Former President Dwight Eisenhower and former Vice President Richard Nixon at Burning Tree golf club in August 1961 Credit: Getty Images
Credit: Illustration by Ellen Weinstein

One hundred years ago, when Bethesda’s Burning Tree golf club first opened, Prohibition was in full swing, Warren G. Harding was president, and women weren’t allowed on club grounds, let alone the 18-hole course. Seventeen presidents later, Burning Tree’s no-women-allowed policy hasn’t budged. That is, other than a change made in the 1990s that allows members’ wives to book appointments at the pro shop just before Christmas to buy gifts for their husbands. 

Today, the club is one of about eight male-only golf clubs left in the nation, according to GolfLink, a California-based website that connects golfers with courses near them. No other golf club in the D.C. region, or in Maryland, shares Burning Tree’s exclusionary policy. Even the iconic Cosmos Club—Washington, D.C.’s 145-year-old social club for the region’s political and business elite—has admitted women since 1988.

Legend has it that Burning Tree was the brainchild of a group of guys who were frustrated after playing 18 holes behind a slow-moving foursome of ladies at nearby Chevy Chase Golf Club. The men decided right then to create a golf course and clubhouse where women were excluded—much like the “no girls allowed” policies of countless boys and their tree houses.

For much of the 20th century, Burning Tree was the gathering place of the nation’s most influential men, including presidents Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush, and a long list of Supreme Court justices, U.S. congressmen, foreign dignitaries and business leaders. Renowned broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow reportedly learned of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor while on the 10th tee at Burning Tree but finished his round anyway, figuring it was probably fake news. 

Throughout much of the club’s history, all sitting U.S. presidents have been offered honorary membership. So had all U.S. Supreme Court justices, at least until 1981, when Justice Sandra Day O’Connor took the bench, says Susan Ness, a longtime women’s rights advocate and former president of the Montgomery County Commission for Women. O’Connor, the first female U.S. Supreme Court justice, was not offered membership at Burning Tree, “and she was an avid golfer,” Ness says, “but she didn’t press the case.” 

Still, Ness adds, “A lot of business went on at the club…and women trying to make it in the business world were at a distinct disadvantage.”


Starting in 1989, Burning Tree’s discriminatory policy cost the club Maryland’s “open-space” tax break that other private golf clubs in the state are granted. But a higher tax bill—valued then at $186,000 and now at about $1 million annually, according to insiders—hasn’t persuaded club members to open their course to women. Rather, members have chosen to pony up more in dues to cover the added cost. 

Stewart Bainum Jr., chairman of the board of Choice Hotels International, who served from 1978 to 1986 in the Maryland legislature, first in the House of Delegates and then in the Maryland Senate, had hoped the loss of the tax benefit would encourage the club to change its ways. He isn’t surprised that it didn’t, Bainum says, but he is irked, nonetheless. “That irritated me. Still does,” he says. While in political office, Bainum led the charge to get Burning Tree’s open-space tax exemption revoked due to the club’s discriminatory policies. In 1983, he and his sister Barbara Bainum Renschler filed a lawsuit against the club in Montgomery County Circuit Court; Judge Irma Raker ruled in their favor. But on appeal, the club prevailed. “You [had] taxpayers…subsidizing the clubs that [wouldn’t] consider them for membership,” Bainum says.  

The club and its supporters were so powerful that it took Bainum six years of court challenges, legislative proposals and cajoling to get Maryland’s laws amended to strip Burning Tree of its preferential tax treatment. “It was a who’s who of wealthy and politically well-connected people,” Bainum says. “Members from all over the country…flocked to Burning Tree.”


The club has long welcomed Black members, but it has kept a low profile in recent years as the nation’s moral compass has shifted toward inclusion of all people—not just women and those of different races and religions, but also of the LGBTQ+ community. Over the past few decades, most mentions of Burning Tree in the news have involved high-level politicos who turned down invitations to join. The list includes presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. 

It’s unlikely that presidents Donald Trump or Joe Biden are Burning Tree members either, says golf journalist Todd Kelly, who has written extensively about U.S. presidents’ golf preferences. “I would be shocked if Biden…has ever even stepped foot on the property there,” says Kelly, the assistant managing editor at GolfWeek. “Just playing one round there would raise thousands of questions about equality and equity. … And Trump was always flying Air Force One to one of his properties to play.” (Neither presidents Trump nor Biden’s camps returned Bethesda Magazine’s emailed requests for comment.)

Burning Tree “has a longstanding policy of refraining from public comment,” wrote Charles Briggs, the club’s longtime general manager, in an email to Bethesda Magazine, responding to a request for an interview. That’s a far different stance than during the club’s heyday, when stories about President Dwight Eisenhower’s golf rituals on Burning Tree’s fairways and visits to the club from heads of state regularly made headlines.  


One notable exception to the club’s current fly-under-the-radar posture: In 2019, Fox News’ chief political anchor Bret Baier told Global Golf Post that he is not only a Burning Tree member, but also that he’d won the club championship the year before. (Baier could not be reached for comment.)

While pressure on Georgia’s iconic Augusta National Golf Club—home of the famed Masters Tournament—was so intense that the club succumbed more than a decade ago and now boasts a handful of female members, pressure on Burning Tree to do the same has mostly fizzled out. 

Ness says Augusta was crucial in the fight for women’s rights because it has “the preeminent golf competition…that attracts so much attention,” while Burning Tree has become more of a local golf course with a storied past. “I don’t think anybody talks about Burning Tree”
anymore, she says. “It just doesn’t have that panache.”


This story appears in the July/August issue of Bethesda Magazine.