This whole arrangement was so unkosher that in November 1995 some golf-specific provisions were added to the lobbying reform bill that was brought before Congress. "You know how the road to hell was paved," Representative Scott Klug (R., Wis.) thundered from the House floor during open session, "and in this case we also know how the cart path to Pebble Beach was paved as well." In the wake of the law, which passed 422-6, legislators must pay their own greens fees and for their caddies, and lobbyists or sponsors can't pick up travel expenses to golf outings, even if the events are of a charitable nature. In the past such boondoggles were so common that Palm Springs, Calif., was known as Washington West. "It was a horrible, horrible day," says DeLay of Nov. 16, when the law passed the House.
The finger wagging that accompanied the revelations of these golf junkets was only the latest example of golf creating bad press for politicians, a tradition that stretches at least as far back as the Administration of Warren G. Harding, who, on his first Sunday in the White House, skipped church to tee it up, scandalizing the public. More recently, then vice president Dan Quayle, who was such a golf hound his Secret Service code name was Scorecard, was excoriated for accepting an honorary membership at and frequenting Burning Tree Country Club, in Bethesda, which doesn't allow women on the premises. As unevolved as Burning Tree's policies are, the club is one of the three that make up the core of the D.C. golf scene—along with Congressional and Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Manassas, Va.
To be sure, there is an abundance of fine public courses and plenty of other noteworthy clubs around Washington. Columbia Country Club hosted the 1921 U.S. Open and can still boast of having the best greens in town. Caves Valley is a rollicking track that has "the best food in the state of Maryland," says a member, in only a mild exaggeration. Lowes Island, a plush Tom Fazio layout in Sterling, Va., that opened in 1993, is emerging as a favorite among D.C. dimple-heads (though it's known locally as Slows Island because carts have to stay on the path). Chevy Chase Club is an exclusive bastion of old D.C. money that Washington Post golf writer Len Shapiro ranks among the best five courses in the area. Baltimore Country Club and Bethesda Country Club both get high marks for their classic designs. But none of these places have quite the juice of the Beltway's big three.
Burning Tree, a stately H.S. Colt design that opened in 1924, is described by three Washington politicos familiar with the place as "a frat house, in the worst sense," "testosteroneville" and "the last bastion of true malehood." The membership would no doubt consider this high praise. Says DeLay, a regular, "It's a wonderful place. The clubhouse is really one big locker room. You've got men walking around in their skivvies, stuff like that. I'll never forget the first time I went to the club. You have to drive by the 2nd green, and there was [House Speaker] Tip O'Neill and [Minority Leader] Bob Michel playing without their shirts on. Their bellies were way out to here. I thought that was the greatest thing I had seen in my life." In fact, Michel is reputed to have played at times in nothing but his boxer shorts and spikes.
This kind of behavior is possible because Burning Tree has stridently held the line against allowing women inside its gates. In September 1984 a Montgomery County (Md.) circuit judge threatened to revoke Burning Tree's status as a country club, which had exempted it from paying taxes on 200 acres, if it continued to ban women. The club didn't blink and now forks over hundreds of thousands of dollars more a year in taxes. Burning Tree's chauvinism is still such a hot-button issue that Clinton, who was torched in the press during the '92 campaign for playing nine holes at the all-white Little Rock Country Club, is rumored to have barred all members of his Cabinet from playing there. "I wouldn't play out there," says Bowles. "I don't think it would be appropriate."
"That's silly," says Oxley, who picks the 396-yard par-4 7th at Burning Tree as his favorite hole in the area. "It's political correctness gone too far."
Donna Shalala, Clinton's Secretary of Health and Human Services and the highest-profile female golfer in Washington, wonders what all the fuss is about. "I wish I could say I was outraged about it, but I'm not," says Shalala from her office, juggling the phone while trying to scarf down a lunchtime salad. "I'm trying to get health care for the children of this country, not worrying about Burning Tree."
Still, Burning Tree is the place where most Washington movers do their shaking. The left-leaning Clinton is one of the few 20th-century presidents not to receive an honorary membership, and political heavyweights have little trouble getting on whenever they wish. So much schmoozing goes on, says DeLay, "it'd be an awfully silent clubhouse if they didn't talk politics at Burning Tree." So isn't Shalala at a disadvantage by being excluded? "I never feel like I'm on the outside looking in," she says. Shalala regularly plays with a powerhouse group of women that includes Ann Wexler, a high-ranking official in the Carter Administration and now an influential lobbyist, and Ann Jordan, an entrepreneur, FOB (Friend of Bill) and the wife of Clinton confidant Vernon Jordan. Shalala, always a gender-bending pioneer, has the ultimate solution to making Burning Tree coed. "Before I leave Washington," she says, "I'm planning to sneak onto Burning Tree one night and play it under the stars."
One place that Shalala is certainly welcome is the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club, which has made a concerted effort to court political bigwigs of all persuasions since opening in 1991. The club, known around town as RTJ, has given honorary memberships to Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor and USGA president Judy Bell, among others, and elected as its president Vernon Jordan, famous for his work in civil rights and one of Washington's most prominent African-Americans.
Jordan's office decorations highlight some of his finest moments: pictures of him kibitzing with the last seven U.S. presidents as well as a framed scorecard showing his eagle on the 13th hole of the East Course at the Hyatt Dorado Beach Resort in San Juan, Puerto Rico. A man with distinguished, salt-and-pepper hair, sleepy eyes and the rich, mellow voice of a late-night jazz deejay, Jordan has a simple explanation of how the eclectic political views at RTJ can coexist. "We are a bunch of people who like to play golf," he says of the membership, which has included, among others. President Bush, Vice President Quayle, former Georgia senator Sam Nunn (widely regarded as the best player in the recent history of Congress) and an obscene number of captains of industry. "I'm told most golfers are Republicans, but I don't know what that has to do with my golf game. I don't know who's a Democrat, who's a Republican or who voted for Perot. I don't really care, and I don't think anyone else does either." Presumably Jordan has more to say on the topic, but just now he's unwrapping the new three-, five- and seven-woods that have landed on his desk, courtesy of, he says, "my friend Ely Callaway."