- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th president of the United States, followed a precise protocol at Burning Tree Country Club. He would take a dozen or so practice shots off the first tee and, when he felt properly warmed up, point to the one that had flown farthest and straightest and say, "I'll take that one."
Another example of executive privilege: any putt inside three feet (and sometimes longer) was a gimme. The Secret Service shagged any wayward slices into the woods guarding the fairways. Ike spent so much time at "The Tree" that a hotline was installed between the White House and the pro shop. One weekend in 1952, it is said, leading Republicans approached Eisenhower at Burning Tree and lobbied him to run for president.
Set on the western edge of the District of Columbia, in suburban Bethesda, Md., Burning Tree is 244 exquisitely manicured acres and fewer than a dozen miles from the epicenter of the nation's capital. The club opened in 1923 after, the story goes, a male foursome from the Chevy Chase Country Club was stuck behind a slow-playing group of female golfers.
During its salad days in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, Burning Tree reeked of political power. Presidents were extended honorary membership and many accepted: Franklin Roosevelt, Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and later Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and George Herbert Walker Bush (along with his impressive 11-handicap). Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger played at Burning Tree, as did House Speaker Tip O'Neill. William Randolph Hearst was a member, too. Even after Edward R. Murrow was informed on the 10th tee that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, the veteran journalist played on.
Today, easing into its 81st season, Burning Tree Club is a timeless place. That is to say, the past is omnipresent. There is a faded, sepia-tinged tone to the grounds; the antique clubs of famous men are displayed on the walls. The attitudes and prevailing world view are of a different time as well.
Burning Tree, you see, is an all-male organism, the classic old-boy, blue-blood men's club. The initiation fee is $75,000 and membership -- capped around 600, including honorariums and golfers past their playing days -- is by invitation only. The membership list never has been made public. But if you are a woman with the financial goods and the game, forget about it.
When Sandra Day O'Connor became the first woman ever appointed to the Supreme Court in 1981, she ended a streak at Burning Tree; previously, Supreme Court justices had always been extended honorary memberships to the club. Despite her polished 12-handicap, cultivated on the challenging layouts in Scottsdale, Ariz., O'Connor never crossed the threshold.
Burning Tree in the new millennium has lost much of its political capital. Sitting presidents no longer play there. Senators John Warner (R-Va.) and Don Nickles (R-Okla.) are among those that pass for the club's high-profile members, along with CBS newsman Robert Schieffer, Motion Picture Association chief Jack Valenti, television personality Bryant Gumbel and Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia. Most of the members are more anonymous lawyers, lobbyists and businessmen. The club, not surprisingly, tends to attract more Republicans than Democrats.
Somehow, Burning Tree has flown under the radar of the women's groups who have protested the all-male membership at Augusta National, home of this week's Masters golf tournament. Martha Burk, chairwoman of the National Council of Women's Organizations, suggested that Augusta holds more influence and is, therefore, a more viable target.
"In terms of the real power centers, corporate America, Augusta is, as they say, where it's at," Burk said last week from her Washington office. "Burning Tree functions mostly as a local golf club. The fact that members of Congress play there ... it's a local club right down the street. It's not like it's some national icon."
But, she added, "Membership at Burning Tree is becoming less and less acceptable."
Charles Briggs is the club's general manager. He listened politely last week when asked why Burning Tree had not been challenged recently by women's groups. There was a long pause.
"We have no comment," Briggs said evenly. "Sorry about that. We both have jobs to do, and this is a good one for me. No comment. That's our answer."
'A great day-care center'
Beyond the no-women membership policy, women are not even allowed on the grounds as guests. For many members, Burning Tree functions as their second or third club so they can socialize with the opposite sex at other golf venues.
Even a few hours after a splashy press conference, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) was still amped. Winding into her seventh (or eighth) paragraph about the insidious nature of all-men's clubs, a reporter tried to wedge in a word edgewise.
"I haven't finished my thought," Maloney continued last week from her Washington office. "I think it is wrong. Some of our colleagues are members of these clubs and they should be pushing to change their policies. If the major national leaders of this country don't understand that belonging to these clubs is wrong … it sends the wrong message about values of discrimination and fairness."
While the press conference, attended by the now notorious Martha Burk of the National Council of Women's Organizations, was aimed at Augusta National and this week's Masters golf tournament, the House resolution introduced by Maloney and 14 co-sponsors also applies closer to home: Burning Tree Club in Bethesda, Md.
The non-binding resolution calls on top federal employees -- those in Congress as well as the executive and judicial branches -- not to join private clubs that discriminate on the basis of race or gender. Neither Augusta National nor Burning Tree were named in the wording of the resolution but it is well known that Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.) is a member at Augusta National and Senators John Warner (R-Va.) and Don Nickles (R-Oklahoma) are members at Burning Tree.
None of the three have made any public indication that they are considering a resignation from their clubs.
"By virtue of being in public office, we are obligated to adhere to a higher standard of conduct, one that reflects the American values that discrimination is wrong," Maloney said. "I guess we shouldn't be surprised the way the world is. There's a new [Census Bureau] study that shows women are making 76 cents on the dollar, compared to men. And, very few women make it to the board room. This isn't about letting women join men at a few fancy clubs. It's about the glass ceiling, the wage gap, the occupation gap and a kind of discrimination by Augusta and like clubs that helps continue this injustice.
"It must stop."
-- Greg Garber
There are no women's facilities at the club. Female taxi drivers are not allowed inside the gate. When a woman flying a small plane crashed near the 18th hole in the 1950s, Burning Tree employees quickly secured an area around the pilot and wreckage until the police arrived, when she was removed from the barbwire-protected grounds. When a female Secret Service agent announced herself at the gate in the mid-1980s -- she was working a security detail for the visiting Australian prime minister -- she, too, was turned away.
Interestingly, African-American male members have been welcome for decades, well ahead of Augusta National's inclusion of blacks in the early 1990s.
Each December, however, wives of members are permitted to visit the pro shop -- so that they might select gifts for their husbands. The hours are 9 to 11 a.m. on weekdays, by appointment only. There are cashmere sweaters, with the imperial Burning Tree crest, golf equipment and Christmas figurines.
"I'm fortunate to be able to let the women come in," said Max Elbin, Burning Tree's pro emeritus told the Washington Post in 1995. "I tried to get a cocktail party, but they said, 'No, we don't want the women around for cocktail parties.' "
Today, Burning Tree is a monument to progressive thinking: the women are allowed to attend a spring cocktail party.
Jane Vieth, wife of member G. Duane Vieth, a Washington lawyer, told the newspaper's Style section, "I don't know what wives would do without it. It's such a great day-care center. It's simply wonderful for them to have a place to go, even if they can't play golf any more. There are a lot of them who've gotten sort of decrepit. They go to have lunch, visit with their friends and play gin rummy."
It is said the action at the cribbage table is sometimes more lively than on the course itself, which is neither long nor a particularly challenging par-71. The active local golfers, according to reports, constitute about half of the total members. There is no employee charged with making tee times; even on a Saturday morning in the spring, there are no lines. Members simply warm up and walk to the first tee.
The clubhouse is an elegant Tudor study in brick and fieldstone and many of the homes in the surrounding area list for seven figures. But unlike most country clubs, there are no children's voices and the splashing of the pool, no echo of ground strokes on clay tennis courts. The clubhouse serves only breakfast and lunch.
The estrogen-free atmosphere comes at a dear price -- something approaching $1 million a year.
Back in 1983, Maryland's Attorney General, Stephen H. Sachs, filed a lawsuit against Burning Tree Club, claiming that its policy of excluding women was "arbitrary, invidious and irrational." The suit called for the Montgomery Country Circuit Court to revoke the real estate tax abatement granted in exchange for preserving open space. The state's complaint essentially argued that the tax break made the government a partner in sex discrimination, a violation of Maryland's constitution.
Before a woman judge ruled six years later against the club, Burning Tree paid only $13,000 of $186,000. After the judgment, members -- who declined to change the membership policy -- picked up the considerable tab which has reportedly risen to nearly $1 million per year for the property that is assessed in excess of $20 million.
When he was the vice president, serving under the elder Bush, Dan Quayle was asked about Burning Tree's policy of no women members. Quayle, a Republican and honorary member, told the Associated Press, "I've played there before and I'll play there again."
He added, "I'm not going to protest Burning Tree. Maybe they'll change. I think it would be a good idea for them to take women into the club. I don't have any problem playing there in the meantime."
Quayle, now 56, works for an investment firm in Phoenix, Ariz. He could not be reached for comment.
HBO's Emmy Award-winning "Real Sports" profiled Martha Burk in December 2002. Host Bryant Gumbel, who interviewed Burk for the segment, did not disclose that he was a member of Burning Tree, which like Augusta National does not admit women members.
Gumbel and HBO were criticized by various media outlets, which charged omitting that information constituted a conflict of interest. Gumbel, according to reports, convinced HBO executives that mentioning his membership would detract from the Burk feature. HBO defended its decision, but in March, when Gumbel presented a segment on the economic impact of the Burk-Hootie Johnson conflict in Augusta, he stated twice that he was a member of Burning Tree.
While Gumbel still maintains that membership, others have backed away from all-male clubs. John W. Snow resigned from Augusta National as soon as President George W. Bush nominated him to succeed Paul O'Neill as Secretary of the Treasury. The late Thomas Wyman, former head of CBS, resigned in November, using the word "pig-headed" to describe Augusta National's membership policies. Burning Tree, too, has suffered some casualties of what some would term political correctness.
Bill Clinton did not play at Burning Tree, nor did any of his high-ranking cabinet members. He preferred instead to tee it up at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville, Va. The former president, through his New York office, did not respond to requests for comment.
The current president, George W., not as obsessed with golf as his father was, has not played at Burning Tree, either. But that is not to say that the club hasn't played a role in the current political landscape.
Last year when Sen. Trent Lott (R-Mississippi) praised the unsuccessful 1948 presidential campaign of Strom Thurmond -- his chief issue was maintaining racial segregation -- his days as the Senate's Republican leader were numbered. One of his colleagues that coveted his job was Don Nickles (R-Okla.). But after reports of his membership at Burning Tree surfaced in the Washington Post and on CNBC, he was not a serious player in the race that eventually went to Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).
Did Nickles' membership at "The Tree" cost him the job of majority leader?
"Absolutely not," said Brook Simmons, Nickles' communications director.
It is worth noting that Frist resigned his membership at the all-white Belle Meade Country Club in Nashville before successfully campaigning for the Senate seat in 1994.
Similarly, in 1990 when Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn was considering a run for president, he ended his affiliation with Burning Tree. In February 1991, he elected to forego the campaign. "I guess the only thing I could do short of a Sherman-like statement is rejoin Burning Tree," he said.
It is not clear whether or not Nunn ever returned to Burning Tree. Nunn, now chief executive officer for the Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative, declined to be interviewed for this story. He also works for a law firm in Atlanta and has, interestingly, maintained his membership at Augusta National.
Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who plays at Chevy Chase, reportedly refuses to play Burning Tree because of its discriminatory practices.
Pat Buchanon, the arch-conservative, caddied at Burning Tree as a boy.
"It's just a men's club where men want to get away," he said during a MSNBC appearance back in October. "The Ladies Professional Golf Association, they say you cannot be a member of it, you can't play in it unless you are a woman. I don't have any problem with that.
"I went to an all-male high school. What is wrong with that? If you want to go to a club with men and women in it, and they invite you, fine. If men want to set up a club, fine. If women want to set up a club, fine."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com
Burning Tree Country Club is where our nation's Fore! fathers come to play golf without the bother of women.