The Garden City Golf Club first opened in 1899 and is consistently ranked among the best courses in the world.
Few things have changed at the club over the years, including its membership policy, which does not allow women to join.
It’s a policy the club is in no hurry to change.
“The Garden City Golf Club has a 119-year tradition as a private club which accepts male members,” club president Brian Nelsen said in a statement. “As a private club, any rule change must be voted on by its membership. Although our entrance requirements may change in the future, we don’t currently have plans to change our criteria for membership.”
Male-only golf clubs were commonplace decades ago. It’s not known how many are left, but they are thought to be scarce.
“We’re gentlemen who play golf,” Nelsen said in a brief telephone interview.
Asked why women are not allowed as members, Nelsen declined to comment. He said he would rather have that conversation in person. Calls to schedule a meeting were not returned.
Long Island has been home to some of golf’s most prestigious events. The U.S. Open, which began Thursday at Shinnecock Hills in Southampton, is run by the The United States Golf Association. The PGA Championship, run by the Professional Golfers’ Association, will be played at Bethpage Black next May. Neither organization will consider playing its championships at clubs that restrict membership. The USGA said it “strongly champions a game that is accessible, inclusive and welcoming to all.”
Because the club is private, little information is available to the public. The club does not have a website.
Spokeswoman Katherine Heaviside said the club has about 400 members, and wives and daughters of members are permitted to play the 18-hole course on Mondays and Fridays if they tee off before 11 a.m.
The Garden City Golf Club’s tax return is public because it is a nonprofit social club. On its 2016 tax return, the most recent available, the club reports $6.1 million in revenue.
New York State Division of Human Rights spokeswoman Rachelle Dickerson said private clubs can be exempt from laws that prohibit discrimination if the club is proved to be “distinctly private.”
The New York State public accommodation law says a club cannot be considered distinctly private if, among other criteria, it “regularly receives payment for dues, fees, use of space, facilities, services, meals or beverages directly or indirectly from or on behalf of a nonmember.”
In 2006, the Division of Human Rights concluded the Mill River Club in Old Brookville did not qualify for a public accommodation exemption because nonmembers regularly paid for golf and tennis lessons and held banquets there. The club had quotas for members based on religion and argued that it was distinctly private. In 2009, a state appellate court affirmed the Division of Human Rights’ ruling.
Melville attorney Russell Penzer, who represented the member who filed the complaint against Mill River Club, said as long as the public isn’t paying to use the facility, a club would be considered distinctly private.
Dickerson said whether a club qualifies for an exemption is considered on a case-by-case basis.
The Garden City Golf Club’s claimed exemption from the law has never been challenged, according to a Newsday search of the Division of Human Rights database.
The club’s policy “is not much of a surprise to me,” said Martha Burk, former chairwoman of the National Council of Women’s Organizations.
In 2002, Burk was at the epicenter of a controversy involving Augusta National Golf Club’s all-male membership. Augusta National annually hosts the Masters, one of golf’s four major tournaments.
Hootie Johnson, the deceased former chairman of Augusta National, initially said the club would not change its longtime policy “at the point of a bayonet.” When Burk began applying pressure on the tournament’s sponsors, Johnson removed all commercials from the television broadcast.
“The Augusta fight was really never about golf,” Burk, 76, said in an interview. “It was about access to the halls of power to business.”
In 2003, at the peak of the Augusta controversy, Golf Digest published a list of 24 private clubs nationwide that did not let women in as members. Garden City Golf Club was among those included. That list is still cited as authoritative.
“We never knew how many of them existed,” Burk said, “but there were a number of them.”
In 2012, Augusta National allowed its first two female members, including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Augusta National’s new chairman, Fred Ridley, said: “Golf is a great game. Hopefully, it’s color blind, it’s blind as to gender.”
‘Freedom of choice’
Former Republican State Sen. John Dunne lived in Garden City for 60 years and was a Garden City Golf Club member for about 35 years until 1989. That’s when Dunne resigned his membership because he was being appointed by President George H.W. Bush to be the assistant attorney general for civil rights.
Now 88 and still practicing law in Albany, Dunne said in an interview that he left the club because “it would be inappropriate for someone who has a high position of enforcing law based upon gender to continue to be a member of a men’s only club.”
Dunne said he doesn’t think there’s a problem with a private golf club that allows only men to be members.
“It’s freedom of choice,” he said.
According to Garden City village historian William Bellmer, most village residents agree with Dunne.
Bellmer said he has lived in the village since 1943 and can’t recall a time when residents were upset with the club’s membership policy.
“I don’t hear much talk about that and I think it goes back to the fact there are two other country clubs in the area,” Bellmer said.
Those other clubs — Garden City Country Club and Cherry Valley Club — also are private, but allow women to become members.
Nassau County Executive Laura Curran and Town of Hempstead Supervisor Laura Gillen declined to comment.
Aides to Rep. Kathleen Rice, who represents the area in Congress, did not return requests for comment. Messages left for Garden City Mayor Brian Daughney were not returned.
State Sen. Kemp Hannon, who replaced Dunne in 1991, also declined to comment.
“Senator Hannon doesn’t play golf nor is he a member,” spokeswoman Erica Bemiss said.
Professional golfer Jean Bartholomew, 51, grew up in Garden City, is a longtime LPGA player and also one of the few women who have spent a lot of time at the club because her coach was the head pro there.
“I’ve been there a lot, more than most women,” she said, so she knows many of the members.
“A lot of them work in Garden City, or I went to school with their children, their sons,” she said.
“A couple of my cousins’ husbands are members,” Bartholomew said, “and I have friends who are members.”
Bartholomew said she doesn’t have a problem with the club remaining men-only because women have just as much right to open their own club and keep men out.
Still, Bartholomew said she is conflicted because she understands that women are missing out.
“I don’t have a problem with [the policy],” she said. “I do, but I don’t.”
Suzy Whaley became the first woman to qualify for a PGA event in 2003, though some questioned her accomplishment because she won the qualifying tournament playing from the women’s tees, which are closer to the putting greens. The PGA, in response, changed the rule to say everyone must play from the same tees.
Whaley, 51, will break through another glass ceiling later this year. She’s in line to be elected PGA president in November, becoming the first woman to hold that position.
Asked about Garden City Golf Club’s membership policy, Whaley said that as a private club, its members are within their rights “to have their own membership policies in place,” she said. “And I’m respectful of that.”
She said golf is bigger than a few clubs, and progress is being made for young girls and women to play the game.
“We want anyone who wants to play this game to feel welcome,” Whaley said. “Would I love to see a day where clubs gave everyone an opportunity to play? Of course I would. But for now, the PGA of America will take our championships where they do.”