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COME WITH me on a journey to a place where estrogen is mistaken for plutonium. A two-lane road in South Jersey cuts through trees, leading to a discreet entrance in the woods. (Think Batcave.) Cross the train tracks and pop through a wormhole. On the other side it's like 1957 at Pine Valley Golf Club, home to the nation's top-ranked course, where seductive fairways and curvaceous greens leave otherwise enlightened men in media and corporate America unable to square their public politics with their private obsessions: Must play Mecca; must join club; must eat meat.
But I didn't travel to Pine Valley to protest boob jokes or cigar smoke, to talk about feelings or Sex and the City. On my drive down the New Jersey Turnpike last week to catch the LPGA Championship in Havre de Grace, Md., to experience the aura of Lorena Ochoa for myself, I simply wanted a peek at a course often billed as a religious experience. I didn't get past heaven's gate. "It's for members," said the polite guard with the clipboard, "just members." We both knew I could never be one of them unless I were willing to reconfigure my plumbing with a sex change. And I'm just not into the Aqua Velva slap.
I took the rejection well. Like many lifelong golfing gals, I'm conditioned to the Flintstone ways of a sport I love as a game but loathe as a culture in its refusal to reflect the real world. Or maybe it does. Take the all-male clubs and the women who enable them. "That's a touchy subject; we're not all Martha Burks," says LPGA pro Christina Kim of the woman who led a protest against the 2003 Masters. "God bless her for what she did at Augusta. I mean she was ballsy. I'm more of a pacifist on this." Her viewpoint is understandable among LPGA players—and many women in the workplace—wary of alienating a boss or sponsor who's a member of an all-male club. Besides, what's the harm if alpha men have their secret handshakes? None, except that their you-got-cooties! message trickles down to the public munis, where both genders are theoretically welcome but secondary sexism lingers.
This is the part where I burn my bra (carefully, so as not to hurt myself). This is discrimination by a thousand cut shots: It's the marshal who approaches me to hurry up when I'm the one in the fairway and the guys in my foursome are the ones who have turned into Sasquatch sightings in the woods; it's the man I played with who was teaching his son golf but teed up the little hacker from the whites to avoid the ridicule of having his boy hitting from the front tees, forever labeled as ladies' tees; it's a course calendar blocked by men's events on Saturdays.
So sue them? As a single-digit handicapper, Elaine Joyce filed a federal lawsuit in February when Dennis Pines, a public course in Cape Cod, denied her entry into a weekend men's event, even though she would have played with her father from the tournament tees. "How do you think it makes me feel knowing that if my father had had a son, we wouldn't be having this conversation?" Joyce says. "That goes to who you are. It makes you feel second-rate."
It's par for the course. Years earlier, a guy at another muni told Joyce he would be paired with her only if she played naked. Pinheads are such creatures of self-sabotage. Marginalizing women is not just bad karma—a Tupperware pox on your men's grill—it's also bad business. In the 1990s the USGA fed off the Tiger Boom, but these are leaner times. As the U.S. Open unfolds this week USGA officials, who know they need to court women, have an opportunity to confront the new reality. Participation among avid golfers has plunged, falling to 4.6 million in 2005 from 6.9 million in 2000, according to the National Golf Foundation, with economics and evolving gender roles (men choosing family time over tee times) contributing to the slip in popularity.
Who can save golf? The bounty of girls now playing on high school teams. "These girls don't necessarily come to golf with preconceived notions of discrimination," says Marcia Chambers, a longtime historian on women and golf. "But what happens to those promising young golfers when they reach their mid-30s and might be in law firms or executive positions and want to use golf as a tool for business? I don't think the individual woman who wants a membership at a really good club for the purposes of business is in any better shape than she might have been 25 years ago."
Inside the elite sanctuaries, the message to women remains, "You're not welcome." The idea isn't restricted to Pine Valley or Augusta National. It drifts like cigar-smoke rings, landing on the public links, where red is for girls, where tee boxes still have walls.