Long term viability of the American Country Club model?


#21

I live in Nashville, which is an interesting landscape regarding this topic. While golf is not necessarily growing rapidly, we’re not seeing a huge decline either. The growth here is astronomical every year so with every new resident comes the possibility of a new golfer. With that being said, I have inquired at a couple of clubs in town and the initiations and fees are ridiculous. Keep in mind that I am 28 and it is just my wife and me that would be using it. Two of the clubs I contacted want initiations in the ball park of $40k and monthly dues would be around $700. I asked my dad who knows some members out there to reach out to them and see what the demographic is. Apparently, the scene is old and stuffy and there aren’t hardly any members there under 45. I guess they are trying to keep up with the status quo but I always tell these places one thing “your membership is literally dying” what are they gonna do when their core is literally dead.

Fortunately there is one club that isn’t too harsh on the wallet and has younger members. Just not quite as nice a set up but that doesn’t bother me.


#22

God I love this post.
And just this thread in general.


#23

TL/DR: I found a country club that has reasonable prices for the goods of golf because they cut back to just the essentials.

This is an interesting thread and I think an overlooked issue with Golf, especially with older generations cycling out for a younger audience. I also have a lot to say about it, at least I think. I’m in my twenties, and consider myself a very true fan of golf. When I am looking for a place to call my golf home (public or private), I feel like I get the most out of my experiences with the following:

(1) Adequate, if not exceptional pace of play standards (table stakes)
(2) Accessible practice facilities that suit most if not all of my game
(3) Challenging golf course that has longevity in it’s features (i.e. older, tested, strategically interesting, not necessarily fast/firm/double rolled daily)
(4) Regular crowd / membership that sees the game at least somewhat similarly to me

#1 above probably plays to my biggest issue with golf, which is the time commitment. My wife does not play, and while she actually loves watching and talking golf, she finds the learning curve too steep to pick up in your twenties+. Hopefully one day she can pick it up, but I can’t count on that. For me, she comes first, and if she gets bothered by the amount of time golf takes, then I have to figure something out.

I live in an Ohio metro area. The public courses are all slow unless you take a morning off of work or get that coveted first time off on Saturday, which is usually blocked for a good ol’ boy who knows the pro anyways. So public golf has been a challenge for me, I can’t accept 6 hours door to door as an okay time commitment for a hobby, just not my M.O.

But I found a country club that has seen a resurgence of sorts in the past 5 years in town. They were known for what @4left4right said above “dying membership…literally”. Course was built in the early 20th century when builders just looked at a plot of land and a course popped up. Membership was sustained through one of the many corporations HQ’d in town that offered the club to it’s Middle/Upper management. But as that trend went away, so did their golfing membership. Less golfers eventually lead to less revenue in dining rooms eventually lead to declining membership eventually lead to a course that was neglected and unattractive. On top of that, it’s located in the city proper, so when Dye, RTJ, Nicklaus, Norman, etc started building out in suburbs, so went the golfers.

The club had to make a move. A neighboring course/club was in even worse shape, and they acquired their membership and kept only one of the courses, the better of the two. They made a decision that they want to attact a new generation of players that can not only be an alternative to the high dollar clubs nearby, but are pretty good themselves. Throughout the 2000s, they did a number of things to cut back to only the essential elements of what they were targeting:

(1) Retrofit the clubhouse to cut down on maintenance costs and get rid of unnecessary amenities that lose money
(2) Use clubhouse space to aggressively host weekend wedding that can be reserved by anyone, not just membership
(3) Ink a partnership with all (3) of the local universities for their Women’s Golf Team to be based there…this drove investment by the schools into the facilities and gave the membership a kickass short range and heated bays.
(4) Limit dining to 5 days a week, only staff clubhouse in afternoons & evenings
(5) Offer 18 month intro membership at $500 initiation, $150 a month, $1000 food minimum

It’s not perfect, but it’s no frills and focuses on what the membership wants…Golf. The course is kept firm and fast. Unless there’s a drought, they water minimally. Fairways are general width, with about 15 yds of rough either side…then fescue that is just cut semi annually.

I joined and have been a member for coming up on one year. I can play however long I want, whenever I want. This has been a game changer in terms of my concern with time and there’s no looking back on it. I’ve played more golf and done more with my game than I ever would have on a public course. There are no tee times. I can hit a few balls, work on a couple specific shots, and drag a cart out to exactly where it’ll count on the course, bring a tote bag of balls and hit that shot on the course. No problem at all. If someone is playing though, no problem, just go to another part.

The result is what I think is a great offering for a club. Is it the nicest course in town? No. Is it the hardest? No. Is it the most fun? Maybe. Is it an affordable option for younger golfers to have that accessibility and service that normally costs a mortgage? Hell yeah.


#24

@GaryPotter is right about “top” level clubs actually increasing their initiation fees and the low- and mid-tier clubs struggling. My wife is a membership director at a “top” level club and that’s almost verbatim what she says. In fact, I am starting to wonder if Gary is really my wife. Honey, if that’s you, I am going to Target after work so you will need to pick up the kids.

Thanks.


#25

Lucky you! I’m over in KC and have a couple of buddies that had some sort of regional membership deal several years ago. Got rained out on 3 separate attempts to play it then finally gave up on the idea. That was 10+ years ago & have always heard great things. I was concerned that it’s location would make it tough to attract enough members to sustain it when it was built, but happy it hung on.


#26

Preach @Zocco ! PREACH!

All clubs in my area have this stupid “social membership” included. What a waste of money for me. I am not going to drive to my club to hang out at the pool and play bingo. Sponsored dinners, wine tasting, horderves are all nice to have (I guess) but not what I am paying for.

Ideally, would have a resort style course as my home course (minus the numerous restaurants and lodging options). A place that is pure golf only. Fantastic practice facilities, challenging but fair course, fast greens, decently conditioned, and not crowded. A place where the only thing to do is play and practice golf.

Reason why I went private is less traffic, quicker rounds, and not having to deal with the hammered group wearing jorts. Public is just not an option but the american CC model is a bit extra.


#27

Maybe the play is to email every membership director and get free rounds of golf under the auspices of “taking a tour”. In a big city this could cover most of the golf season.


#28

It’s an interesting question, I do think that clubs are generally less affordable for most people, but at least at the really elite clubs I think there’s always going to be a group that wants to belong to them because of the culture and the lifestyle surrounding them. Personally I would love to join one, my in laws belong to a private club in NY state and it’s a great facility with a fantastic golf course, but as someone who’s still paying off student loans and starting a family it’s just not feasible. The junior membership programs help at these places but at least at the clubs I’m familiar with you still have to be able to outlay a good deal of cash to the club for regular fees as well as assessments or other improvements to the club that can make it difficult as you’re just starting your career.

I would love to see a move towards more of the UK/Ireland model to make it more affordable but the system is too entrenched here. Maybe some of the smaller clubs will go that way as they are less able to distinguish themselves from other surrounding clubs, but the truly prestigious ones aren’t going anywhere.


#29

I’d be lying if that wasn’t a great motivator to inquire with clubs I could never truly afford.


#30

I really struggle with the CC model here in Lancaster, PA. I understand that when you are rich, you can afford nice things. It is just difficult to see some of the best tracks in the area being golfed by a group of 65+ ladies on a Wednesday afternoon, kicking their ball down the fairway. (this of course is not the case with all members, but you get the picture) Very much a senior crowd, insane prices, and some of the best golf in the area. (LPGA US Open was at Lancaster CC 2 years ago)

Some of the mid-level clubs still have so many access fees, they too can be out of reach. I agree with @sundaybag, with so many vibrant dining and social spots in our great city, no member under 40 is going to go down to the CC and hang out in a lounge with 100 year old carpet.

Obviously, the elderly have put in their time, and they deserve great golf if they have the money to spend. It just feels like the US could benefit from a wider variety of club models, and some that have the 9-5 blue-collar in mind.

How about this: A club that has 9 holes of great golf, (good for after work) and a top notch practice facility. (Large short game area, bunkering, a great range with lights, good yardage markings, maybe a launch monitor for rent from the clubhouse? The type of club where you can have some fun and lower your handicap. No dining requirements, social memberships, etc. Just about the golf.


#31

Some really interesting posts on this threat. In general, the US CC model fascinates and confuses me to the same degree. A few questions for US based guys based on the posts above (please excuse my ignorance):

  1. Joining/initiation fees have been quoted above at anywhere between $20k and $100k. Are these payable up front in cash, or is there an option to spread or defer the payments? Do parents pay a lower fee for their kids which gets them in for life, or do retired parents with big disposable pay their kids fees when they want to join?

  2. The initiation fees sound about equivalent to a down payment on a house (they would be in the UK), is this right? If so, how does anyone buy a house, car, have a family, put the kids through university and still save $100 large to join a country club?

  3. Is the initiation fee an equity purchase or a zero coupon bond, or is it just a cash donation to the club?

  4. Assuming that people who can afford $700 monthly dues have a correspondingly well paid job (i.e. are not spending 50% of net income on golf), how much free time do these people have?! Playing once per week is about $160 per round. This is mental. Even $80 per round assumes two rounds per week for 12 months of the year, which is unrealistic if people play other courses, take vacation, have to work, winter happens etc… Is membership just for retired members of the c-suite?

  5. I assume caddies, beers and food are exclusive of monthly dues, so actual cost per month is higher?


#32

Many clubs are going away from the equity model, making initiation fees just a lump sum payment to the club. Yes, some clubs cost more than down payments on homes. I have heard that clubs will allow you to finance the initiation over a 5-10 year period, but it all varies.

The general rule of thumb I’ve been told regarding monthly dues is if you plan to actually use the club, then double the stated dues amount for your expected monthly payment. Dues are also sometimes referred to as monthly minimums (food, golf, etc.). Generally the only thing “included” in dues are range balls, the pool and fitness facility.


#33

Here are answers to your questions:

  1. Initiation Fees - Clubs LOVE it when you pay the initiation fee upfront (time value of $). However, they also know that not everyone wants to drop five or six figures at once, especially as initiation fees are generally NOT refundable, so they allow a payment plan (5 - 10 years, no penalty for paying off earlier).

As people age their income generally increases, so the older you are, the more your initiation fee. Say you join a club at 25. You might pay an initiation fee around $15,000. However, once you age to say, 40, you might be expected to pay the full initiation fee of say $50,000. Because you have already paid $15,000, then you are responsible for the remaining $35,000.

  1. How do people afford it? A lot of Americans live in debt and just say fuck it. But there is also a number of families that with dual incomes of high paying jobs and can subsequently afford it. Plus, the aforementioned payment plans help.

  2. Initiation fees are pretty much a straight donation to the club. Now, some clubs offer equity and some do not. And, I think it is becoming rarer for a club to allow you to transfer or sell your equity stake, unless it is part of a divorce settlement.

  3. People make time for golf. It’s easy when your club does not require a tee time even on Saturday mornings. Plus, because your round, outside of a cart fee, costs nothing, people play as many or as few holes as they want.

  4. Most of the medium to high-end clubs have caddies but they are not nearly as popular as back in the day. And, yes, you get charged for a ton of extras. There are often range fees, locker fees, men’s golf fees, tournament fees, food and beverage fees, etc. However, it is the price you pay for eating dinner when you want, having a safe place for your kids to run around all summer with the nanny, golfing when you want, etc.


#34

doublecross,

  1. usually you can spread it out over a few years with a minimal interest charged by the club. kids can use the club when they are kids and have to join at a certain age.

  2. yes they are equivalent to house down payment. make a lot of money i guess

  3. usually there is an initiation and a bond/stock… initiation is a donation bond you can get back

  4. the math is nowhere close on a per round basis especially at more expenisve places.

  5. yes that is all separate. take whatever your dues are and double it basically for all in for the month.


#35

My 4:30 am cup of coffee before the gym is the only peaceful moment of my day. The weekends? LOL.

I want a time machine to go back to 1978 so
I can play 27, knock three fingers of bourbon back (twice), and stroll over to the dining room with the wife and kids.


#36

Pretty much. My place is called a Country Club but all it has are two courses and a clubhouse. That being said, I’d like it to have more sports there. I’d love it to have a gym and swimming pool.


#37

Shout out @munihack and @scuff for the answers - thanks for taking the time.

Understand it a little more now and will never complain again when the secretary at my club sticks annual subs up by 50 quid!


#38

I keep going back and forth as to whether I should explore the local private clubs. I’m in a weird spot since the best course in my area is a relatively affordable public, university course. Pace of play and tee time availability are issues there at peak times, but I’ve played three hour rounds there on weekend afternoons. All-in-all it’s pretty great. They do host a decent number of tournaments (youth, college, USGA) so the course is closed more than I’d like. There’s another nearby affordable public course I frequently play as well that’s a small step below in terms of quality, but it’s a place I have no problem playing repeatedly. I had their frequent player card last year, bought it again this year, and it pays for itself in about 5 rounds.

Since I’d qualify for the “junior-executive” memberships at the local private clubs (none are super exclusive or expensive to begin with), the cost wouldn’t be too high to justify joining. I’d enjoy having a more regular group of people to play with (90% of my rounds now are solo), not scrambling for a tee time on the weekends, faster pace of play, access to tournaments, “free” use of practice facilities, and the ability to go play 5 holes without worrying about paying a full greens fee. Being able to use the club to get access to some private tracks while travelling would be a nice bonus too. The downside would be paying a bit more money to play a somewhat inferior course, paying for a pool, dining, events and other “amenities” I don’t really want, and (probably) not being a great fit culturally with what I assume is a much older crowd.

I’m leaning toward at least inquiring with the private clubs this year or next (partially to just play the courses), but I’d have to really be blown away to actually join one of them


#39

As you said, I would recommend at least visiting for the comp’d round and pitch. When you call, perhaps ask about membership age range and they may potentially set you up with some of their members around your age (or as close as they can get)


#40

That is an awesome plan for a club. Especially one that is in a high density area and not in the suburbs. Stop trying to be something you’re not. I would kill to start a semi private club in Nashville that has this exact model in mind. If I won the lottery I probably would and then I’d hire Rob Collins to create a masterpiece.