Once considered bastions of wealth and exclusivity, many country clubs are struggling for survival by cutting corners and opening their doors to the public. Is now the time to get in — or get out?
1. "We'll do just about anything to get you to join."
You may think of country clubs as untouchable bastions of wealth and exclusivity. While that's still the case with some, the industry as a whole has seen better days. After years of growth, membership has increased little or not at all in the past few years, according to the Club Managers Association of America.
Why? Clubs don't have the same appeal they used to. People work longer hours, and the competition for their downtime is fierce. Plus, there are plenty of places to network these days, including upscale gyms.
"(Country) clubs are finding themselves in this new position where they have to actively go out and pursue members," says Rick Coyne, an executive director of the Professional Club Marketing Association. The result: Many clubs are cutting attractive deals. The Santa Rosa Golf & Country Club in Santa Rosa, Calif., now offers sliding fees for "young executives" under 40. The Boca Pointe Country Club in Boca Raton, Fla., is offering one-month trial memberships for $310 — no strings. And the Flossmoor Country Club in Flossmoor, Ill., cut fees nearly in half, from $22,500 to $12,000. If you don't see a deal at your local country club, ask. Not all discounts are advertised.
2. "Want out? It could be a while."
Quitting your country club can be even harder than joining. Just ask Bob Husband, president of Heritage Golf Group, which owns 17 clubs. A longtime member of three clubs in Southern California that Heritage doesn't own, Husband decided triple monthly dues and fees were too much and asked to quit one. That was two years ago, and he's still No. 30 on a waiting list to leave. The club requires eight new members to join before any one person can go.
A waitlist to leave is not uncommon at clubs, where members' monthly fees are the primary source of income. While eight-to-one policies are an anomaly, it's common for clubs to require one for one. There are some ways around it: Inquire about suspending membership until someone new joins. At the Quail Creek Country Club in Naples, Fla., a member can pay a year's worth of dues, then become inactive until a new membership is sold. Some clubs refund some or all of the initiation fee, which can be thousands of dollars, upon exit — but you may have to wait for the check until you're out.
Kathi Driggs, senior vice president for the Club Managers Association of America, advises carefully researching a club before joining. "It's a major decision," she says.
3. "Just because we look posh doesn't mean we have any money."
In 2003 members of the Raleigh Country Club in Raleigh, N.C., were shocked when the club filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. They soon found out it owed about $7 million, much of it for ambitious renovations. An investor came in and rescued the club, but not before members sweated rumors that it was going to be turned into a subdivision. That same year, owners of Hunting Hills Country Club in Roanoke, Va., suffering from a decline in membership, were forced to sell the club's golf course. They leased it back and continued running it, but only by slicing monthly dues and adding hundreds of new members.
Country clubs are businesses, too. How to know if your club, or the one you want to join, is financially sound? Chat with members — the gossipy ones. Look around. If routine maintenance is being ignored, that could be a red flag, says Frank Vain, president of McMahon Group, a private-club consultancy. Sure, the grass has been cut, but is worn carpeting being quickly replaced? Says Vain, "That really is a sign of the underlying financial strength of the club." You can even ask to see the books. Some clubs will let potential members read their annual report.
4. "Membership fees are only the beginning."
You paid your initiation fee and your $300 monthly dues, but your obligation isn't squared away just yet. Two out of three clubs impose a "food minimum," an amount members are required to spend each month, which can run $100 a month or more — and alcohol doesn't always count. Between his three clubs, Husband spends about $200 a month on food.
Some clubs also charge extra for services like bag storage, shoe shines and locker rentals. At Colonie Country Club in Voorheesville, N.Y., in addition to monthly dues of $463 and a $60 minimum for the restaurant, families pay a $280 annual house fee for storing golf bags, using the practice range and using the putting green. Cart rental is another $8 to $16 a pop.
Many clubs also charge members for big maintenance and renovation projects. In 1998 Boca Pointe billed members $2,000 each for a major renovation. Some clubs even divvy up financial losses among members.
How to avoid surprises? Study your contract: Any extra charges must be spelled out (all of the above were). Another strategy is to stay involved — some clubs will put these issues up for a vote, often to all members. 5. "The public course across town is just as nice as ours."
Avid golfers used to look down their noses at public courses. But over the past decade, public facilities have been stepping up their level of service and have become competitive with private courses.
When Greg Sinner moved to Arizona, he wanted service on par with that of his exclusive private club back in Texas. Instead, he's found what he needs at the Raven Golf Club at South Mountain, a public course in Phoenix. Not only is the price reasonable — $70 to $160 per person per round — but he can bring as many friends or clients as he likes. Raven also offers fancy extras — carts with GPS and staffers who wipe down your clubs and provide course conditions. Sinner also likes the fact that he can play at other clubs guilt-free: "If you spend a lot of money on some of these private courses, you don't want to play anywhere else. You can't afford it."
The downside to public courses is that tee times can't be reserved in advance. But that inconvenience is more than offset at Arrowhead Country Club, a public course in Myrtle Beach, S.C., where a round of golf costs $35 for local residents; tourists pay more, $100 a round in high season.
6. "Any Joe off the street is welcome to golf at our club..."
That golfer slowing your game by hogging the seventh hole? He might not even be a fellow member. To raise revenue, many country clubs have begun opening their courses to the public, charging a per-day fee for a round of golf and use of the facilities. The Colonie Country Club, for example, opened its course to nonmember foursomes in early 2003 and took in an additional $40,000 in fees in the first year as a result.
If your club allows nonmembers on its course, there are ways to ensure that you get to golf when you want to. At most clubs, reserved tee times are guaranteed, and in the case of walk-ins, a club will almost always give priority to its members. But with more nonmembers playing these days, it doesn't pay to be spontaneous: Clubs often won't bump nonmembers who reserve tee times a few days in advance.
Bottom line: Consult your club's bylaws. Boca Pointe's, for example, stipulate its golf course is for members only. Also, see what your options are. ClubCorp, a national chain of country clubs, offers an enhanced membership program that, for an extra $25 a month, will let members play at 140 courses around the country.
7. "...and dine in our banquet rooms, too."
Many revenue-challenged country clubs are finding themselves sitting on plum assets, such as sizable ballrooms and catering-friendly kitchens, and realizing that renting out their facilities for big events can bring in big money. A lavish affair can net the Flossmoor Country Club in Illinois around $20,000, which "fills in a lot of gaps," says Tom Gilley, a club member and former president of the board of directors.
Members can rent these spaces too, of course, but clubs often charge nonmembers more. And don't assume members get any special privileges. Event facilities at many clubs are rented on a first-come, first-served basis. "If (a nonmember) books a room first, there's nothing I can do," says Paul Volin, general manager at Boca Pointe Country Club.
How can you avoid going for a quiet dinner at the club and getting turned away — or worse, being seated in an adjacent room, the walls throbbing to the beat of "The Chicken Dance"? Ask about your club's policy on special events. Many clubs have a dedicated party room and will keep the regular dining room open for members, or will send a calendar to members so they're informed about scheduled events in advance. 8. "That 'pro' helping you with your swing might be an apprentice."
A big perk for many country club members is getting to train or practice with a golf pro. To be considered a "pro," a golfer should be a Class A Professional, which means he or she has successfully completed the Professional Golfers' Association of America's three-level training program. But at many clubs, lessons are given by assistant pros, which is perfectly acceptable — in fact, the golf pro training program requires aspiring pros to clock a certain number of hours working under Class A Professionals.
While many assistant pros can be good teachers, some are, well, greener than the grass on the golf course. Nick Stripling, a former assistant pro at Bolingbrook Golf Club in suburban Chicago, recalls a colleague who was hired when he had just begun PGA training and had never taught a lesson before. "He just played golf in college," says Stripling. (A Bolingbrook rep says assistant pros often give lessons to beginners.)
Tom Gustafson, executive director of the Southern California Section of the PGA, says pros should have apprentices give them mock lessons before teaching others. But that doesn't always happen. Ask about your instructor's training. And if you want your club's pro, request him or her specifically — but be prepared to pay more, as much as $150 for a one-hour lesson.
9. "Don't let the fine china fool you — we're not as clean as we look."
In mid-2002, more than 100 people contracted salmonella poisoning after eating at Brook-Lea Country Club in Rochester, N.Y. The club's insurance company later settled claims for an undisclosed amount. In late 2003 the Rockwood Golf Club in Independence, Mo., was cited for a "critical" health code violation for employees not wearing gloves while making sandwiches. To be sure, these infractions are similar to any you'd find at a delinquent restaurant. (Rockwood's general manager, Clayton Burnett, says the violations were "promptly corrected" and that the club is "now more stringent in all of our sanitation practices." John Maggio, president of the board of the Brook-Lea Country Club, says the club hired a new chef after the incident and worked with the local health department to put additional health safety procedures in place.)
Country club restaurants are just that — restaurants — and are subject to the same health-department regulations. But there's one difference: Country clubs are big on buffets, often a more fertile breeding ground for bacteria than food served à la carte. Most clubs are regularly inspected, but be aware that they're held to no higher standard than your local Denny's. And when you can, think about skipping the buffet.
10. "Sure, we're a private club, but we're also a big corporation."
Traditionally, country clubs have been tightly held by a wealthy family or by the club's members. Many still are. But as in so many industries, corporations are gobbling up the more than 5,000 U.S. country clubs and some 16,000 golf courses. ClubCorp, one of the largest of these companies, owns or operates nearly 100.
Critics say the conglomerates detract from the personality and charm of the country club industry. Big companies running strings of clubs, Vain says, "are going to look at it from the bottom line up." Indeed, when a chain acquires a club, its first priority is often to increase membership, since that's the fastest and easiest way to boost revenue.
But consolidation can sometimes be good for members. Big companies can often afford to operate an unprofitable club, even spend money on improvements, which is something independent operators can't always do. And though membership generally grows when a corporation steps in, membership fees often go down.