The Sugar Grove, Ill., property plans to celebrate its 15th year by building lodging and adding a par-3 course, but doesn’t offer extras like a pool, tennis, dining room or menu. “The reason I wanted to be out here is that it’s just a golf club,” member Scott McWethy said. “I’m a minimalist at heart. The Black Sheep philosophy is perfect for me.”
In many ways, Black Sheep Golf Club in Sugar Grove, Ill., is remarkable for what it does not have: no trees, no flowers, and no women, the Chicago Tribune reported.
“No feminine touch,” said owner and founder Vince Solano.
The club’s membership policy would seem to make it a relic, considering only about two dozen all-male golf clubs still exist in this country. But Black Sheep is thriving in Chicago’s far western suburbs, with plans to celebrate its 15th year by building lodging and constructing a par-3 course to complement its 27 inland links-style holes, the Tribune reported.
The key to success is an emphasis on finances. Yearly dues are $6,000, about one-third less than at upscale courses on the North Shore, the Tribune reported.
“I describe it as frugal, but ‘sensible’ is what we try to do,” said Solano
One example: Members at Beverly, the venerable South Side country club, recently engaged in a rancorous debate over whether to spend $3.5 million for a new pool complex. The proposal was rejected and about 30 members resigned. If it had passed, a different 30 would have quit because of the $5,000 to $7,000 assessment, one member figured, the Tribune reported.
Black Sheep doesn’t have such issues. There’s no pool. There’s no tennis court. There’s no dining room or menu. The only warm food served most days is whatever’s on the grill, the Tribune reported.
The club knows exactly what it is, and what it isn’t. Its eagerness to be unconventional, to swim against the stream of traditional country clubs, helped Black Sheep survive the Great Recession of 2007-09. That downturn forced some clubs to go public and turned others into housing developments, the Tribune reported.
There’s no internal debate at Black Sheep regarding its membership policy, but two prominent Scottish clubs recently veered in opposite directions on the issue. Muirfield members narrowly voted to remain all-male, a decision that jettisoned the club from the British Open rotation—although the club hopes to vote again by the end of the year. Royal Troon, site of this week’s British Open, voted overwhelmingly July 1 to include women, the Tribune reported.
“We have said a number of times recently that it is important for golf clubs to reflect the society in which we exist and the modern world that looks to us,” Martin Cheyne, Royal Troon’s club captain, said after the vote. “It is the right decision for the club today and for the generations of golfers that will follow.”
Black Sheep does not host non-member tournaments, so it faces no such scrutiny. A representative from the Chicago metro chapter of the Executive Women’s Golf Association declined to comment to the Tribune.
Diana Murphy, who in February became the second female president of the USGA, told the Tribune: “I respect the membership concept of clubs. If the membership chooses to be all-male or all-female for whatever reason, that is their prerogative. We live in a wonderful country. You get to make those decisions for yourself. I don’t pass any judgment on those clubs. Quite frankly, that has never bothered me.
“I think there are more important issues in the world to worry about. Equal work for equal pay, yes, that might get me excited. But I just believe in the freedom of clubs being clubs.”
Solano hides nothing, freely discussing initiation fees (they range from $25,000 for a short-term starter membership to $85,000 with a 50 percent equity stake), offering phone numbers of members and handing out a packet that contains the club’s rules. There are only two: Hats cannot be worn in the clubhouse. Cellphone use is limited to the parking lot, the Tribune reported.
Asked to describe the club’s vibe, member Scott McWethy says: “It’s very laid-back. It’s not a formal club by any means. That doesn’t mean guys are running around crazy drunk, but it’s relaxed, casual and everyone has respect for each other.
“It’s not an elitist club. I don’t see people out there with attitudes. It’s a nice escape and it’s a casual place for guys to get to know each other.”
Yes, guys. Solano says he believes most women tend to want certain things from a traditional country club: “An extensive family program, social events, children’s events, swimming, an outdoor patio where the family can sit for lunch, a full-fledged kitchen, somewhere formal to eat, somewhere informal. The expense makes it very difficult to make that work.”
At Black Sheep, the specialties of the house are Italian sausage (a “Solano” sausage made for the owner by a local meat shop) and a sandwich of peanut butter and jalapeno jelly. They’re stocked in a fridge, which is self-serve, the Tribune reported.
The club opened in 2002 on a former 285-acre farmstead. The David Esler design features rolling hills, wide fairways, fescue, prairie grass and wetlands, the Tribune reported.
“It’s so peaceful and very rarely crowded,” said member Jim Murray, who joined when Naperville Country Club was undergoing a renovation 10 years ago. “You can play at whatever pace you want.”
Murray enjoyed his time at Naperville, mostly. “One reason I left was politics,” he said. “Spouses. I couldn’t care less if the spouse is a man or a woman, but a lot of spouses want to open up the tee times, and that encroaches on the member times.”
Murray has four daughters, whom he said he and his wife “raised to be strong and independent.”
“I asked them, ‘Does it bother you?’ ” he said of his membership in an all-male club. “They said, ‘Absolutely not.’ I tried to get them to play golf. They played softball, basketball, volleyball. Golf didn’t appeal to them. If it did, we would have another membership.”
Black Sheep is not for everyone. It has about 160 members (plus 32 national members) and will boost that total with what Solano calls a “celebration guest” membership for 2016. Each member can invite one friend who will get a full 2016 season of membership for $3,750, the Tribune reported.
There’s no model for that program, but Solano has a pioneering spirit. The grandfather of 24 occasionally will drop in what many would call a sexist comment, something your grandfather might say, the Tribune reported.
Asked what he would tell a granddaughter if she asked to visit Black Sheep, he replied: “It’s a simple answer: No. If you have a problem, go to your mother. Let her solve it.”
Asked whether he believes men’s clubs still will be around in 100 years, he said he actually envisions more European-style golf clubs: “They don’t care if you have dances; they just want to play golf.”
Solano has found members who agree with his vision, embracing a single-gender concept in a multifaceted world, the Tribune reported.
“The reason I wanted to be out here is that it’s just a golf club,” McWethy said. “I’m not into tennis or swimming or a huge clubhouse with a dining room. I’m a minimalist at heart. The Black Sheep philosophy is perfect for me. Guys come out to play golf and bond with their buddies.”