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The disappearing country clubs

North Shore Country Club general manager Ben Ghesquire

North Shore Country Club general manager Ben Ghesquire outside the august Glen Head establishment, which was sold in November. (November 2009) Credit: Charles Eckert, 2009

Ed Weathers, a former senior editor at Golf Digest, teaches English at Virginia Tech. The article appeared in Newsday Dec. 27, 2009.
 

This month, the Woodcrest Club, a golf-based country club in Syosset, filed for bankruptcy. Last month, the North Shore Country Club in Glen Head was sold under financial duress to a Manhattan developer.

Other clubs from Florida to Michigan to California are losing members so fast that they've started doing the unthinkable: offering memberships with a zero initiation fee and cut-rate annual dues -- even giving bounties for new members, not all of whom, gasp, come with a pedigree.

If you dislike golf, your response probably ranges from "So what?" to "Serves them right." You view golf -- country-club golf, especially -- as an elitist waste of time indulged in by rich, bigoted white men too fat to walk to their next shot, instead driving there, cigars in hand.

But there's more to all of this. Not all country clubs are created equal. Nor does every country club's demise demand the same response.

The death of a few country clubs won't hurt golf a bit. In fact, though sad in some ways, the recent struggles of some clubs reflect a decades-long trend that may be leading us to a slightly less exclusionary and more environmentally sound society.

Personally, I like golf. I grew up playing and caddying at the public courses at Bethpage State Park, in Farmingdale, my hometown. In my first 47 years, I played exactly one round of golf at a country club, as the guest of a caddie there. Later, as a Golf Digest editor, I often played as a guest at some of the preeminent country clubs in the United States, from Winged Foot in Westchester County to the San Francisco Golf Club in California to the splendid courses on the South Fork of Long Island like National and Maidstone. Today I belong to a small country club myself.

My experience has taught me that the difficulties at the struggling clubs have been long in the making and are not simply the result of the recession or the Bernie Madoff scandal. They are instead the consequence of classic economic forces -- supply, demand and competition.

According to the National Golf Foundation, there were about 13,000 golf courses in the United States in 1990. Today there are 16,000, a quarter of them private. That means that a new golf course has opened, on average, every two to three days for 20 years.

Golf is simply overbuilt. For a country club to ask new members to pay $20,000 or more in initiation fees plus that or more in annual dues, as many troubled clubs have done, is simply foolish under these circumstances. They cannot compete in the marketplace charging those rates.

 

Competition, of course, involves not only fees but also the quality of the golf itself. Fifty years ago, if you wanted to play golf on a beautifully designed, immaculately maintained course, you had to join a country club. Not any more.

In recent years, hundreds of spectacular golf courses have been built for the public. Some fine public courses, like those at Bethpage, charge $50 or less for a round of golf. Others, like Pebble Beach in California, charge hundreds of dollars. Long Island has many world-class public courses, especially out east. It is becoming more and more difficult for country clubs to compete with such fine public courses.

Some country clubs, however, will weather this economic situation.

First, there are what I call the Carnegie and Rockefeller clubs. These are clubs like Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, Winged Foot and The Country Club at Brookline, in Massachusetts - old-line clubs with magnificent golf courses and a great golf tradition. They are the kinds of clubs where U.S. Opens and Ryder Cups are played. Some have initiation fees of more than $100,000 and years-long waiting lists, even today. It takes more than a recession to dim the luster of such places -- or dent the wallets of those who can afford to join them.

Second among the survivors will be those clubs at the other end of the economic spectrum - inexpensive little clubs like the ones I've belonged to, which charge only low-four-figure initiation fees, with annual dues in the same range. Call these "Joe Sixpack" clubs, if you wish. I used to belong to one in Connecticut where, from the ninth green, one walked across the main street of town, up a side street, past the deli and the barber shop to the 10th tee.

To join such a club, we members make relatively small sacrifices - we buy a smaller car and eat out less each year, in exchange for easy access to a nice golf course. These clubs, too, are relatively recession-proof.

The upshot of all this: The country clubs in most jeopardy are those with limited tradition that pretend to elitism by charging five-figure initiation fees and similar annual dues for golf courses of no great distinction. A few country clubs on Long Island unfortunately fit that characterization.

Part of this pretension at some clubs has been expensive and ill-conceived golf-course maintenance. Many clubs still believe that golf must be an emerald-green game, and they pour expensive pesticides and fertilizers on their courses to support that notion. More progressive golf courses, on the other hand, understand that golf can be "green" in another way and take environmentally friendly approaches to course maintenance that also happen to be cheaper.

All told, struggling country clubs are victims, in at least some cases, of their own pride and of simple economic principles, and it is difficult to feel sorry for them or their members. They must adapt or die. The average golfer, meanwhile, loses almost nothing by their demise.

We should remember, however, that whenever a country club closes, people lose jobs. Most country-club workers live on the margins of the economy: dining room wait staff, course-maintenance crews, caddies. For many, this is a second job - a clean, safe one - and it pays their rent or their college tuition. For their sake, I would wish no country club ever to close.

 

The decline of the country clubs, should the trend continue, also reflects the general anti-elitist sentiment of the nation. Golf, like the corporate board room and the White House, is no longer just for old-moneyed white men. Some give Tiger Woods credit for the democratizing of golf. There's little to support that. Golf was becoming a multiclass sport well before him - see the blue-collar fans who cheered Arnold Palmer in the 1960s, and the fans of Lee Trevino, a Hispanic, in the '70s.

Golf will never be a default sport of the poor; even on public courses, golf costs too much and takes too much time. But, in part because of the proliferation of fine public courses and other changes in the game - like playing the U.S. Open at the publicly owned Bethpage Black - golf has gone a long way toward ridding itself of its country-club image.

Is it any surprise that the country clubs themselves may be the next to go?

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