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The Ladies' Golf Club of Toronto has a timeless, Augusta-like feel, but with a looser vibe and roles reversed

The Ladies' Golf Club of Toronto
Illustration by James Bennett
Once just as calcified as male-dominated clubs, the Ladies' has added cheeky come-ons to attract younger members.

When I first got wind of a golf club just for women, I imagined a dour stronghold of stern-faced feminists. Presiding secretary: Gloria Steinem. No leaving the seat up. A lack of single malt.

I initially read about the Ladies' Golf Club of Toronto -- North America's lone women-only golf club -- about a decade back, when golf was having its big gender conversation. Martha Burk was picketing in Georgia, bemoaning Augusta National's lack of female members. The green jackets were saying that change would come on their terms, not "at the point of a bayonet," and it has. The Ladies' made headlines again last summer, as Scotland's Muirfield, which has no women members, played host to the British Open.

Defenders of the old guard liked to point to the Ladies' Club, among other women-only institutions, as proof that gender bias could work both ways. "They've got theirs," they sniffed. "Why can't we have ours?"

Now another British Open nears, and same-sex clubs have become big news once more, a hot-button pushed by the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, whose members run the British Open and oversee the Rules of Golf outside the United States and Mexico. In September, the club will vote on whether to allow women into its tweedy midst for the first time in its 260-year history.

All of which has got me thinking of the Ladies'. Could the tales be true? Is it the female Muirfield? Augusta National on estrogen?

The reporter in me hopes so.

It's a sun-dappled morning, and I'm driving through the leafy outskirts of Toronto. The turnoff to the club lies ahead.

It's not Magnolia Lane. No guard sits at the entrance. But the road leads past a nest of pretty paw-print bunkers and toward a hilltop clubhouse done in classic Butler Cabin colors: milky white with pine-green trim.

Loryn Crothers, the club's membership director, is waiting for me outside. "A lot of people tell us, 'We want to be mad at you,' " she says. "But then they see what the club is like, and they say, 'But we just can't.' "

As we step into the clubhouse, my first assumption crumbles. It's less Martha Stewart Living, more Merion.

On one wall, displayed as reverently as Hogan's 1-iron, is a hickory-shaft putter used by the club's founder. On another is a painting of the matriarch herself: the late Ada Mackenzie.

Born in Toronto in 1891, Mackenzie was the youngest of four kids. She excelled in hockey, tennis, basketball and cricket. She took up golf at 10 and became a star, she later noted in a history of the club, "when women were supposed to know more about a cook stove than a niblick."

Expectations hadn't changed in 1923, when Mackenzie won her second Canadian Ladies Open. She ranked among the most accomplished players in the country, but couldn't land a weekend tee time at the club where she belonged. The same was true everywhere she went, with the lone exception (sort of) being the British Isles, where Mackenzie competed in her prime.

At top clubs there, women's golf was half-embraced. Behind the clubhouse at St. Andrews sat the Ladies' Putting Club, one of 14 women's short courses or "hen runs" scattered across the countryside at the time. Never mind that only putting and chipping were permitted, the better to spare women from the unladylike act of lifting their arms above their heads. The mere existence of such courses inspired Mackenzie. She would do the British one better, although she couldn't let the world in on her plans.

"If I had said I was looking for a ladies' golf course site," she acknowledged decades later, "I might still be looking."

Instead, she concocted a ruse. Posing as the wife of the noted Canadian golf course architect Stanley Thompson, who played along and eventually would design the golf course, Mackenzie purchased farmland on Toronto's fringes. She had backers, and although there were hiccups and hang-ups along the way, the club took root and opened for play in 1926.

Here's a crucial point to note about the Ladies': from the start, men have been welcome -- just not as members, or, in the early days, in the clubhouse. They didn't and still don't, get prime tee times. But while women enjoyed top billing (the original men's locker room was a chilly basement chamber below the pro shop), they've never tried to make their club a statement. It's not a protest but a place to play.

"I went there for the golf on a beautiful and challenging course," says longtime Ladies' member Marlene Streit, winner of the U.S. Women's Amateur and the British Ladies Amateur, and the first Canadian elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame. "I never thought of myself as a feminist."

And hey, I'm no activist, either. But it pleases me to note that men have made some strides. Although the pro shop tilts toward the other gender (pink golf balls; whippier irons than what I'm used to) the men's locker room is much improved. It still sits beneath the pro shop, but it's sunlit and well-kept, with a macho scent of Barbasol that makes me feel at home. There's one other guy there as I'm slipping on my soft spikes, and though he declines to give his name, he gives me an earful about his love for the Ladies'. He has a season pass, which for about $4,500 offers non-members unlimited golf, aside from a four-hour blackout in the mornings. "Don't spread that around," he says. "This club is the best-kept secret in town."

I'd like to go on chatting, but there's a lady waiting for me on the tee. Like many of the club's 400-plus members, Susan Wickware is a business-world success and a serious stick, a retired IT consultant who still sports the swing that earned her the 1975 Ontario Women's Amateur championship. A year before that big win, she joined the Ladies', drawn to the course but also to the climate -- a sanctuary from the sexism that took so many forms. Wickware relates the story of the day that she and three friends took a road trip to tee it up in Myrtle Beach, only to hear the starter marvel, "Wow. You girls hit it just like men!"

"Oh, please," Wickware replied. "How many guys do you know who hit it that well?"

My opening shot is a feeble bleeder, and I brace myself for a gender-bending version of the lip that I normally suffer from the boys back home. ("Say, does your wife play here, too?") But in a classy move that's reflective of the club's low-key vibe, Wickware lets her driver do the talking and promptly splits the middle of the fairway with a rocket shot.

She's playing from the up tees, which aren't the women's tees. At the Ladies' Golf Club, there's no such thing, only three color choices: red, yellow and blue. Stretched to the tips, the course measures only 6,002 yards, but it bears all the hallmarks of Thompson and Golden Age design: The greens are nuanced, the fairways bend, the bunkers are deceptive. Like objects in the rearview mirror, they're often closer than they appear.

Over the years, the club has made minor alterations, including the addition of irrigation ponds that artfully come into play. The culture has evolved too. Members once behaved more like their counterparts at Muirfield, turning up their starchy collars to the world. In 1994, when Golf Magazine first wrote about the club, no members agreed to be interviewed.

Recent economic realities, though, have led to an unmistakable shift. The Ladies' logo, which depicted a female golfer in 1920s duds, now cuts a much hipper profile: a form-fitting outfit and a thin-billed cap. As the purse strings have tightened, the club has loosened up, reaching out with cheeky marketing campaigns like, "Man enough to golf at Ladies'?" And: "We teach women how to score."

Barb Veyvara takes the changes, and life, in stride. I meet her midway through my round, near the seventh tee. It overlooks the 13th hole, where she's sitting in a cart. Taking note of me, she calls out to the others in her group: "Ooooh! Look, ladies. I've found myself a boy-toy!"

Then, drawing closer, she reconsiders: "Never mind. This one's too old for me."

At 87, Veyvara plays four days a week at the course she has called home since 1949. A wife and mother, she found herself married to a non-golfer. But in 1976, her husband, a golf widower, made her a widow, and the club became something else: a centerpiece of her social life.

With each member I meet, I hear some version of that story. They came for the course and stayed for the camaraderie. Unlike most of the male-dominated clubs I've known, which are usually either outsize monuments to look-at-me New Money or stiff-lipped fortresses of patrician reserve, the Ladies' gives off no snobbery or swagger. Mackenzie would be proud, but I doubt she'd let on. Only once did she speak openly of equal rights. She was working at a bank in the early '20s, concocting plans for her club. "I decided that two things were here to stay -- women in business and women in golf," she said, "because from what I could see, women were as good as men at either of them."

Susan Wickware is better than me at both. As our round winds down, my biggest consolation is that we aren't playing for money, as I surely would have been at a traditional, male-dominated club, where egos are almost always in play. And there are other upsides, too: the conversation, the brisk pace. Before I know it, we're standing on 18, an uphill par 3, its green sitting in plain view of the clubhouse. Wickware sticks her tee shot, but I uncork a screaming hook that barely skirts a bunker and comes to rest next to a garden patio.

Women are there lunching, and as I make my walk of shame, one of them shakes her head and turns to her friends. I can almost hear the word I'm sure she's mouthing with a mix of gentle mockery, frustration and lament:

"Men."

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