MARICOPA, Ariz. - Golf is revered at Southern Dunes Golf Club. This private golf club out in the desert past Phoenix treats the game the way a high school boy would treat a French supermodel that moved in as an exchange student. The wide-open Fred Couples design is devoid of houses and devoid of pretense. No gaudy hole markers. No tee times. It's show up with your sticks and play.
As Head Professional Garrett Wallace said, "There's always a game to be had. Whether it's a $1 Nassau or a $500 Nassau, you can show up and find whatever you're looking for."
Southern Dunes kicks out anything superfluous to a great day of golf. Nothing that can take away from the reason everyone has hiked out here - golf the way it was intended to be played - is allowed. No tennis courts. No pool. No fancy clubhouse restaurant with china on the table.
Golf is revered at Southern Dunes. Women are forbidden.
"When I first joined some people were giving me shit," former NFL defensive tackle Dan Saleaumua said. "'How could you join an all-men's club?' But I never thought of it as any big thing. It's just a place where you can play the game in peace. I just happened to find that here."
Saleaumua wasn't being snide. The usually loud, joking Samoan wore a serious expression.
His words are echoed by many Southern Dunes members. There's no chauvinistic ranting when they talk about the club - it's more like the excitement of a Dungeon & Dragons devotee who suddenly realizes there are lots of other guys playing with funny-sided dice in their basements every Friday night. Southern Dunes' members are, overwhelmingly, golf geeks.
They live to play the game. The other stuff in life is largely secondary. This is a club with a single-digit average handicap and a golf IQ off the charts.
"The thing I really like about the membership is there are a lot of competitive players here," said Cyrus Whitney, an accomplished Arizona senior champion and a Southern Dunes member. "They're here just to play golf. They're not here for some experience."
Everyone reads their own thing into such words, of course. Martha Burk would be boiling hotter than her coffee seeing this, planning the next march.
That's the thing when it comes to men-only golf clubs. Reasonable, measured thinking is seldom allowed. It's cry loud, break out the picket signs and damn it, choose your side.
I should know. When Martha Burk burst onto Hootie Johnson's veranda, I joined the chorus of columnists branding him a Neanderthal. Called the Augusta National leadership Hootie and the Blowhards. Of course, I'd never been to a men-only golf club.
There are only a few dozen clubs left in the United States with the courage to admit publicly that women are banned as part of their membership principles (many more get around this by just not inviting women, or shoehorning the few female members into ridiculously limited tee times). When one of the few dozen, Southern Dunes, recently invited me to spend a day there playing, I fully expected to find an all-boys club straight out of a Southern novel.
There would be a bunch of guys, mostly graying and potbellied, sitting around a lavish clubhouse filled with mounted animal heads, cracking loud dirty jokes and slapping the butts of the strippers in painted-on dresses hired to serve the rum.
Southern Dunes turned out to be a disappointment on all those fronts.
Its membership skewed young, much younger than you'd find on the fairways of Arizona's higher-end public courses. Most of the guys seemed to be in their 30s or 40s. The monument to manliness turned out to be a nice but hardly ostentatious locker room. There wasn't so much a copy of Maxim to be found, let alone a buxom Hooters girl.
Instead it was a bunch of guys sitting around spare wood tables on a patio, eating boxed lunches provided by the club. The atmosphere was quiet and focused: Southern Dunes was holding a St. Patrick's week shotgun tournament and everyone seemed to be gearing up their game faces. What little talk there was centered on what their kids had been up to and the state of their games.
These are a bunch of golf nerds, through and through. From this close-up vantage point they look about as threatening to gender equality as a pebble is to an F-16.
Women have their gyms where no men are allowed in to gawk at them in their stretch Spandex. They have Oprah. And any single or stay-at-home dad can tell you how open those playground clubs really are.
Why can't a bunch of golf nerds have their own club?
Is it close-minded and stereotypical to assume that allowing women in would slow the pace of play, shift the dynamic of places like Southern Dunes away from their golf-only focus and bring some (gasp!) Christmas-party talk into the mix? Absolutely. But that doesn't mean there isn't some truth in it as well.
Should self-appointed society police be dictating who needs to be enlightened in their free time?
It's one thing for the United States Golf Association - the self-proclaimed advocate of "open" championships - to hypocritically play events on courses that bar their gates to anyone. It's another for the green-jacket crew, which has never shown any pretense about what its about, to be pressured into finding 20th-century logic. Even if it is 2006.
As for Southern Dunes, my day there taught a couple of quick lessons. One: Personally, I'd never want to join a men-only golf club. It's not so much testosterone overload (though the sight of a beer-cart girl would have been sorely welcome four hours in) as it is seriousness overload. If you're not obsessing over your handicap 24/7, you don't belong. No matter your gender.
Two: A lot of guys do want that men-only vibe, and feel they need it to focus completely on the game they might sell their first born to improve in. Younger guys too - guys who grew up very much in the age of Title IX. There has to be a reason Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer, former Mets catcher Todd Hundley and a few PGA Tour players are members at this course out in the desert.
Maybe they're blockheaded. But is it really up to you, or anyone else, to decide that for them?
To me, they just look like happy nerds, swinging away, having found a place where they feel comfortable being themselves.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Now under new ownership, Southern Dunes Golf Club went public and welcomed women in November of 2008.
April 10, 2006