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How To Join A Private Club

We asked more than 200 private-club members about the basics they wish they had known before signing up. Our Q&A tells what YOU should know before the bill arrives

October 2008

Joining a private golf club can require an amalgam of skills: the observational talents of a detective, tact of a diplomat, patience of a saint and insight of a forensic accountant. Few of us possess that combination, but fear not: This guide will help you understand what it takes to join a club, answer your most pressing questions and give insight into what longtime members wish they had known when they applied. Comments were supplied by more than 200 club members across the country at every-thing from America's 100 Greatest Courses, as ranked by Golf Digest, to small facilities that are the only game in town.

Q: I'm happy with the daily-fee and municipal courses in my area. Why should I consider joining a private club?
Because for the first time in your life the economics might work in your favor. The growing profile of high-end, daily-fee courses that began flourishing in the 1990s has created competition. That has left most clubs scrambling for revenue and offering attractive membership opportunities.

Q: It's a buyer's market?
Definitely. At least that's the case in many parts of the country. If you're in Detroit, where the auto business is struggling, there are plenty of opportunities. Ditto if you're near a city where a lot of daily-fee courses have been built in the past decade. Chances are a club within an easy drive of your home is ready to deal. But if you're in Dallas or Houston, where the oil business has kept private clubs booming, you won't have as much luck. Likewise, the largest and most prestigious of the country's 4,000-plus private clubs aren't feeling the financial pressure the way your local club might be. Despite the economic downturn, some elite clubs are still getting $250,000 to $500,000 in initiation fees, maybe more than that in some cases, but research tells us there are low-cost alternative clubs within 25 miles of almost every one of the private clubs among America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses.

Q: So what's this going to cost me?
A lot depends on the initiation fee, which is actually the best reason to be looking right now. Some clubs have eliminated initiation fees or lowered them to a few thousand dollars. Some will even allow you to finance them over several years. According to a study of private clubs done for Golf Digest by Longitudes Group, 30 percent of responding clubs had a list price for initiation of $7,500 or less. We heard about many clubs undercutting those list prices, and the study showed that the least-expensive clubs are the ones that need new members the most.

Q: What are the costs beyond the initiation fee?
The average annual cost for dues at the clubs responding to the survey was $6,245, which is about $520 a month. With some daily-fee courses charging $100 or more for a round, you might already be spending that much. Private clubs will typically provide applicants with a complete list of costs, but we can't emphasize enough how much costs vary from one club to the next. We found small and remote clubs that charge little more than $200 to $300 a month. And we're aware of clubs that charge much more and tack on fees for the locker room, bag-room storage, range, hole-in-one insurance, tournaments, holiday gifts. These might add up to an additional $1,000 a year.

Q: Am I required to spend money elsewhere at the club?
Most clubs require members to spend a minimum on food and beverage each month ($50-$100 at some, more at others). Even if you never have a soda or a sandwich, you'll be required to pay that monthly minimum. Each club has rules on what counts toward your minimum. At some, favorite spots such as the halfway house, pool snack bar or grillroom aren't included. At some clubs, beverages might be excluded from minimums.

table

only 2% of clubs have waiting lists with 25 or more names

Q: Any other hidden fees to expect?
Members shudder at the word, but "assessments" generate crucial funds. These additional costs typically cover major projects such as a course renovation, but they also might be used for emergencies. At many clubs, capital expenditures above a certain amount, typically $1 million to $2 million, require membership approval. Let's say the board wants to spend $1 million to remodel the locker rooms. It might have open meetings to discuss a proposal that each member pay an extra $100 or $200 above the dues for 24 months. Or it might send invoices for $5,000 and expect full payment in 60 days.

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