Going inside the private, male-only Black Sheep Golf Club

By Dave Berner, Senior Contributor

CHICAGO, Ill. -- There are many who believe a golf club with a male-only membership policy is really just an excuse for a frat house. They think there are Playboy Playmate calendars on the walls, beer kegs in the locker rooms, all-night card games and maybe even a toga party or two - Animal House in spikes.

But members claim the clubs are not like that at all. So, what are they like?

I wasn't able to get inside Augusta National to get an inside peek at the best known boys-only club on the planet, but I was able to spend a day at the new Black Sheep Golf Club in Sugar Grove, Ill., about 40 miles outside of Chicago. Even in these times of political correctness, Black Sheep decided a male-only policy for its private and exclusive membership was the way to go.

"The male-only policy at Black Sheep was really a marketing decision," says Vince Salano Sr., Black Sheep's founder. "It's just a fact that very few women would spend the money ($85,000 initiation fee) to join a club that focuses only on golf."

And Black Sheep is all golf. There is no pool, no tennis court, no children's programs, and none of the typical social events found at most traditional country clubs.

"Black Sheep is about golf, pure and simple. And it's about a private club that has the right to choose its members," says Salano.

I arrived in the early morning at Black Sheep and the first to greet me was the club's Border collie. The dog freely roams the property and, frankly, it seemed quite appropriate for a male-only club to have its own dog. I assumed it was a male dog.

The assistant golf pro then showed me around the simple clubhouse - the medium-sized locker room with oak paneled doors, the showers, the minimalist lounge where a bar surrounds an adequate supply of liquor and maybe a couple dozens tables surround a TV. There is no kitchen and the pro shop is stocked with only the items most needed - balls, a few hats, tees. Nothing fancy.

I played the course alone, walking, and enjoyed the "Scotland on the prairie" layout from local architect David Esler. The omnipresent wind was clearly taken into account when David created this tree-less course and all the elements of the experience - weather, rough-hewn bunkers, bump-and-run shots - reminded me of the true links courses of the British Isles.

After the round, I sat in the clubhouse for nearly three hours watching a few other members arrive, saying hello to friends, smoking cigars, mixing a drink, hitting a few balls on the range. Most were in their 30s and 40s and they talked about investments, the stock market, TV shows, college football and their golf games. The assistant pro watched an episode of "Blind Date" on the television.

I spent a total of approximately eight hours at Black Sheep, and interestingly enough I never heard any talk about women - girlfriends, wives. Nothing about "how nice it is that the girls aren't here." On this day at the male-only Black Sheep Golf Club, women were not the issue. Instead it was a place heavy on the game of golf and male bonding. I got the sense nearly every day is just like that.

With the Augusta controversy in the news, Black Sheep has had plenty attention from reporters and its membership completely understands all of it. But they also know they are not alone. There are several other private, male-only golf clubs in the Chicago area - Old Elm, Butler National, and Bob O'Link Country Club - and dozens around the country.

"We've been upfront and straightforward about our policy," says Salano. "In fact, the club has not had one letter, call, e-mail, nothing in the way of a protest."

Salano and his members just don't believe there is anything wrong with a private, male-only - or female-only - club founded on camaraderie and respect. And they don't believe its necessary to apologize for simply wanting to play the game of golf with other men who love it as much as they do.

There are many others who feel exactly the same way.

Dave BernerDave Berner, Senior Contributor

Dave Berner is a long-time journalist for CBS radio in Chicago and has freelanced for CNN, National Public Radio, and ABC news. He created and produced the popular radio feature "The Golf Minute" for CBS-owned radio station WMAQ in Chicago along with writing a regular column for Golf Chicago Magazine. He is also author of "Any Road Will Take You There: A journey of fathers and sons" and "Accidental Lessons: A Memoir of a Rookie Teacher and a Life Renewed." Follow Berner on Twitter @DavidWBerner

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • male only golf clubs

    David Amonson wrote on: Jul 17, 2013

    Private clubs are traditional places where business is conducted in an athletic setting. Club members have traditionally been business men, doctors and lawyers.
    Currently, about thirty percent of MBA students are women, and about half of medical and law students are women. All of these schools are multi-ethnic.
    Male only, predominately white only, private clubs are increasingly becoming irrelevant in the modern world. They are dinosaurs.
    All of the phrases used to justify the exclusion of women sound very much like the phrases that were used in the past during the Jim Crow era.
    The world is in the 21st Century, not the 19th Century, and the men who run the male enclaves need to get a clue.
    To get a perspective on this, watch the awards ceremonies at PGA tournaments. All of the presenters are old white men.


    • RE: male only golf clubs

      Susan Donlan wrote on: Jul 10, 2016

      Being female, I think this is an EXCELLENT idea. Why would any woman want to join a men's only club? Years ago, instead of starting a women's club in our town, 2 women chose to sue the men's club to accept them.
      Accept them, after they sue?? I have several groups of lady friends that I get together with. I also don't ever remember inviting any men.