A change in philosophy after the pandemic
The year was 2020. Early 2020. Succumbing to years of unchecked attrition, country clubs had resorted to begging new members to join. Many lowered or eliminated initiation fees, significantly impacting their capital budgets. Others reduced monthly dues or waived food and beverage minimum, negatively affecting their operating budgets.
It was ugly; really ugly. But fast forward to the end of 2022 and this once forlorn segment of the golf industry is almost unrecognizable.
Private golf and country clubs across the country have not only reinstated initiation fees, but many have also doubled or even tripled the price to join. According to several industry sources, the average monthly dues for full golf memberships at U.S.-based clubs have increased by as much as 15 percent.
In Sun Belt markets in Florida, the Carolinas, Texas, Arizona and Utah, up to 80% of clubs have waitlists now extending beyond six months. And if you think it’s just the lower-tier properties, think again. A recent survey by Golf Life Navigators revealed that clubs with initiation fees over $90,000 had the longest waitlists.
And for anyone who didn’t think golf could withstand the headwinds of a recession, think again. While many economic indicators are pointing in the wrong direction, thus far, the private golf club market hasn’t been significantly affected.
Against this backdrop, what’s a golfer in the market for a new country club membership to do? Start with research, and lots of it. There are still plenty of options in dozens of markets as hundreds of clubs have responded with new and creative membership categories to meet this unprecedented demand.
Youth Will Be Served
If you see Heather Myers with her feet propped up in her office in Champion Hills’ clubhouse, she’s not blowing off work. Rather, the club’s long-time membership and marketing director just needs to take a load off. Over the past two years, she’d hosted hundreds of tours for prospective members. That’s not a type-o.
“We’ve hosted a record number of club tours so far this year and don’t expect it to slow down anytime soon,” Myers says. “Our buyers have flexibility when it comes to remote work. They can work from their home here at Champion Hills or commute to an office several times a month.”
Like many private clubs, Champion Hills is quickly approaching its full golf membership limit. This, in large part, is due to the club’s foresight in creating innovative, flexible membership categories that respond to the current demand from generations X and Y.
In 2021, Champion Hills rolled out its Equity 55 Membership, or “E-55” for short. E-55 was designed to meet the uptick in demand from a younger demographic that discovered country clubs during the pandemic. For many of them, golf – then deemed a safe outdoor activity – was the attraction. For others, it was access to kids’ camps, programming, and amenities like swimming pools and tennis courts.
With E-55, the club’s initiation fee is divided into four equal payments over four years, dues and replacement reserve fund contributions are reduced by 50% and the club’s annual food and beverage minimum is prorated for new members for the first year.
“It’s been a game-changer for us in terms of being able to respond to a seismic shift in the market,” Myers says. “We have more members who are still working full time with school or college-age kids, and the percentage of members who live here year-round has increased dramatically.”
At Santa Lucia Preserve, Carmel, Calif., the target demo is just as young or younger. Its Preserve Golf Club and Ranch Club offer an “Associate Program” for those under age 45 for the “Legacy” and “Traditional Club Memberships” on a limited basis. The program allows those who qualify and are approved to join either club (or both) with less upfront investment.
The Associate Program requires payment of 50% of the total initiation fee upon joining with the remaining balance due no later than the 45th birthdate. Associate members pay regular, annual dues commensurate with the Legacy or Traditional category. For golf in particular, the program has proven to be a great opportunity for younger people to explore membership comfortably.
Naples, Fla., affectionately dubbed “The Golf Capital of the World,” once had no shortage of private club options for newly relocated golfers from points north. Now, local industry experts estimate that around 80% of country clubs in Collier County have waitlists. This despite the impacts of Hurricane Ian back in September.
The Club at Olde Cypress recently sold out its full golf membership category. However, the club still offers an “Associate Golf Membership” that affords the same full privileges during the off-season from May through October as well as a set number of golf rounds during the peak season.
According to Director of Membership and Marketing Melissa Hansen, the “AGM” is ideal for golfers transitioning from public or semi-private golf into a private golf club situation or those working full-time and having less time to play golf during the peak season. And rather than just placing prospective full golf members on a waitlist, they can join in the interim as AGMs.
The AGM grants unlimited use of the golf course for those six months for cart fee only and unrestricted use of the practice facilities year-round. Tee times are available two days in advance – more than ample given the limited number of members utilizing the club during that span. During the peak season (November through April), AGMs are allotted 12 tee times for a reduced green and cart fee.
Olde Cypress’ reciprocal program is one of the most robust in the region. It allows AGMs (and full golf members) to play 40 other private clubs in the area from May through October. Naples-area clubs stagger the days they’re closed in the summer, so all Olde Cypress members have a place to play seven days a week.
Privately owned and operated, the influx of new members at Olde Cypress over the past few years has helped the club reinvest in its future. Its P.B. Dye-designed golf course was completely remastered in 2021 with new turf grass on tees, fairways and greens, and the golf shop and second floor of the 34,000-square-foot clubhouse were updated with contemporary furniture, fixtures and décor.
In the golf industry, the saying used to be “semi-private means semi-public.” But as the game strives for inclusivity, a bifurcated public-private business model is overwhelmingly positive. Semi-private courses offer many of the same benefits as private clubs, such as members only events, seasonal tournaments, golf shop discounts and member charge accounts.
Rumbling Bald on Lake Lure in Western N.C. recently dropped “resort” from its official title and has leaned into its persona as a semi-private operation. The 3,000-acre golf panacea is a mountain golf community with two 18-hole golf courses, rental villas and homes, and ample amenities including a spa, tennis courts and marina. Rumbling Bald is now positioned as a “retreat,” whether it be for a long weekend or year-round relocation.
On its Apple Valley and Bald Mountain golf courses, members blend seamlessly with vacation rental guests and daily fee players from around the area. The initiation fee is waived for those who sign a 12-month promissory note and monthly dues for both the individual and family memberships include all greens and cart fees and unlimited range balls.
Variety is a big part of the allure of Rumbling Bald. Not only do members have access to 36 holes, but Apple Valley and Bald Mountain serve up two divergent golf experiences.
Apple Valley, designed by Dan Maples, features a layout devoid of the usual blind tee shots and uneven lies typically associated with mountain courses. Bald Mountain, on the other hand, makes its way up and around its namesake via numerous doglegs and changes in direction.