Once again April has come to Burning Tree Club, mixing the lazy beauty of flowering dogwoods with the invigorating hope of sub-par golf scores. Once again the club resounds with the call of bluebirds, the crunch of cleats and the whack of wooden drivers.
And once again this April, there are no women on Burning Tree's links.
"Well, that's not so bad," said one craggy-faced golfer the other day, as he practiced putting on a green near the first tee. "I kinda like it the way it is."
As the Bethesda club enters its 61st year, it continues to enjoy near tax-free status, despite the fact that it has historically discriminated against women. Burning Tree is exempt from paying $152,000 annually in state and local property taxes, an exemption granted because the club provides "open space" in urbanized Montgomery County.
This year the state legislature, in an attempt to remove tax breaks for private clubs that discriminate on the basis of sex, race, creed or color, nearly passed a bill that would have stripped Burning Tree of its tax privileges. But at the last minute, before the close of the session Monday, the bill's passage was thwarted by a wording technicality.
For Burning Tree, the upshot of all this is that again, for another year at least, it will be business and leisure as usual.
The club's year traditionally begins in April, when the weather warms, the skies clear and the golf balls again take flight. T.S. Eliot notwithstanding, this month is far from cruel to the men of Burning Tree.
There are no road signs telling you how to get there. You have to know to take River Road out of Washington, hang a right at a street called Burdette, and travel past several stately houses and tree-filled properties to a two-lane, brick-walled entryway labeled discretely by a sign saying, "Burning Tree."
Through the entry, amid clusters of blossoming heather, elms and dogwoods, is the two-story brick, shingle-roofed clubhouse where each day, over mixed drinks and lunch, men of cash and power enjoy the privileges of both.
It's a place where, according to the by-laws of the club, business is not to be discussed. That's another reason women are traditionally not allowed there. Their presence, it's noted, would only cause the 600 members to be distracted from the game of golf, the diversion the club is devoted to.
Actually, the club was built in 1922 precisely because its founders objected to having to play behind slow-moving women golfers at other clubs.
Since then, Burning Tree, also known as the "Club of Presidents" because so many chief executives and top officials have fought its fairways, has remained true to the intentions of its founders. Wives, when picking up husbands, must wait in their cars in the parking lot.
Although the club excised the "men only" requirement from its bylaws several years ago, there are still no female members, have been no female guests, and it's said that no women--with two eceptions--have ever entered its clubhouse or set foot on the course.
One exception occurs every December when women are allowed, by appointment only, to peruse items and buy Christmas presents for their husbands in the club's pro shop. The other exception happened some 30 years ago when an airplane made an emergency landing near the 18th hole. A woman passenger was treated there by several golfers before a member phoned a taxi to haul her away.
Although women have come a long way in American society since 1922, Burning Tree remains a fortress of machismo in Washington, one of the most prestigious clubs in the country, and one of only a handful of country clubs in the U.S. that still don't allow women to join.
At Burning Tree the members pay an initiation fee of $12,000, annual dues of $1,700 and their right to privacy is strictly upheld.
On a recent weekday full of blue sky and shimmering sunlight, the parking lot was filled with cars belonging to men playing hooky from work. On the first tee, several golfers, politely declining to divulge their names, discussed the state's attempt to take away the club's tax exemption.
"Well, the state can do whatever it wants," said one man, hitching up the blue sleeves of his sweater to take a swipe at a ball. "But I'm glad it didn't. I wish they'd leave us alone."
"Actually," a second gentlemen said, "I think it's more important that we have black members, Orientals, Indians and Mexicans. Maybe they ought to come first."
"Does the club have any black members?" someone asked.
"One, I think."
Another golfer then joined the party, and the men spent several moments chuckling at the red, white and blue sticker of a Republican elephant the man had attached to his golf bag.
"To tell you the truth, I see nothing wrong with having women here. They got 'em at the other clubs, why not here?" a fourth man went on.
"So you're in favor of women members?" a visitor asked.
"Sure," the fellow continued, eyeing the 450 yards to the first hole. "But I'm just a guest."
At that point a man identifying himself as William Reese, the club manager club, hustled out to ask about the visitor's business there. At Burning Tree, apparently, reporters, like women, are unwelcome.
"You're not allowed," he said, pointing at a nearby exit. "Private club. Members only."
Later, over the telephone, Reese said the only person in a position to speak officially about the status of women at the club and the tax-exemption matter was James Gibbons, the club president.
He gave a reporter the phone number of a golf club in Tarpon Springs, Fla., where he said Gibbons could be reached. A woman answering the phone there said Gibbons was on the golf course and unavailable. Several calls to him were not returned.