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Augusta’s ripple effects not reaching Canada

Golf ball sits on a tee

When it comes to playing a round with members of the opposite sex, Rick Andrew has no qualms.

The Ladies Golf Club of Toronto is the course for him – even if his gender means he'll never be a full-fledged member.

"Best-kept gem in the city," the businessman said of the 88-year-old institution, believed to be the only women-only golf club in North America, although men can belong on a restricted basis.

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While Augusta National Golf Club finally opened its hallowed gates to its first two female members this week, its female equivalent – Toronto Ladies in suburban Thornhill – won't be changing its membership policy to welcome males. It's enough that guys such as Andrew can be guest-card members, which means limited tee times, second-rate parking, and a small locker room next to the pro shop.

"I don't think we really see any need to change," said Peta Lomberg, president of Toronto Ladies. "It's really a different situation. Ladies was formed and founded as a place for women who couldn't get tee times. Men have never really had that problem."

As news of Augusta National's policy change in Georgia sparked debate this week, other gender-exclusive clubs have been thrust into the spotlight and forced to defend their membership policies.

The National Golf Club of Canada in Woodbridge, north of Toronto, is regarded as the best – and toughest – 18 holes in Canada, but female members are not allowed. Several calls seeking comment from the club's administration on Tuesday were not returned. One member simply replied, "No comment," when asked about the benefits of having a club just for men.

"It is a very touchy issue and they don't like to talk about it," said Lee Abbott, a member since 1982. "They just figure out of sight, out of mind. We have every race, creed, colour at The National."

Just no women as members.

"I tell you one thing, if a lady came to my place [The National], she would quit golf before she would want to join because it is so hard," Abbott added, saying he didn't think the policies were doing harm.

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"The National is just one course in Canada that gets rated No. 1 every other year. It's a golf club, it's not an institution like Augusta. Augusta is completely different."

He has some support from Orin Starn, chairman of cultural anthropology at Duke University, who says Augusta should be held to a higher standard than other clubs because of its role in society.

"Membership at Augusta has always been a sign that you've entered the very highest level of the American business elite," he said. "Augusta is not just another country club. It's the country club in America, and it's the place where golf and politics and business are done.

"It's one thing to have a women's only health club where women want to exercise together, or men's only support group where men want to talk about their substance abuse problems, but to have an institution that is, in effect, this really central institution in American life, and to have it not allow women ... what kind of message does that send?"

Augusta National has always conducted business on its own terms. The 80-year-old club's restrictive membership policies excluded black people until 1990. Their membership policies have sparked debate as recently as this spring, because International Business Machines, one of the major sponsors of the Masters, had a female chief executive officer. She was not given club membership, unlike the four previous CEOs of the company.

Gender-exclusive clubs are still rare in North America: About two dozen, including a handful in Canada, are men only.

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"We like our environment. It's a nice getaway, there's no worries, we don't have to answer to anyone but ourselves," Vince Solano, president of the men-only Black Sheep Golf Club, located near Chicago, told the Chicago Sun-Times this week.

"When you play golf with men it's just kind of a different feeling. … You can kind of lose yourself for a while. There's a market for that."

Deborah Doyle understands that sentiment. She joined Toronto Ladies seven years ago while she was looking to learn how to golf, and found that a women-only club was inclusive for someone just starting out.

"It's a special place. I like golfing with women. It's fun," she said. And she also has no problem with the approximately 120 men who pay between $1,200 and $4,020 annually to be guest-card holders (the club has about 450 female members).

They include Andrew, who became a guest-card holder about 13 years ago, because he lived within walking distance of the club and his wife and daughter were also members. "It's really a challenging course," he said. "We're there to play golf, have a few beers."

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