CHICAGO — Stroll into the men’s locker room at some of Chicago’s most moneyed and prestigious golf clubs, and you’ll think you’ve gone back in time.
Metal lockers. Benches with spike marks. Forget about gold-plated faucets in the bathroom. You’re more likely to find a jar of blue Barbicide liquid to disinfect the small, black combs.
Spend a few minutes looking around, and you might start to feel a drip of sweat go down your back. The locker rooms, you see, do not have air conditioning.
“Some days you come out of the shower,” said one member of an elite club, “and you feel no cooler than when you walked in.”
Here’s the weird thing: That’s exactly how many of Chicago’s wealthiest golfers want it.
Minimalism reigns at North Shore clubs such as Indian Hill and Exmoor and at Chicago Golf Club in Wheaton. Fans and open windows trump climate control. The prize for a closest-to-the-pin contest might be an old book. This is where billionaires bet $1, like Randolph and Mortimer in “Trading Places.”
“If we wanted, we could afford to turn the whole clubhouse into a Ritz-Carlton,” said a member at Indian Hill, the Winnetka club where the Murray brothers once caddied. “We choose not to.”
OK. But why?
Stubbornness? A rejection of new money? The reluctance of members to complain and sound whiny?
Yes, yes and yes. But there’s more. Call it “old-school charm,” as many members do.
The legendary C.B. Macdonald laid out Chicago Golf Club in 1894 as the first 18-hole course in the United States. Protege Seth Raynor redesigned it in 1922, and it remains a darling of aficionados, ranking 14th on Golf Digest’s America’s 100 Greatest Courses list. Members are reluctant to change anything beyond adjusting a few tee boxes for national tournaments.
“Change for the sake of change is not always good; some people like to live in an old house, and others like to wear frayed khakis,” said Josh Lesnik, who works in the golf business for KemperSports and pays dues at Shoreacres and Skokie Country Club. “Chicago Golf Club is old-fashioned but it’s viable and completely works. It’s also like a museum of classic architecture, and you want that feeling when you’re there.”
As a member at Chicago Golf Club put it: “Everybody wants to feel like C.B. Macdonald or Seth Raynor is going to walk in and have a drink with you. Like it’s 1925 and Bobby Jones just hit into the Redan hole.”
Air conditioning was introduced to the public at New York’s Rivoli Theatre in 1925. By then many of the nation’s greatest courses either had been founded, such as Oakmont and Merion in Pennsylvania, or were about to be, such as Shinnecock Hills in New York and Crystal Downs in Michigan. All get by without A/C in the men’s locker room.
No club in America has hosted more major championships than Oakmont, located 14 miles east of downtown Pittsburgh. The famous Church Pew bunkers swallow wayward drives on the third and fourth holes, adding a religious experience to a famously stern test.
H.C. Fownes created the club in 1904 with a warning to golfers from son W.C.: “Let the clumsy, the spineless, the alibi artist stand aside!”
This is no place for wimps — either on the greens or in the men’s locker room. The two-story structure contains more than 400 lockers with a storage area for booze, a remnant from Prohibition in the 1920s.
The club cherishes its history, and longtime member Jim Bulger said adding air conditioning would be a “sellout move.”
“It’s funny,” Bulger said. “When I was on the board, anytime there was a negotiation, we had one dude who would raise his hand and say: ‘If you put A/C in the locker room, you can have my vote.’ But it went nowhere. At no time have we ever seriously thought about it.”
Legend has it that Fownes family members were such golf traditionalists, they resigned from the club after a swimming pool was installed in 1954.
Club historians dispute that timeline, but this remains a place with no denim, cargo shorts or backward baseball caps. Cellphones can be used only for texting and email and must remain on silent.
What does that have to do with sweating as you change your clothes on a 95-degree day?
Bulger believes it all ties in.
“We had more money than anyone knew what to do with when building this place,” he said. “If we didn’t have (A/C) then, we don’t want it now.”
Bulger’s locker is on the second floor. The first thing he does when he arrives on summer days is open the window. But with that comes a potential hazard.
“I’ve got to be careful,” he said. “I almost mooned on Ladies Day.”
The lockers at Indian Hill are metal, and when they close, they make a clanking sound.
“That noise is comforting,” one member said. “I’ve heard it my whole life.”
The regal Exmoor Country Club was founded in Highland Park in 1896. Its white clubhouse has six giant columns, reminiscent of another famous structure at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington.
When the club remodeled the men’s bar about 15 years ago, members debated whether they could replicate the spike marks on the wood floor.
“The big question: Could we hammer them in?” Exmoor member Sandy Stevenson said. “It was a wonderful little discussion. Most people probably think we’re crazy.”
Indeed, why not add A/C if the members could so easily afford it?
“We want to preserve and honor the historic character of the locker room,” Stevenson said. “When I bring guests, they are blown away by the space: These lockers must be 100 years old!
“Our member-guest tournament in August concludes with a black-tie dinner, and that’s when we sometimes hear comments (about having to change into a tuxedo). We have fans and air movement, so it’s not an issue for 300-some days a year.”
The stately Old Elm Club, founded in 1913, sits three miles north of Exmoor in Highland Park, and the locker room at the all-male club was not air-conditioned for about 100 years. Finally a member — also a member of the Forbes 400 list of the Richest People in America — got fed up one steamy day and said: “This is ridiculous. I’ll write the check.”
KemperSports CEO Steve Skinner understands the rationale of turn-of-the-century clubs that reject adding creature comforts. He’s a member of Onwentsia Club in Lake Forest, which Macdonald designed in 1895.
“It’s about tradition, simplicity and not being too fancy,” he said. “The old, established clubs are a place where guys can get away and not worry about how much money anyone has. I’m sure some of the new clubs have gold-plated faucets. The older clubs are about trying to not impress anyone.”
The joke about the men’s locker room at Olympia Fields is that it has its own zip code. It takes up an entire acre of land. The Tudor-style clubhouse was built in 1925 and has 80-foot ceilings.
Adding A/C to the men’s locker room, member Mike Bruni said, would not be practical.
“Some modern conveniences are cost-prohibitive,” said Bruni, who will chair next summer’s PGA Tour FedEx Cup playoff event at the club. “And when you really think about it, you spend four hours on the golf course and 20 minutes in the locker room. Let’s invest in the golf course, where the magic happens.”
Bruni said the steel lockers remain as “an homage to our forefathers … the members use the very same lockers that Bobby Jones, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus did.”
But the lack of A/C is “pure dollars and sense.”
“We’re going to invest in our golf club and social areas,” Bruni said. “We’re in the process of completing our master plan of the clubhouse — family dining, a couples bar and the new 73rd Hole.”
Besides, by rejecting A/C, members can puff out their chests and remind everyone: This is a South Side club.
“Show ’em we’re still tough,” Bruni said, “and can deal with hot summers in Chicago.”
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