Marek Warszawski

She challenged a Fresno golf club’s men-only rule. Now she and her husband are ex-members

They were expelled from a Fresno golf club for challenging its men-only rules

Meredith and Tim Orman were kicked out of San Joaquin Country Club in Fresno for challenging rules that favored men or the club's members, the majority of whom are male.
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Meredith and Tim Orman were kicked out of San Joaquin Country Club in Fresno for challenging rules that favored men or the club's members, the majority of whom are male.

All Meredith Orman wanted to do was play golf on Saturday morning. Either with her female friends or with her husband. At San Joaquin Country Club in northwest Fresno, that proved to be quite a problem.

So much so that Meredith and her husband, Tim, no longer are members. The Ormans were expelled in February after the private club’s board of directors determined the couple’s conduct to be “improper and likely to endanger the welfare, safety, harmony or good reputation of the Club or its Members.”

Left unstated in the two-page expulsion letter was a not-so-subtle message: This is what happens when you challenge the old-boy network at one of Fresno’s most exclusive (some would say snooty) enclaves.

“I just think women should be treated equal,” Meredith Orman said. “Is that asking too much?”

Sounds like a reasonable request. After all, it is 2018.

The Ormans joined San Joaquin Country Club in 2006. They paid a $10,000 initiation fee. They paid the $510 monthly dues and followed the stipulation that members spend at least $150 per quarter at the club, on food, drinks, whatever — or else get a quarterly bill.

Like many other members who live in the neighborhood, the Ormans have a golf cart that they used to commute to and from the club. It’s a 90-second ride from their garage to the back gate, and Meredith, an eight handicap who works full-time, played as often as she could.

“San Joaquin has a reputation of being elitist, but I didn’t know that because I’m just there to play golf,” she said. “That’s what I do. I go there, I play my game and I leave.”

Today the Orman’s golf cart sits in the garage, gathering dust.

Meredith and Tim Orman stand near their golf cart parked at their home near the San Joaquin Country Club in north Fresno on Thursday, April 6, 2018. The club expelled the couple for challenging and then going public about club rules. CRAIG KOHLRUSS

For years, Meredith Orman bristled against a San Joaquin Country Club regulation that stated only men were allowed to tee off on Saturday mornings. For years, women weren’t allowed before 11 a.m. In 2014, the club changed it to 10.

“Ladies” were given exclusive access to the scenic course along the San Joaquin River on Mondays and Thursdays before 10. As if women have nothing else to do on weekday mornings … like work. But those prime a.m. hours on Saturday, before temperatures soar and air quality dips during a good chunk of the year, were exclusively reserved for men.

Meredith began expressing her objections in 2013 and says others did so previously. Although their complaints seemed to fall upon deaf ears of the club’s all-male board , they must have had some impact. Because last August the club changed the wording from “MEN ONLY PLAY” on Saturdays before 10 a.m. to “MEMBERS ONLY PLAY.”

A victory for Meredith Orman and female golfers at San Joaquin Country Club, right? Uh, not really.

According to strict interpretation of the club’s bylaws, Meredith was not the actual member. Her husband was. And although they could have switched designations, making Meredith the member and Tim the spouse, that meant the couple couldn’t play together on Saturdays before 10. Nor could Meredith play with female friends whose husbands were the designated member.

The other option for Meredith to get full golf-playing privileges was to buy her own membership, pay another initiation fee and double the couple’s monthly dues. Which is absurd.

“Prior to the (2017) rule change it was overt discrimination,” said Tim Orman, a longtime political strategist who currently serves as Fresno Mayor Lee Brand’s chief of staff. “After the rule change it was disparate treatment, which is still discrimination.”

“It’s a word game, and I called them out on it,” Meredith Orman said.

Meredith Orman takes a practice swing with her golf driver outside her home near the San Joaquin Country Club in north Fresno on Thursday, April 6, 2018. Meredith and Tim Orman were expelled from the club for challenging and going public about club rules. CRAIG KOHLRUSS

San Joaquin Country Club vice president Tim Thompson strenuously objected to this characterization. A partner at a newly formed north Fresno law firm, which happens to have female majority ownership, Thompson characterized the rule as a member benefit rather than something designed to keep women off the course at certain times.

“When someone joins a private golf course they’re paying for the privilege, if you want to call it that, to be able to play on a non-congested golf course,” Thompson said. “The added benefit that our club has historically offered, as do many other clubs, that if a member joins, whether that member is male or female, they are extended the right to have a spouse or their children, if those children are under a certain age and still living at home, to also have access to the golf course.

“The best comparison I can give you is (the local gym chain GB3). … I will guarantee you that with your membership your wife could not show up and demand access to the club. It’s the same thing with country clubs.”

Thompson told me there are 20 women among the club’s 230 regular members. However, when I asked how many of those 20 actually play golf or play golf on Saturday mornings before 10, he couldn’t — or wouldn’t — say.

Which, in my mind, only adds credence to the Orman’s assertion that the rule change is essentially a word game.

How can it not be?

Meredith and Tim Orman spend some time with their dogs in the backyard of their home near the San Joaquin Country Club in north Fresno on Thursday, April 6, 2018. The club expelled the couple for challenging and then going public about club rules. CRAIG KOHLRUSS

There are five private golf clubs in the Fresno city limits. Three of them (Copper River, Sunnyside and Belmont) have open play each day the course is open. Fort Washington still has designated tee times on certain days for members and spouses. On Saturday mornings before 11:30, members are allowed one guest per playing group.

Sunnyside Country Club president Michael Der Manouel Jr. said the club switched to open play “15 to 20 years ago” because the old rules were not compatible with the club’s reputation as “the friendliest club in the Valley.”

“We asked ourselves, ‘Is our policy really consistent with that tagline?’ “ Der Manouel said.

From what I can gather, from asking sources and friends who golf, San Joaquin Country Club has the opposite reputation. Common descriptors include “elitist,” “snobbish” and “standoffish.”

This brouhaha definitely won’t help that perception. But maybe they don’t care.

The dispute escalated last November after Meredith Orman voiced her objections on Facebook. That led to local businessman and former congressional candidate Tal Cloud producing an incendiary video, which he distributed on Facebook and to local media.

Tal Cloud and Meredith Orman are siblings as well as executives in their family business Paper, Pulp and Film Inc., which recycles newsprint and produces industrial packaging for food service and other uses.

“When I saw what my sister has been going through the last four or five years, at some point I had to let people know,” Cloud said.

Cloud’s involvement only exacerbated the situation. In its Feb. 9 expulsion letter, the board implied that the Ormans worked in concert with Cloud to facilitate “a campaign to damage” the club’s reputation via emails, radio ads and social media posts. Which they all steadfastly deny.

“It’s an easy leap for them to make, but the reality is (Meredith and Tim) had nothing to do with it,” Cloud said. “I didn’t do anything until my sister had given up.”

During negotiations between the club’s attorney and the Ormans, the couple was offered $10,000 (essentially a rebate of their initiation fees) to sign a nondisclosure agreement that would prevent them from speaking publicly or to the media about the situation.

The Ormans chose to walk away and tell their story.

“This was pure retaliation for us creating resentment in the club over the antiquated, discriminatory rules,” Tim Orman said.

Meredith Orman said she was invited recently to breakfast with nine women whose husbands are club members, and all supported her. Albeit quietly.

“They’re afraid of retaliation,” she said. “No one wants to stand up because they’re afraid of being kicked out.”

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee