat when they attempt to tee off.
The reception at some private clubs can be downright chilly, thanks to restrictive membership policies, limited tee times and curtailed privileges.
Close to 40% of beginning golfers are women, and their numbers have been steadily increasing for several years, according to the National Golf Foundation of Jupiter, Fla. But many apparently quit in frustration over difficulties in gaining access to courses.
The $20-billion-a-year golf industry is wooing female executives by promoting the game as a savvy business tool. But at certain private clubs, working women may find few tee times available during their off-hours.
Now, several states are using tougher laws to wage an incremental war against the remnants of male privilege on the golf course.
* Minnesota denies property tax breaks to private golf clubs that discriminate. And a bill to be introduced this year would amend the state's human rights act to include a ban on discrimination based on marital status.
* Michigan amended its civil rights act in 1992 to include many private clubs under provisions prohibiting discrimination.
* The Wisconsin Legislature is considering a bill that could revoke liquor licenses of golf courses that discriminate against women in assigning weekend tee times.
Traditionally, private clubs have been able to operate as they wish, picking and choosing their members and rules. The contention is that they are protected by constitutional right to freedom of association. Federal law doesn't prohibit sex discrimination by private clubs.
Although such discrimination is gaining attention among women's rights groups, the issue must compete with myriad causes. "It's one of many economic issues," said Kim Gandy, vice president of the National Organization for Women in Washington, D.C. "We believe women should have equal access to the country's economic mainstream, and in that sense golf clubs are part of it, but only one part." More pressing for many NOW members are issues including equal pay, the glass ceiling and sexual harassment, she said.
One woman's experience helped force the Minnesota law changes.
Mary McCourtney Heilman and her husband joined Interlachen Country Club in Edina, Minn., in 1974. Her husband was considered the club shareholder, and she was subject to restricted tee times. When McCourtney Heilman's husband died in 1988, he bequeathed her the golf membership--but the club told her she could not have it.
She was made an associate member and her monthly dues were cut in half, but McCourtney Heilman said that she wasn't allowed to play golf whenever she wished. When she remarried, she was kicked out of the club.
"Most men said that's just the way the rules are," McCourtney Heilman said.
According to Interlachen general manager Tom Wurr, "There is absolutely no difference in treatment between men and women under any circumstances." The club, which Wurr said is in full compliance with state law, decided earlier this year to change the provision that axed McCourtney Heilman's membership. A surviving spouse who remarries now may retain associate membership.
But a married couple must still designate one person as the stockholder. That person holds the membership and voting rights.
"I can tell you that Interlachen has never rejected a female applicant, at least to my knowledge," Wurr said. He would not reveal how many female stockholders the club has, except to say they are in the minority.
When Minnesota State Sen. Ember Reichgott Junge was told about McCourtney Heilman's treatment, she sponsored an amendment passed last year that eliminated tax breaks for clubs that discriminate in membership or selection on the basis of marital status.
Minnesota golf courses enjoy a considerable property tax rate break under open space laws. In 1986, the state banned discrimination on the basis of gender, or else higher rates would apply.
But Minnesota's Stillwater Country Club decided to pay the higher tax rather than change its membership bylaws. Women could not be full members. So this year, the Legislature upped the ante.
Effective in 1995, Minnesota county assessors will figure the tax rate as if the non-complying club's land were not only converted for development, but also available for sale as individual parcels.
In the case of Stillwater Country Club, the valuation would rise from $1.5 million to about $6 million, forcing the club to pay about $238,000 more each year in taxes.
Stillwater has changed its policy and starting in January, women may hold full memberships. Family memberships now are held in the man's name.
Nationally, many clubs are believed to have changed with the times, especially in light of anti-discrimination policies adopted by organizations, including the Ladies Professional Golf Assn. The LPGA adopted a policy in 1991 that requires tournament sponsors to hold events at courses that do not discriminate in membership policies on the basis of race, religion, gender or national origin.
A Growing Force
The number of female golfers in the United States, defined as players over age 12 at all levels, as been increasing steadily for several years: 1987: 4.8 million 1988: 5.1 million 1992: 5.4 million *
* About 40% of the players who have taken up the game since 1986 are women.
* 22% of those who say they play on a regular basis are women.
Source: The National Golf Foundation