The EthicistMarch 2, 2020

Can a club expel you for playing too much golf?

Join a private club and you’ll probably see him the next time you drive in the parking lot.

The lifer.

Usually retired (and almost always a man), the lifer is ready to tell you all about what a travesty it is that new members like you are paying a quarter of the initiation fee he did—while simultaneously extracting enormous value from his dues by getting ready to play his sixth round of the week while using a pullcart and discount balls he bought online.

Granted, listening to grousing about the new assessment for grill-room renovations is easier to endure when the lifer is paying the appropriate dues. That concept of economic fairness came up for a challenge recently at the venerable and exclusive Sunningdale Golf Club, southwest of London.

Like many U.K. clubs, Sunningdale has a discounted rate for members who live overseas, and it’s clearly a thriving business. The club has more than 1,000 members, and the vast majority are non-locals—who ostensibly use the club during their occasional visits to London.

Australian John Cawood had been an overseas member since the mid-1990s, but he attracted the ire of the club (and full-status members who had paid $80,000 to get in) when he became too much of a regular.

After two seasons, the club said it warned Cawood he was playing more than the 30 days of golf overseas members get for their $1,200 yearly dues. As a part of the second warning, in 2014, the club asked him to convert his membership to full status, and its $4,200 yearly fee.

Cawood declined, and on the third strike he was out: The club terminated his membership in 2015 after he used his club-issued payment card on 94 days in 11 months—suggesting he was living in the United Kingdom full-time and no longer eligible for overseas membership. Cawood protested that he was at the club more than usual because he had temporarily spent more time in England to tend to his partner’s sick relative, but he didn’t actually play golf on most of those visits. The retired lawyer sued the club, demanding reinstatement and $13,000 in damages.

RELATED: When owning a home on a golf course can come with unpleasant surprises

The case took a while to wind through the legal system, but in December, the Central London County Court ruled in Cawood’s favor, requiring the club to reinstate his membership and pay him $325 for “embarrassment.” The court said the club hadn’t proved a violation of its overseas membership status— and that evidence Cawood presented revealed the ejection was more because the club captain didn’t like him and his “boisterous behavior” and was just looking for a reason to kick him out. In fact, Cawood had presented a draft letter from the captain to other members that implied they could face disciplinary action if they invited Cawood as a guest.

What makes the case all the more fascinating—and awkward—is the shotgun remarriage Judge David Saunders imposed in his ruling. He said the club and its 36 holes, expansive clubhouse and huge membership roll was big enough that “any tension or conflict could be easily managed and avoided.”

Of course, the judge probably won’t be the one who scores an uncomfortable pairing at one of Sunningdale’s Golf Society Days this spring.

The Ethicist is still trying to find out if the club had the cheek to pay Cawood off in shop credit, but in the meantime, the main lesson both parties learned the hard way should not be lost on the rest of us club-joiners. The letter and the spirit of the law are different things, and the gray area between them are where harmonious club relationships go to die if they aren’t tended to carefully.

You can be the unpopular member who exploits every loophole in the club handbook about the frequency a guest can come and play, or your club can be the place where a 4-year-old’s denim jumper means the entire family has to find someplace else to eat dinner. There are plenty of similar stories out there where only the names and locations have changed. Bad manners, naked selfishness, penny-ante nitpicking and ham-fisted abuse of power will make club life obsolete for anybody under 50 faster than you can say “OK, Boomer.”

—WITH MATTHEW RUDY


ARE YOU OR SOMEONE YOU KNOW INVOLVED IN A TRICKY, AMUSING OR JUST PLAIN STRANGE GOLF SITUATION?

▶ Tell us about it, and the Golf Digest Ethicist might write about it in an upcoming column. To submit, describe your issue or send a news link to GolfDigest_Ethicist@discovery.com.


WATCH: GOLF DIGEST VIDEOS