Deciphering the code of the first American country club: “We don’t talk about it”

That’s not to say Fred Waterman, a retired sports journalist who is the club’s de facto historian, doesn’t have stories to tell. He does. His favorite is Francis Ouimet, the 20-year-old caddy and self-taught player who lived next door to the Country Club and only had to carry his clubs across the street to win the 1913 US Open. (Ouimet’s incredible triumph over two of Britain’s top golfers is the subject of a not-half-bad Hollywood film, “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” starring Shia LaBeouf as the unlikely winner. )

But one thing Waterman, a member of the club for over 30 years, won’t speak – in fact, no one associated with the club will – is TCC’s membership. One advantage of belonging to the place is anonymity, so the names of its approximately 1,300 members are kept strictly confidential, as if disclosing them could compromise national security. The club is so fiercely private that almost everyone contacted for this story either did not respond or outright refused to be interviewed, at least officially.

“My smarter friends suggested I decline,” one member replied in an email. “I love TCC. Let’s leave it there.

A pair of golfers played the 18th green at Brookline Country Club on May 26. The club will host the 2022 US Open, with practice rounds starting on June 13.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

On a recent weekday morning, the club grounds were buzzing. As sprinklers crackled here and there, a temporary grandstand rose next to the beautiful yellow clapboard structure that is the main clubhouse. It was still early, so the parking lot wasn’t crowded with Mercedes sedans and Land Rovers yet.

The Country Club’s reputation for being exclusive – or exclusive, depending on your perspective – is well deserved. Founded in 1882 by a handful of wealthy and well-connected men, the TCC was the first “country club” in the United States, taking takes its name from a social club established by English-speaking traders in China in the mid-19th century. And like other archaic institutions in the United States, it was all-male and all-white for many, many years.

Jews were not allowed into the Country Club until the 1970s; women (full members) until 1989; and people of color until 1994. Even with these changes, admission remained highly selective. In his 2011 memoir, “A Reason to Believe,” former Gov. Deval Patrick revealed that he and his wife, Diane, were rejected — “blackballed,” he wrote — by TCC.

It wasn’t just TCC’s membership that was monochromatic. Historically, the tribalism of Boston and its suburbs has kept many clubs separate. Members of Pine Brook Country Club in Weston and Belmont Country Club have long been predominantly Jewish, and Charles River Country Club in Newton is an Irish enclave.

“[TCC] was once a high-WASP paradise,” says one of its members, like many others contacted by the Globe, who does not want to be named for fear of violating club decorum. “But that is changing. It’s all the colors of the rainbow now.

A plaque from the 1988 US Open is on display at Brookline Country Club. The club will host the 2022 US Open from June 13-19. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Proudly old-fashioned, TCC looks askance at fame. He doesn’t need or want the attention that super famous people often get. So when then-Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and his wife, model Gisele Bundchen, were considered members in 2015, the club backed off. Older members feared the couple, whose Chestnut Hill estate was only 3 timbers from the club, were a show. (Brady was a four-time Super Bowl champion at the time, was and is a superb amateur golfer, and still an object of immense paparazzi interest.)

Bundchen was admitted to the Country Club a few years later, meaning Brady, as his wife, was as well. Thereafter, until he parted ways with the Pats, Brady was an occasional presence on the course, a TCC member recalled, with playing partners including Larry Fitzgerald, the former Florida Cardinals catcher. Arizona.

“I don’t know Gisele, but by all accounts she’s a great person,” says a prominent Boston businessman who has been with TCC for decades. “She’s really well-liked.”

Gus, who belongs to Field Superintendent Adam Bennett, sat in the driver’s seat at the Country Club on May 26.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Waterman wouldn’t discuss the club’s admissions process – “We don’t talk about it,” he said with a faint smile – but a few members would – anonymously, of course. Candidates must be sponsored by two current members of the TCC and provide the selection committee with references from eight people with whom they have a social – not business – relationship. Candidates must also mingle with the committee at a cocktail party. The names of the candidates are shared with all the members, but the committee has the last word. What about initiation fees? That’s a lot – tens of thousands of dollars – but less than some other places, including Wellesley and Weston country clubs.

As expected, some high statuses prominent figures in the fields of law, medicine, finance and business belong to the TCC, according to a longtime member, but conversations about the course can be remarkably banal.

“It’s really the same thing you get at a municipal course – nothing substantial, maybe the occasional stock tip,” he says. “These are people who talk about sports, which club to use, how badly they play.”

That may be true, but public courts don’t prioritize ownership as emphatically as the Country Club does. A former employee who worked at other private clubs around Boston says TCC maintains unusually strict rules on etiquette and appearance: wearing wrinkled pants or an untucked shirt, using cell phones, tattoos visible and chewing gum are just a few no-no’s for staff and members.

“It’s a very watertight ship,” explains the former employee.

General Manager/COO Kristen LaCount posed for a portrait at Brookline Country Club.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

But the club is modernizing, albeit gradually. He recently hired his first female general manager, Kristen LaCount, and built a women’s locker room comparable to the men’s. Previously, the club relegated women to a dressing room a fraction of the size of the men.

“It’s changing, slowly and steadily,” says the ex-employee. “And as the older generation goes away, I think you’re going to see more changes.”

“The club must continue to evolve,” says Waterman. “Otherwise you just become an anachronism.”

The excellence of the course is indisputable. Serious golfers agree that TCC, which has hosted three previous US Opens as well as the 1999 Ryder Cup, is one of the best golf courses in the world. (It ranks No. 17 on Golf Digest’s list of America’s 100 Greatest Courses.) And the club’s 230-acre property has other amenities, including indoor and outdoor tennis courts, an Olympic-size swimming pool, a skeet court, curling rink and skating pond.

The pond, located behind the third green, has an impressive pedigree of its own. In the early 1950s, Newton’s teenager Tenley Albright, a talented figure skater, practiced her pirouettes there. Normally, Albright skated indoors, but major competitions, including the Olympics, were held outdoors.

“I needed to figure out how to train for ice that I wasn’t used to, weather conditions that I wasn’t used to,” says Albright, a TCC member now in her 80s. “So I went to [The Country Club] and explored, and the pond was fantastic.”

As a teenager in the 1950s, Tenley Albright practiced pirouettes on the pond at the Country Club. She became the first American skater to win an Olympic gold medal.handout

Because Albright was busy with school during the day, the club’s caddy master would leave a key to the heated hut in the gutter, allowing Albright to practice her figure eight at night, lit only by the moon.

“Being able to do that made all the difference,” she says.

Albright won the silver medal at the 1952 Olympics in Oslo, and four years later in Italy she became the first American skater to win an Olympic gold medal. (When she finished skating, Albright attended Harvard Medical School and, like her father, became a surgeon.)

While the Country Club may not appreciate the attention an event like the US Open attracts, the staff seem unfazed. Sean McSwiney, TCC restaurant operations manager, started at the club 34 years ago as a dishwasher. Now he explains the menu options to members and guests – “our chef from Kathmandu makes a curry like no one else!” — and makes sure the bar is well stocked with Pappy Van Winkle, the hard-to-find bourbon that sells for up to $2,000 a bottle.

McSwiney says he looks forward to welcoming the best golfers in the world and the huge crowds that will line the course watching them. But, like everyone at the Country Club, he will be relieved when the tournament is over.

“One of these activities every 25 years is enough,” he says.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misrepresented the location of Charles River Country Club. The club is located in Newton.


Mark Shanahan can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @MarkAShanahan.

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