In some ways, The Country Club, where the world’s greatest golfers will tee off June 16 at the US Open, is a dramatically different place than it used to be.
There’s no trace, for example, of the rudimentary six-hole course laid out when Grover Cleveland was in the White House, or the cinder racetrack around which horses once furiously galloped to cheering crowds.
But in other ways, the venerable club in Brookline, considered hallowed ground by golf’s elite, is the same as it ever was: a bastion of Brahmin privilege that prizes understatement and secrecy. Indeed, even as it prepares to host 175,000 spectators and a media horde reporting every make and miss of the major championship, The Country Club remains intensely discreet.
That’s not to say Fred Waterman, a retired sportswriter who is the club’s de facto historian, doesn’t have stories to tell. He does. His favorite involves Francis Ouimet, the 20-year-old former caddie 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 stunning triumph over two of Britain’s best golfers is the subject of a not-half-bad Hollywood movie, “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” starring Shia LaBeouf as the improbable victor.)
But one thing Waterman, a club member for more than 30 years, won’t talk about — in fact, no one associated with the club will — is TCC’s membership. A perk of belonging to the place is anonymity, so the names of its 1,300 or so members are kept strictly confidential, as if their disclosure could compromise national security. The club is so fiercely private that pretty much everyone contacted for this story either didn’t respond or flatly refused to be interviewed, at least on the record.
“My smarter friends have suggested I decline,” one member replied in an e-mail. “I love TCC. Let’s leave it at that.”
On a recent weekday morning, the grounds of the club were buzzing. As sprinklers sputtered to life here and there, a temporary grandstand was going up adjacent to the handsome, yellow-clapboard structure that is the main clubhouse. It was still early, so the parking area wasn’t yet crowded with Mercedes sedans and Land Rovers.
The Country Club’s reputation for being exclusive — or exclusionary, depending on your point of view — is well-earned. Founded in 1882 by a handful of wealthy, well-connected men, TCC was the first “country club” in the United States, taking its name from a social club created by English-speaking traders in China in the mid 19th century. And like other archaic institutions in the US, it was all-male and all-white for many, many years.
Jewish people weren’t admitted at The Country Club until the 1970s; women (as full members) until 1989; and people of color until 1994. Even with those changes, admission remained highly selective. In his 2011 memoir, “A Reason to Believe,’’ former governor Deval Patrick revealed that he and his wife, Diane, were rejected — “blackballed,” he wrote — by TCC.
It’s not just TCC’s membership that was monochromatic. Historically, the tribalism of Boston and its suburbs has kept many clubs segregated. The memberships of Pine Brook Country Club in Weston and Belmont Country Club have long been predominantly Jewish, and the Charles River Country Club in Newton is an Irish enclave.
“[TCC] used to be high-WASP paradise,” says one of its members, like many reached by the Globe, unwilling to be named for fear of breaching club decorum. “But that’s changing. It’s every color of the rainbow now.”
Proudly old-fashioned, TCC looks askance at celebrity. It doesn’t need or want the attention the super famous often attract. Thus when then-Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and his wife, supermodel Gisele Bundchen, were considered for membership in 2015, the club balked. Older members worried that the couple, whose Chestnut Hill estate was just a 3-wood away from the club, might be a spectacle. (Brady was a four-time Super Bowl champ at the time, was and is a superb amateur golfer, and still an object of immense interest to the paparazzi.)
Bundchen was admitted to The Country Club a few years later, which meant that Brady, as her spouse, was as well. Thereafter, until he parted ways with the Pats, Brady was an occasional presence on the course, one TCC member recalls, with playing partners who included Larry Fitzgerald, the former Arizona Cardinals receiver.
“I don’t know Gisele, but from all reports, she’s a terrific person,” says a prominent Boston businessman who’s belonged to TCC for decades. “She’s really quite well-liked.”
Waterman wouldn’t discuss the club’s admissions process — “We don’t talk about that,” he says with a faint smile — but a few members would — anonymously, of course. Applicants must be sponsored by two current TCC members and provide the selection committee with references from eight people with whom they have a social — not business — relationship. Applicants also have to hobnob with the committee at a cocktail reception. The names of nominees are shared with the whole membership, but the committee has the final say. And the initiation fee? It’s a lot — tens of thousands of dollars — but less than some other places, including the country clubs in Wellesley and Weston.
Predictably, some high-status figures in the fields of law, medicine, finance, and business belong to TCC, according to a longtime member, yet the conversations on the course can be remarkably mundane.
“It’s really the same stuff you get at a municipal course — nothing substantive, maybe an occasional stock tip,” he says. “It’s people talking about sports, about what club to use, about how lousy they’re playing.”
That may be true, but public courses don’t prioritize propriety as emphatically as The Country Club does. A former employee who’s worked at other private clubs around Boston says TCC maintains uncommonly stringent rules about etiquette and appearance: Wearing wrinkled pants or an untucked shirt, use of cellphones, visible tattoos, and gum chewing are just a few no-no’s for staff and members.
“It’s a very tight ship,” says the former employee.
But the club is modernizing, albeit gradually. It recently hired its first female general manager, Kristen LaCount, and built a locker room for women that’s comparable to the men’s. Previously, the club relegated women to a changing area a fraction the size of the men’s.
“It’s evolving, slow and steady,” says the ex-employee. “And as the older generation phases out, I think you’re going to see more change.”
“The club has to keep evolving,” says Waterman. “Otherwise, you just become an anachronism.”
The excellence of the course is undisputed. Serious golfers agree that TCC, which has hosted three previous US Opens as well as the 1999 Ryder Cup, is among the finest golf courses anywhere. (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 range, curling rink, and skating pond.
The pond, located behind the third green, has an impressive pedigree of its own. In the early 1950s, Newton teenager Tenley Albright, a talented figure skater, used to practice her spins there. Normally, Albright skated indoors, but major competitions then, including the Olympics, were held outdoors.
“I needed to figure out how to train for ice I wasn’t used to, weather conditions 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.”
Because Albright was busy with school during the day, the club’s caddie master would leave a key to the warming hut in the gutter, allowing Albright to practice her figure eights at night, illuminated only by the moon.
“Being able to do that made all the difference,” she says.
Albright went on to win the silver medal at the 1952 Olympics in Oslo, and, four years later, in Italy, she became the first American female skater to win an Olympic gold medal. (When she was done with skating, Albright attended Harvard Medical School and, like her father, became a surgeon.)
While The Country Club may not enjoy the attention an event like the US Open attracts, the staff seems unfazed. Sean McSwiney, TCC’s dining 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 does a curry like no one else!” — and makes sure the bar is stocked with plenty of Pappy Van Winkle, the impossible-to-find bourbon that retails for up to $2,000 a bottle.
McSwiney says he’s looking forward to hosting the best golfers in the world and the enormous crowds that will roam the course watching them. But, like everyone else at The Country Club, he’ll be relieved when the tournament is over.
“One of these every 25 years is enough,” he says.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the location of the Charles River Country Club. The club is located in Newton.