Long term viability of the American Country Club model?


#1

Does anyone else question the long term viability of the American Country Club model in place today? As a potential junior member, most initiation fees in my city are $10K+ with monthly minimum dues around $600-800 (not to mention the additional initiation dues at your 40th birthday & any assessments along the way).

A lot of my friends seem to opt for playing daily fees and munis locally and saving up for a more expensive annual buddies trip en lieu of paying the steep initiation price and playing one course repeatedly. Does this hold true across all of the U.S. or is it just an issue in major metropolitan cities?

Why are links courses in GB & IRE seemingly so much more affordable? @Soly has mentioned this on Podcasts before. It seems our friends across the pond have a much better model that doesn’t neglect the 22 - 35 year old golfer who can’t afford the expensive CC.

Would be very interested to hear from others across the country if they have similar experiences and/or observations.


#2

Main reasons for affordability in the UK…

  • The land courses sit on is actually municipal-owned, so the taxpayers are paying for a lot of it.
  • Even the “private” clubs over there are semi-private, in that they open up to outsiders for limited play at exorbitant rates. Those tee times fees subsidize the membership costs of the regular members substantially

As someone trying to find a “top” level club in my area to join, I’m noticing some interesting things when it comes to the US model. Low and mid-tier level clubs are having a tough time economically to exist these days because the demand at that level vs. muni play is dwindling. People of that economic profile are weighing the pros and cons, and they’re noticing that public play makes more sense. On the other hand, “top” clubs are actually becoming more expensive/exclusive. Things like junior memberships at these clubs are going away, and you’re being forced to spend the full boat initiation fee even as a sub-30 year old. Why? Because there’s enough demand to join those clubs even at $100k+ initiation to get rid of the discounted membership rates.

So while I think the US model isn’t super sustainable for most clubs across the country, for the elite ones the model is actually getting tougher for the average golfer.


#3

I think it really depends on where you are located in the country. Here in Charlotte, there are a lot of country clubs that offer attractive options ($1000-$6000 or so) for junior members and there are some that make question how any young professional could possibly afford them ($60k-$80k) with some options in between. Most, if not all, of the clubs have no interest payment options that allows you to pay the initiation fee over time. With monthly dues anywhere from $300-$800 plus cart fees, food, drinks, etc, it can definitely add up so it depends on what you value.

I value always having a game to get into, always having a less crowded course, the pool, free range balls, good food, and the ability to entertain if necessary. Also in Charlotte, there is an abundance of 5-6 hour rounds on the daily fee courses that I simply can’t sneak away for. It’s much easier to tell my wife that I am playing golf and to meet me for lunch in 3 and a half hours. On a similar note, my wife is learning to play the game and free range balls and a less crowded course allows her to learn and practice in a comfortable setting.

If there were better public options, I may have stuck with daily fee, but for roughly the same price per round (based on 8 rounds a month after everything at the club adds up) I am playing a much nicer course in a much more convenient environment.

I also feel that there will always be country clubs in the US as clubs are used for entertainment purposes, business purposes, etc as opposed to just playing golf and maybe grabbing some food. Along the same lines, there will always be people that have the need to say they make X amount of money or have the need for status symbols and country clubs are a way to for people to do that. I think it’s really just a matter of finding out what matters to you and finding a club or daily fee that meets that criteria.

Hope that makes sense.


#4

I’m in STL and still young enough to take advantage of an Executive Membership that has a slight monthly dues reduction. It works for me as it’s close to my house (6 miles), no tee times, not overly crowded (sub 200 members), ability to get out and practice/play on a whim, and is a tough test. I do think the days high initiation costs will go by the wayside.


#5

There’s a lot more “outgoing” than there is “incoming” for all except the best clubs. And even at some of the best, the days of waiting lists are gone.

The other part of the equation that people forget to mention is that clubs (and society) are structurally different places. In the 70’s 80’s and even into the 90’s, dads would tee it up at 10am, have a few drinks afterwards and the family would come over to the club for dinner. Now, dads go for a bike ride at 6am so they can have some semblence of sanity for what will ensue over the course of the next 48 hours. Because first there’s soccer for the youngest kid, then softball for the oldest kid, then family counseling at 2pm because the oft-ignored middle kid is drawing pictures with knives at school. And the soccer, softball and counseling probably costs $600 a week when you really dig into it.

Different times.


#6

They can have my country club when they pry it from my cold, dead hands.

No doubt the model has fallen on hard times and many clubs are going semi-private / public or getting redeveloped into other uses, but that’s a function of (1) a lot of public courses having been built in the '80s and '90s and (2) a younger generation that isn’t as into golf as older generations. That said, there will be survivors, if for no other than reason than there are a lot of people in America with more money than time.


#7

@GaryPotter I think your second reason is closer to the money, as most private clubs in the UK own their own land, or the land is held by a SPV owned by the club or on trust for the club. Municipal courses are owned by local counsels and funded through local taxes.

There are vey, very few private clubs that do not permit visitors at all (Queenwood and New Zealand in Surrey, and Loch Lomand spring to mind, but I can’t think of any other off the top of my head). The vast majority of private clubs will allow visitors or groups on most weekdays, although some of the more traditional clubs will limit this to Tuesdays and Thursdays and a letter to the club secretary might be required. Visitors and groups pay green fees and spend money on catering which subsidises the cost of membership - this means you can play almost any course in the UK (including all courses on The Open rota) by taking a day off work and paying the green fee. Private courses will usually be reserved for members and their guests at the weekends.

In addition, a lot of private clubs structure annual membership fees based on age bracket ratcheting upwards as people get older, usually 18-30, 31-40, 41-50 etc… although only one joining fee is payable.

For context, I am a member at a top 100 UK&I club in Surrey, annual dues for my age bracket is around £1,500 and the joining fee is roughly the same. Like most members, I work a regular desk job during the week so can only play at weekends, therefore groups and visitors playing Monday to Thursday has no impact, as the course is quiet with only members playing on Friday and at the weekend.


#8

Wow the price of golf in the states is crazy. I’m a member of a private club in the UK.
Joining fee is £500 and then £640 per year fees. No booked tee times outside of club competitions. Rarely have to wait to tee off.

It’s not a top 100 course but is one of the best courses in the area. I guess we are lucky here as if the prices were the same as the US I doubt I would have ever took up the game.


#9

@ jcorn is your place Fox Run?


#10

All very solid posts. A few things.

  1. Way too many courses have been built in the US and some is a market correction. This will obviously include private clubs.
  2. Golf costs a good bit here, but many of the top tier CC’s will be fine. There will always be demand and the rich can subsidize it.
  3. I think many mid-level CC’s will have to adapt to more efficient maintenance (i.e. less expensive) and perhaps play firmer and faster, which would be good. They will also potentially need to let in some guest play for revenue. Also fine depending on timing.
  4. We could probably learn a few things from GB&I on structure.

#11

I don’t know if the same thing is happening elsewhere, but I know where I live, as a junior member I have been able to take advantage of tough times. When I joined my club in 2013 they waived the initiation and the junior rate has been pretty darn affordable for the value (very well manicured championship course, pool, restaurants, etc.).


#12

Yes sir, I love it there


#13

@GaryPotter I’d have to disagree with most of that. Very few courses are owned or subsidised by the public, save for St Andrews, which is the exception, not the rule. But @doublecross is right that even the best clubs allow visitors on certain days or times. It’s not even that expensive. I live just north of London and am a member at the lovely Essendon Country Club with 2 courses and a pretty awesome club house which costs me £1,450 a year (less than $2K). There was no joining fee, but there is a waiting list.

The difference, however, is more social. The British just don’t like spending money. It pains us. We’re essentially super cheap, mean, bastards and if clubs here charged the kind of lunatic fees you get charged in the US they’d have no members. Wentworth was recently taken over by new owners who have jacked up the rates to something like the US and though most of the existing members can easily afford it, they’ve left en masse!

The British like to keep their money in a bank and count it, whereas in the US you like to spend it to show off. This is largely due to hereditary wealth in Europe, where one family have been rich for 900 years because some ancestor blew the King and was given Scotland … or something. You don’t keep money for an entire millennium if you pay $100K joining fees for sporting clubs.

In the US the CC membership is more of a social status than it is here. People covet it to show off their success. Here nobody gives a shit. It means nothing. It’s just about playing golf. That wasn’t always the case. But it’s definitely become that. The days is exclusivity are long gone.

I’ll tell you a great story though - only one club has ever lost its “Royal” status, The Berkshire. Many years ago the Prince of Wales had a lovely day there and enjoyed the company of his caddie, so he invited him into the bar for a drink after. The club captain said that caddies were not allowed in the club, despite the fact he was with the future king and current patron of the club! The prince took him to the pub across the road and the next day a letter arrived from the Palace informing them they were no longer the Royal Berkshire. They’ve never got it back! Remember, blow the King, get Scotland. Annoy the King, excommunicated forever.


#14

@The_Cad_Says while I do agree that some people look at country clubs as a social status, as also mentioned in my original post, there are a few of us that just want to play the nicer/nicest options in our areas and around the globe and some of those just so happen to be private. Along the same lines, there are some of us that always want the option to find a game with players we know and not fight for tee times to do that private clubs typically accommodate that better.


#15

Oh don’t mind me, I’m just a facetious shit stirrer by trade! :wink:

I think all countries have a full range of price points defending on your preference. The US just happens to have a lot of the high end ones.

I do also think that on the pay & play level, the US is the best and by far the cheapest golf around. You can get a great game for $50 in the US. Try doing that in Japan or Korea!


#16

LOL not in Charlotte, NC. On a typical weekend morning, a well below average course will run you between $50-$60.


#17

In fairness I’m basing this on North Idaho, where I have a home of sorts. Probably not indicative of the rest of the country!


#18

Correct me if I am wrong, but aren’t a lot of UK clubs straight up “golf clubs” whereas American private clubs have lots of non-golf related stuff? I imagine this affects the cost to some degree

Personally, the UK golf club sounds way more appealing to me. Just a course and a basic clubhouse to get smashed in afterwards. IDGAF about the other stuff


#19

Another issue with American clubs? Committees. I know of a club on the east coast that has the following committees:

  1. Greens
  2. Food and Beverage
  3. Wine (redundant!)
  4. Membership
  5. Fitness
  6. Logo Committee (blows me away that this exists)
  7. History/Legacy (the club was founded right around 1995. Not much history to speak of.)
  8. Outreach/Charity
  9. Paddle Sports
  10. Tournament/Golf Committee
  11. Apparel/Dress code

There may be more. What’s really fun is that there’s a board that is somewhat handcuffed because all of these committees make it hard to get things done. So, sorry, but if I’m on a club tour and I find out there’s 7 or 8 committees, I’m back in the car before you can say deuces.

That said, there are a few extremely well run clubs and when you’re there, you can tell right away.


#20

Interesting thread here. I’m in the midwest, family of 4 and seem to be an ideal candidate for a country club - use for business, pool, gym, bar/restaurant and obviously golf. However, I’ve stayed away because the country clubs in the area require ridiculous initiation fees ($20k?) and frankly, I don’t think the golf courses themselves are better than some of the upper tier public courses in the area. I don’t think CC’s are going anywhere, but I do think they will need to adapt financially to attract a new wave of members.