Last fall, Augusta National, one of the country’s most elite golf clubs and host of the annual Masters Tournament, allowed former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and finance magnate Darla Moore to join. The women were the first of their gender to be granted admittance to Augusta’s storied inner circle. The breakthrough took place a full decade after feminists camped out in Augusta’s parking lot calling for the change in 2003 – and in the minds of many, it marked the end of the Old Boy’s Clubs of golf.
But right here in the Bay Area, another boy’s club is fully intact, atop immaculately kept, rolling South San Francisco hills. Established in 1918, the California Golf Club has never allowed a woman onto its membership rolls.
And according to a recent lawsuit, that’s just the beginning of its problems with gender discrimination.
The legal complaint, filed Sept. 27 in San Mateo County Superior Court, portrays an establishment far out of touch with modern Bay Area attitudes – a place where women are banned from the bar and grill area and instead served crackers in a separate room, where staffers acknowledged that the executive chef “has a problem with women” and sought to fire all female servers.
It’s almost as if the 550 acres of land at 844 West Orange Avenue in South City has reverted to the Mad Men 1950s.
On a recent visit to the club, there were no packs of angry feminists camping out in the car park. But a mother of four who worked there for 12 years is suing the club on seven counts of sexual discrimination, sexual harassment, and battery – harm that she thinks could have been prevented if management had treated its female staffers with respect.
Maybe the story that Jeri Regnart has to tell will help the Cal Club putt into the 21st century.
NOT HIGH SOCIETY
The fairways and greens at the Cal Club rank highly on golfer websites. Golf Club Atlas calls it one of the five best courses in California.
The membership is a step below the high society of some other local clubs. According to one 16-year Cal Club member, who asked not to be named (the Cal Club sent out a memo after Regnart announced her lawsuit cautioning members not to talk to the press), the clientele of this retro place is slightly more middle-class than that of the tony Olympic and San Francisco Clubs to the north and the Burlingame Country Club to the south.
“It’s mostly working people,” says this member. “I never have found anybody there with a PhD. They read the Chronicle, that’s all they read. They watch TV.”
All is not well, though, among the families who call the place a home away from home. Some women whose husbands belong aren’t entirely happy about the situation.
“I don’t like the idea that he’s a member and I’m a guest,” says a woman whose husband has belonged for 35 years, and whose social life largely revolves around the group of the friends they’ve spent decades socializing with at the Cal Club.
“You would think that this being the state of California — which is so up on things — you think this would have broken down, but it hasn’t.”
The woman told us has she been verbally harassed by a male member on the golf course who thought she and her partner were playing too slowly. She says at the time she complained to management, who made excuses for the man and failed to address the matter with him.
She remembers a group of members’ wives who launched an informal boycott of the club over the gender policy years ago — which she says resulted in precisely zero change on the part of the Cal Club.
But Regnart was unconcerned about gender restrictions when she landed a job at the place in 2001 as a part-time server in the clubhouse. A stay-at-home mother of four, her recent work history amounted to modest retail jobs.
She greeted a reporter at her home wearing a “Survivor: Road To Hana” t-shirt and prepared coffee and homemade banana bread for the meeting.
“I just thought, that’s their business, what they ran,” she says. Over the years, she found her home at the Cal Club’s plantation-perfect white clubhouse, which sits amid rugged greens made more challenging by a 2007 expansion and redesign meant to appeal to the younger generation of members, who hail largely from the tech industry.
“I loved going to work every day,” Regnart remembers. She developed relationships with the members and their families, and still has a box of Christmas cards, smiling photos, and thank-you notes to remember them by. She was eventually promoted to a full-time serving position, and then to food and beverage manager, overseeing four servers and four bartenders.
But there were rough parts of the job, too. Regnart occasionally overheard untoward, sexist comments from the members – and even while serving lunch at Board of Directors meetings (the club is largely run by a seven-member board).
She turned the other cheek in those moments, focusing on the job’s positive aspects. What she couldn’t ignore, her lawsuit asserts, was her treatment by the executive chef, a Frenchman named Gabriel Elicetche.
BUSINESS ON THE LINKS
Male-only golf clubs are more than just recreational facilities. It’s widely acknowledged that such clubs play an important role in business relationships – many deals are closed on courses and in the clubhouse.
When she became one of the first women to don a green Augusta National jacket, Rice’s statement alluded to benefits that went beyond athletics: “I … look forward to playing golf, renewing friendships and forming new ones through this very special opportunity.”
When women are restricted access to elite clubs, their ability to rise in society is curtailed. In her late ‘90s book The Unplayable Lie, Yale Journalist-in-residence Marcia Chambers examined the “grass ceiling” imposed by exclusionary golf clubs on women in the business world in depth. In a 2004 San Francisco Chronicle article, venture capitalist Annette Campbell-White recalled being made to enter through the back door of the Pacific-Union Club when her employer, investment bank Hambrecht & Quist, held a reception there to welcome new partners.
Pre-Condi-and-Darla, a 2012 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (hardly a bastion of modern liberal thought) commented on Augusta’s reluctance to admit female members. “It feels bizarre to even refer to this as a ‘debate,’” went the piece. “This confers far too much respect, as if it’s a subject actually worth arguing.” Just this year, a similar controversy over female exclusion erupted at the 269 year old Murfield, the club which hosts the UK’s most prestigious golf competition. Elite player Ernie Els – past winner of Murfield’s Open Championship — took the occasion to call its all-male membership policy “weird.”
Locally, we’ve had our own challenges to exclusionary club policies. San Mateo’s Peninsula Country Club was forced by court order to accept female members when avid golfer Mary Ann Warfield successfully sued in 1997. She and her husband had recently divorced and she had been told that the family membership she had kept in the separation was no longer valid.
In that case, the club was vulnerable — it allowed restaurant and pro shop purchases by the public, thus making it a business in the eyes of the law, and as such subject to anti-discrimination laws.
In response to its neighbor’s legal loss, the Cal Club – as the California Golf Club is known to those familiar – tightened up its policies on club transactions. Today, all purchases must go through a member’s account. No money is exchanged in the dining room, pro shop. Female family members and guests, therefore, can be discouraged from accessing the facilities on Saturdays, and restricted to certain tee times.
Only a few of SF’s elite institutions still refuse to consider female members. Women cannot join the venerable and creepy Bohemian Club (at whose country estate, the fabled Bohemian Grove, Bush Jr. was rumored to have asked Dick Cheney to be his running mate). The Grace Cathedral-facing Pacific-Union Club is another old school bastion of male privilege. The Olympic Club only started allowing XX-chromosomed members at its 45-hole golf course in 1992, when Louise Renne, then the city attorney threatened the club after discovering three of the holes were on city property.
The SF Golf Club was the site of California’s last official duel in 1859 – perhaps the ultimate boy’s club extracurricular. In 1991, it was banned from hosting PGA Tour events due to its lack of any members who weren’t white – a delineation that apparently course administrators extended to Jewish people. To this day, the ultra-exclusive club hosts no public tournaments, though it does count women and people of color among its membership ranks – including, surprise, Condoleeza Rice.
“They take it seriously, the little darlings,” socialite Sally Debenham said in a 2004 article on exclusionary clubs in the SF area.
Those little darlings see no reason to change. As one Yelp user, Robert M. of Redwood City, comments on the Cal Club’s page, “There is a fantastic women-only gym a few blocks from my house, but I’m not going to flame them simply because I’m not allowed to join.”
A PERSONNEL PROBLEM
How does an exclusionary policy towards members affect the treatment of female staff members? Regnart’s allegations may shed some light on the situation.
For years, the lawsuit alleges, Chef Elicetche was unpleasant to Regnart and other female servers, refusing to talk to them at times, walking away while female servers were addressing him, dropping and pushing trays to spill food over and scare Regnart. He was “openly hostile towards women,” states Regnart’s complaint.
When I visited the club, a receptionist took a message for General Manager Glenn Smickley before a security guard asked me to leave. In a subsequent phone converstation Smickley assured me that a spokesperson would call me to answer questions about the case.
After multiple messages, no spokesperson ever got back to us. Calls to the Cal Club’s lawyer, Michael T. Lucey of Gordon & Rees, were met with a request to verify that the reporter was in fact a news professional. When evidence was provided, Lucey declined to answer continued requests for comment.
The suit claims that the males-only membership policy made it possible for Elicetche to do things like encourage the club’s Board of Directors to ban female servers from the grill area in the name of preserving the sanctity of male space. Smickley asked Regnart to train a male part-time server to replace the female employees so that no women would need access to the grill, the suit alleges.
“A lot of the staff have the opinion that men are superior to women,” says Nick Regnart, Jeri’s 27 year old son. He worked at the Cal Club for five years. “You hear men come into the pro shop and they say ‘there’s no cunts on the course today.”
Jeri’s daughter also worked at the club, and her 22-year-old son Matt worked in the golf bag room up until the day things came to a head between his mother and Elicetche.
The suit alleges that Jeri Regnart complained about Elicetche’s behavior on a weekly basis to longtime general manager Dennis Mahoney, but when Mahoney retired and was replaced by Smickley, the chef’s behavior seemed to get even worse.
Regnart remembers a discussion she had with Smickley regarding issues with a female server who had called in sick. “Don’t worry, it’s only a matter of time until we get rid of all the women [employees],” she states in the complaint. She was shocked – not only at his assertion that women made less-than desirable staffers, but that the manager would say such a thing to a female employee.
Around the same time, the suit alleges, there were some other changes at the Cal Club that Regnart found disturbing. The club spent $14 million renovating the building’s guest rooms, ostensibly used for visiting international members but more often utilized as crash pads for members too trashed to drive home after heavy drinking at the club’s bars. The same renovations removed the women’s restrooms on the golf course itself.
“It’s their home away from home,” Regnart says. She had used the turn of phrase minutes earlier to describe her own feelings about the California Golf Club. “They just want a place to go and not have anyone to judge them.”And then there was the addition of eye candy to the entertainment at the club. In 2012, the Cal Club introduced “Golf Angels” at tournament events – smiling female talent who serve as on-course bartenders and hostesses. Regnart also alleges in her complain that a post-tournament party included a full-fledged boxing ring, complete with scantily-clad “ring girls” in push-up bras, underwear, and high heels.
At one such party featuring the boxing ring on September 21, 2012, she recalls seeing a married member snuggling on a couch with two of the ring girls. “I remember thinking, this isn’t right.” In the suit, Regnart alleges that she heard two female servers complaining that they’d overheard the ring girls telling club members during the event “We make our money with our mouths.”
On January 24, 2013, Regnart was helping to set up a point-of-sale computer in the kitchen, where Elicetche was working. She had her back turned to him when she felt something sharp slam into her lower back. According to the suit, he had flung the heavy refrigerator door and it had struck her.
She wheeled around, looking for potential witnesses. A cook quickly turned his face away when she searched for his eyes, but an unhealthy silence descended on the kitchen. Regnart says she was terrified. She finished setting up the system, and aching, went to find Smickley to demand he take action. He had gone home early.
Though she returned with her husband the next day to discuss what had happened with Smickley, the general manager was unable to give her any comfort. “He said, ‘just take the day off,’” says Regnart, tears beginning to trickle down her cheeks. She declined to meet with him and Elicetche later that day out of fear of the executive chef. According to the complaint, she emailed him days later, hoping to hear the results of the investigation into the incident that Smickely promised to launch. Smickley wrote back saying that the club had accepted her resignation.
The boss told members that Regnart had delivered him an ultimatum; either she or the chef had to go. “Of course, Chef is more important than Jeri,” one member we spoke to says matter-of-factly.
“No one can say [Regnart] was lazy, behaved badly, was immoral,” says the member. “She worked hard.” Her position has since been filled, by a man.
The shock of being let go in such a manner after 12 years was debilitating. Regnart went to the doctor with severe cramps and hemorrhaging, ailments that were pronounced stress-related. She was on disability insurance from January until June of this year, and has yet to find another job.
“I was really fragile,” she says. “I don’t think I could work in another kitchen with another chef. This is just a nightmare. It’s just a huge nightmare.”
Now, she’s suing the club – for sex discrimination of course, but also retaliation, sexual harassment, failure to prevent discrimination, wrongful termination, battery, and emotional distress.
She’s doing it to recoup her financial losses from medical care and unemployment, but also on the off chance that doing so could create some change at a place that has seen too little of it since the 1920s: “I want women to be treated equally there.”