Squires: The Last Boys’ Club

High-stakes gambling. Near-death experiences. Semi-naked golf. For decades, what happened inside the exclusive, strictly all-male Squires golf club stayed in the clubhouse — until now.

He never said it in so many words, but here’s something I learned from my dad when I was a kid: Act like you own the joint and everything will be fine. Exhibit A from my childhood was our annual excursion to West Point to see a college football game. My father — being my father; it would take days to explain — had absolutely zero interest in parking on a giant field among the masses, preferring a more secluded spot he’d discovered on one of our previous trips. But how to get past the MPs who generally blocked the entrance? No worries: My dad would simply speed our Ford LTD past the men in uniform, offering a crisp salute and channeling his inner three-star general. We never got stopped. Not even once.

I’m thinking about this one recent Thursday evening as I breeze through the front doors of the clubhouse at Squires, the ultra-exclusive golf club that sits on 140 acres amid the McMansions and greenery of suburban Montgomery County. Status-wise, Squires is no West Point, but it’s not without cultural significance: It’s one of about 20 all-male golf clubs left in the United States.

And when I say all-male, I mean Squires is all-male. Unlike South Jersey’s legendary Pine Valley golf club, which still denies membership to women but lets them play as guests on Sunday afternoons, Squires would apparently prefer not even to have them on the grounds, ever. More than one person told me members are discouraged from having their wives drop them off or pick them up at the clubhouse.

This all-dudes-all-the-time atmosphere — not to mention an initiation fee in the tens of thousands that undoubtedly keeps the riffraff out — has, through the years, attracted some of our region’s richest and most influential guys, a veritable who’s who of Big Swinging Dicks. Among those who are (or have been) members at Squires are titans of sport (current Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie; late Eagles owner Leonard Tose; former Sixers owner Harold Katz; ex-athletes Julius Erving, Mike Schmidt, Aaron McKie and Garry Maddox), real estate and business (PREIT’s Ron Rubin, Campus Apartments’ David Adelman, Morgan Properties’ Mitchell Morgan, finance guy and all-around heavy hitter Manny Stamatakis) and even religion (the late Cardinal Krol, longtime head of the Philadelphia archdiocese). And those are only the boldface names — okay, boldface-ish; this is Philly — who belong; Squires membership also includes plenty of millionaires who’ve quietly made their fortunes in food distribution and plumbing parts and other industries that help you believe the American Dream isn’t completely dead.

So what do all these dudes do here?

Well, the rumors about Squires are legendary. “It has a reputation as a big gambling club,” emails one friend, a veteran of the local golfing scene who’s never played at Squires but knows the stories. Indeed, I hear tales of a guy who once lost his car lease on a bet at the club; of members playing shirtless and sometimes even naked; of groups teeing off with seven or eight players (civilized clubs cap it at four); of one female employee, a bookkeeper, who’s actually smuggled into the club weekly in a burka — and not for religious reasons. As an acquaintance who’s played at Squires numerous times tells me, “The place just reeks of maleness.”

My mission this Thursday evening — the big night here, when a large portion of the membership typically turns out for golf and drinks and dinner — is to eyeball some of this debauchery for myself, which is why I’m sticking out my chest and snapping my fingers and doing my best BSD thing (Big Swinging Dick; see above) as I order a beer at the bar.

I’m pegged as an interloper about 45 seconds in.

“Who’s your host tonight, sir?” the bartender asks brightly as he slides me a Heineken Light. Really? I stand out that much? Then panic sets in, because I’m utterly unprepared for the question.

“Uh, uh … God, I’m blanking on his name,” I stammer. The bartender is staring at me awkwardly; I don’t believe this is pleasant for either of us. Suddenly, I have a brainstorm. “Mr. Blatstein!” I chirp. This would be Bart Blatstein, the real estate developer (Northern Liberties, stuff on Delaware Avenue), who I know is a member here and with whom I’ve been friendly over the past few years. Or at least I was friendly with him. A­t the moment I don’t think we’re actually speaking, which I’m hoping the bartender is clueless about.

“Ah, Mr. Blatstein,” the bartender says with a nod, scribbling on a piece of paper before going on about his business.

And just like that, the heat is off.

Speaking of heat: These are tricky times for all-male clubs, in the world of golf or elsewhere. In May, the R&A, the very proper organization that oversees the British Open, announced that Scotland’s storied Muirfield golf club would no longer be eligible to host the tournament, following members’ defeat of a proposal to let women join their ranks. “Going forward we will not stage The Open at a venue that does not admit women as members,” the R&A said in a statement that somehow seemed to have a British accent even though it was in writing. (Sufficiently shamed, Muirfield members are now slated to have a re-vote.) Also in May, administrators at Harvard sent a shot across the bow of that school’s elite — and all-male, and kind of gross — Final Clubs, barring any guy who joins one from leading a campus org or sports team. Practically everywhere you go these days, the cultural winds are blowing strongly in favor of diversity and inclusiveness.

Which makes a club like Squires not necessarily endangered but at least out of step with the zeitgeist. It also raises an intriguing question: In an era when we put so much value on inclusivity, is anyone ever allowed to exclude anybody from anything and get away with it?

Heineken Light in hand, I spend a few minutes hanging in the grill area of the Squires clubhouse, a pleasant place with green carpeting, plenty of tables, a couple of giant-screen TVs, and a deck overlooking the 18th green. Around the room, I observe what I recognize as pretty standard no-chicks-and-chill behavior, including a group of six or seven men who, as they sit in leather chairs and smoke fat cigars and watch U.S. Open highlights, bust each others’ balls. (“I made a putt like that today,” one guy says as a player on TV rolls in a 20-footer. “Yeah, too bad it was for an eight,” says another.)

Honestly, it’s all a little anticlimactic — as far as I can see, every bro here has his shirt on — until I spot two younger guys who walk out to the nearby 18th green and drop a ball on the fringe, a good hundred feet from the cup. It takes me a second to figure out what’s going on; then it dawns on me: A putting contest! For money! Granted, this contest is unlikely to go down in Squires lore; the stakes are low enough — 20 bucks if the guy gets the ball in the hole in two putts — that I’m tempted to take some of the action myself. But that’s not what’s interesting. What’s interesting is that the minute the duo walks onto the green, everyone seated on the deck stops what he’s doing to watch.

“Seventy-five bucks!” a spectator screams, trying to up his ante as one of the guys on the green lines up his second putt, a tricky 10-footer. When the ball rolls into the cup, the entire deck lets out a roar.

Alcohol, dudes and money. Man, it’s a combo that never lets you down.

SO HOW MUCH do the rich men who hang at Squires want to keep women away? Here are two stories I heard that while maybe not 100 percent truthful (look, every anecdote in here was told to me by guys bullshitting about a golf club) at least get at the spirit of the place.

Story number one is about a late member who a few years ago left a boatload of money in his will to help upgrade the Squires clubhouse. When the job was finished, someone raised an uncomfortable question: Shouldn’t they invite the guy’s widow to the dedication? As the story was told to me, this caused much consternation among the members, with the club ultimately putting the question to a vote. A motion to invite the woman to the dedication passed, barely, but only on the condition that she leave the minute the ceremony was finished.

Story number two involves a member who was stricken by chest pains one day while at the club. As he sat in a chair clutching his sternum, an ambulance was called. When it screeched up to the front door of the clubhouse, two EMTs popped out — one male, one female.

“Sorry,” the female paramedic was told. “We can’t let you in.”

The best part of the story (and the detail that makes me suspect it’s apocryphal): When the victim — who eventually
recovered — was told what had happened, he evinced not an ounce of bitterness. “Totally understand,” he said. “Had to do it.”

If all this seems a little over the top, well, that’s how things roll at Squires. Remember, this isn’t just a club filled with guys; it’s a club filled with rich, successful guys who are used to getting their own way. That means excess is never in short supply.

Take the parking lot. One day while I was there, I counted six Audis, four Benzes, three Porsches, two Maybachs, two Teslas, and one Hyundai with a small dent in the door. (Okay, that one’s mine.) As one person said to me, “The parking lot at every private club is filled with nice cars, but Squires is at a whole different level.” (Another person told me, with much amusement, that when he visited Squires, the members didn’t even bother to park in the lot, instead just pulling those high-priced cars right up on the grass near the clubhouse.)

Then there’s the food, which until his death a few years ago was overseen by club member Herb Lotman. Lotman, a round guy with a big personality and an equally big heart, made a name — not to mention a fortune — for himself as the founder of Keystone Foods, a purveyor of beef, chicken and fish to McDonald’s. But not for his fellow members the mystery meat we devour in a Quarter Pounder. No, at Squires, Lotman insisted on only the biggest lobsters, the highest-quality steaks and the thickest veal chops.

Even the day-to-day conversation at Squires, it seems, can be on the extreme side. “They have a lot of really rich guys,” says one ex-member who found the whole scene a bit much. “So there’s lots of talk about material things. You know, mine’s bigger than yours, mine’s faster than yours.”

Interestingly, one thing that’s not particularly lavish is the clubhouse. Rather than screaming gauche, it simply screams guy, with lots of dark wood and leather chairs and details only a dude would appreciate. (My favorite: The bathroom stalls in the locker room, each of which has a finely crafted brass plaque indicating whether you can smoke inside it or not. Because apparently there’s nothing more relaxing than enjoying a stogie while doing your business.)

Squires is a golf club, but you don’t have to talk to many people to understand that golf isn’t really the point. Yes, the course is nice enough, and always in impeccable condition. But one reason the fairways and greens are so lush and unmarked is that they get relatively little use. While a typical private-club course might see more than 20,000 rounds per year, Squires members only play about 7,000.

So if not for the golf, why belong? Status is part of it. Getting invited to join Squires — and an invitation is the only way you can get in — is sort of the inverse of Groucho’s line about never wanting to belong to a club that would have him as a member. For a certain kind of well-off, successful guy, Squires is the ultimate affirmation that he’s made it.

But just as important as status is the upscale-frat-house ethos. “It’s a place where guys want to be guys,” says power lawyer Steve Cozen, who became a member some 30 years ago with the blessing of his wife and daughters. (They thought he worked too much and needed an outlet.) “I like the idea of the place. There’s camaraderie.”

When Squires first opened, in May 1964, its all-male membership might have been one of the least significant things about it. That was the height of the Mad Men era, when America itself was basically a men’s club, at least when it came to who called the shots. That a club would limit its membership to guys wasn’t radical.

But what drove the Squires founders — a group of eight Philadelphia-area businessmen that included real estate developers, a federal judge, and legendary Villanova track coach “Jumbo” Elliott — was a desire to escape the uptight, stifling stuffiness of other private clubs. “We want the finest golf course, a small but comfortable clubhouse, and a place where a man can play a round of golf and only be restricted by the rules of the game and the etiquette imposed on all golfers,” wrote Herman Watkins, the club’s first president, in its governing principles.

That relaxed, anything-goes atmosphere still pervades Squires. One guy I spoke with — who’s spent plenty of time at old-money East Coast clubs like Winged Foot in Westchester County, New York, and Congressional in Washington, D.C. — was astonished when he visited Squires a few years ago. Those other clubs had strict rules about stuff like taking your hat off in the clubhouse and wearing a jacket in the dining room. Not Squires. “There were guys with their feet on the tables. One guy wasn’t even wearing shoes,” he says with a laugh. While no one I spoke to could remember seeing anyone golfing naked, an ex-member did tell me about the time his playing partner sported just a pair of underwear. (Nobody would confirm anything about burkas.)

Probably the best example of this do-as-you-please aura is the gambling that goes on at the place. (Unsanctioned wagering? I’m shocked — shocked!) Every person I talked to about Squires mentioned the betting, including some who clearly would have preferred not to talk about it. “Uh, I’m sure there have been a few members who’ve lost a little more than they should have,” the otherwise forthright Cozen said, practically begging me to move on to the next question. (Among them might have been notorious gambler Leonard Tose. An ex-member says he wouldn’t be surprised if Tose lost a million dollars at Squires in a single year.)

Gin is the big game inside the clubhouse, with stakes high enough that it’s not out of the question for someone to be down — or up — 10 grand in a night. Not that any money is exchanged in the open; a tally is kept on a sheet, with debts settled later.

Even bigger money is spent during the Calcutta portion of the club’s annual tournament, the Derby. I heard stories of pots that swelled into hundreds of thousands of dollars as members bet on which teams were likely to win. Excessive? Absolutely. But there’s enough wealth at Squires that losing 10 or 20 grand isn’t likely to cause anybody to miss a mortgage payment.

And apparently, you can feel right at home at Squires even if money isn’t your thing. One day, for instance, Cardinal Krol was in the clubhouse when he — the stern and all-powerful leader of Philadelphia’s million-plus Catholics — loudly broke wind. The man next to him was stunned, but Krol didn’t miss a beat.

“Yes,” His Excellency said with a guys-will-be-guys twinkle in his eye, “even cardinals fart.”

SINCE SQUIRES FIRST opened its doors a half century ago, America has changed substantially — particularly when it comes to what’s fair, what’s right, and who gets a seat at the big kids’ table. As a society, we’ve generally come to an agreement that discriminating against someone because of race or ethnicity is wrong. Discrimination still exists — much of it vicious and insidious — but with the possible exception of Donald J. Trump, Republican nominee for president, most of us have stopped debating the underlying principle.

Gender, though, is proving to be an area with more shades of gray. On the one hand, most people — again, I’m talking about those outside the troglodyte-American community — believe women should have the same opportunities that men do when it comes to education, employment and overall achievement. And yet as a society, we’ve stopped well short of saying that men and women are exactly the same, and in some cases we allow — even encourage — the sexes to be treated differently. We still gladly sign our kids up for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, we divide our athletic competitions along gender lines, and we’re all pretty much down with the value of the occasional boys’ night and girls’ night out.

So here’s the question: On which side of the discrimination fault line does a place like Squires fall? Is it the equivalent of a perpetual boys’ night out — obnoxious, maybe, but ultimately harmless? Or is it something more sinister, like a powerful corporation that refuses to hire women in its C-suite?

“I don’t really think about the political implications of it,” confesses Ron Rubin, who, at age 84, just stepped down from his executive role at shopping-mall developer PREIT. Rubin tells me he joined Squires about 20 years ago because a lot of his friends play there; he didn’t care much about the no-ladies-allowed nature of the place. “That may be an issue with some women” — he pauses, and I think I hear a soft chuckle on the other end of the phone — “but my wife doesn’t care.” (Which might just prove the adage that all politics is local.) Manny Stamatakis also tells me he didn’t think about the club’s gender restrictions — again, because his wife doesn’t play: “I guess if I had some female clients I wanted to entertain, I’d take them to one of my other clubs.”

Those who defend all-male golf clubs typically cite a number of rationalizations, from men playing the game faster than women (a gross generalization, at best) to the fact that even if they’re not acting like extras from Animal House, guys just sometimes prefer the company of guys, the same way women sometimes prefer that of women. “I really feel that being in a men-only place is in no way disparaging to women,” says Steve Cozen. “Sometimes being part of a boys’ club is a lot of fun.”

Those on the other side, though, say it’s not that simple, making the case that men’s clubs perpetuate a centuries-old patriarchy. When women get excluded from places like Squires, they also get excluded from the networking and information-sharing and deal-making that go on in such settings — which ultimately keeps them on the outside looking in when it comes to having real power.

The latter argument has sparked much of the blowback against men’s clubs in the past few decades. The highest-profile example came in the early 2000s, when Martha Burk, then chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, led an advertiser boycott of the Masters because its host club, Augusta National, wouldn’t invite women to join. The Southern gentlemen who ran Augusta at the time — you may remember that one of them was named Hootie — stood their ground, and in 2003 the tournament was actually broadcast by CBS without any commercials. Yet it seems even Hootie and the Throwbacks had less of a problem with what they were being asked to do (let women into the club) than with the method by which they were being asked to do it (which they perceived as blackmail by an outsider). “There may come a day when women will be invited to join our club, but that decision must be ours,” Hootie (his last name is Johnson) said that year. It took a while, but that day eventually did come, in 2012, when Augusta National admitted two women — one was former Secretary of State Condi Rice — to its ranks.

As for Squires, it’s tough to argue that the women of Philadelphia wouldn’t somehow benefit if they were allowed in. Not when the club’s members include some of the richest, most influential people — the Big Swinging Dicks! — in the entire region. Clerical gas notwithstanding, having access to those guys has some upside.

But before you condemn Squires too harshly, consider two ironies. The first is that in its earliest days, Squires was kind of progressive. Not only was it trying to puncture the stuffiness of Philadelphia’s older clubs; it opened its doors to a group of people — Jews — who were blackballed at many of those other clubs. “We want a club that is unrestricted as to religion and nationality,” Herman Watkins wrote in those governing principles, “but is reserved for gentlemen who have in common their desire to play golf for the sake of the game and for the enjoyment they derive from playing it with one another.” For 1964, that was a pretty radical statement. And it’s one reason Squires has long had a large Jewish membership. “It’s been a very diverse club from the get-go,” says Ron Rubin. “That’s part of its charm.”

The other irony is that even today, policies at Squires aren’t all that much worse than what you see in the rest of Philadelphia’s private-club world. And they’re a whole lot more honest. In 1997, a Blue Bell woman named Wynn Harris filed suit against Meadowlands Country Club in Montgomery County, alleging gender bias. The charges she made were fairly typical of country-club life back then: As a woman, she faced weekend tee-time restrictions; she was barred from entering the men’s grill room; and she wasn’t allowed to run for office — or even vote — in the club’s elections.

Two years later, the suit was settled, largely in Harris’s favor, and the club made changes designed to put women on more equal footing with men. “I believe a hurdle has been cleared to break through the so-called ‘grass ceiling,’” Harris said at the time. “It is my hope that the effects of the settlement we’ve reached with Meadowlands will go far beyond the changes at Meadowlands alone.”

So, nearly 20 years later, have they? Progress has been made, but most private country clubs will never be confused with a NOW convention. Women are typically under-represented on most boards, and though many explicit regulations have been dropped, play is often still segregated by gender.

It makes you wonder what’s more demeaning: not being allowed into a club at all, or being allowed in and then treated like a second-class citizen.

GIVEN HOW MUCH the guys at Squires like to gamble, it seems fitting to end this story with a wager. Which scenario is more likely: In 20 years, Squires and clubs like it will have faded completely into oblivion, or women will have gained enough power that no one will care if a bunch of BSDs want to smoke cigars on the toilet and play golf without their shirts on?

I’m not sure which way I lean, though I feel fairly confident about this: The guys at Squires don’t have much interest in changing anything. And maybe you can’t blame them. While Augusta National’s identity is tied up in hosting the Masters, that of Squires is much more connected to its boys’-night-out atmosphere. Squires with women would essentially cease being Squires.

As for me, I have one confession to make. That Thursday night when I crashed the club and charged a beer to Bart Blatstein? (Hey, Bart, there’s a tenner coming your way. … ) That wasn’t my first visit to the club. Thanks to a friend of a friend of a friend, I managed to play at Squires a few weeks earlier. It was a glorious morning, and I got to enjoy the course and shake hands with the head pro, Ken Peart, who’s been there more than 40 years. Was the round any different because there were no women around? Hard to say (though at no point did I feel compelled to remove any clothing).

Afterward, I made some small talk with the locker-room attendant. “All those stories you hear about Squires?” he said. “They’re mostly exaggerated.”

I nodded; I wasn’t really surprised. I know this for sure: One thing guys do when no women are around is try to top each other with ridiculous stories.

Published as “The Last Boys’ Club” in the August issue of Philadelphia magazine.