May 3, 2009

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These days, a check and a pulse might be all prospective members need to get in the door of many country clubs

An empty driving range has become a familiar sight at some golf clubs around the country.

An empty driving range has become a familiar sight at some golf clubs around the country.

As the sputtering economy squeezes private country clubs throughout the U.S., Steve Graves finds himself in more demand than ever. Graves -- a balding, gregarious former head pro at Manhattan (Kan.) CC -- is the founder and president of Creative Golf Marketing, a golf-course marketing and management company based in Manhattan. He has seen clubs scramble for members in recent years and especially in recent months: slashing initiation fees, dropping monthly dues, turning a once-elaborate screening process into a mere show-me-the-money formality.

But the depth of the industry's troubles became abundantly clear when one elite club in the Midwest asked Graves to give a presentation at its board meeting. The club, reluctant about reaching out to a marketing consultant in the first place, told him it was 32 members below its comfort level. The day after making his pitch to the board, Graves received a phone call from one club official, who told Graves the club wanted to hire him.

Then the man lowered his voice and whispered, "We're actually down 72 members."

"They didn't want anyone to know how bad the problem was," Graves said. "They're fearful of members saying, 'Aha, the board must have screwed up,' so they just raise the dues ... The problem is much deeper. That's like treating a serious disease with a band-aid."

The band-aids come in all shapes and sizes these days, as clubs try to keep their membership rolls full amid the nation's worst economic slump since the Great Depression. Golf already was fighting waning participation, of course, and then the broader economy plunged, sending clubs into new frontiers of damage control.

That means quickly green-lighting applications, in many cases, rather than sending prospective members through a maze of drawn-out scrutiny. "If you have a check and it doesn't bounce, you can join most country clubs," said Steve Richardson, general manager of Paradise Valley CC in Arizona. Or as the GM of one California club said, "If the guy's not a criminal, he'll get approved."

This represents a striking change from the days of long waiting lists filled with golfers eager to plop down big money. Those lists have vanished entirely at many clubs, replaced by wait-to-sell lists of jittery members plotting an exit route in case they lose their job.

One of the most common responses by clubs has been marking down once-hefty initiation fees. Oakland Hills CC in suburban Detroit, host of last year's PGA Championship, dropped its fee from $110,000 to $60,000. One club in Minneapolis cut its fee from $50,000 to $5,000. Morgan Creek G&CC in suburban Sacramento went from $40,000 to $25,000 to zero, with plans to restore only a modest fee (between $500 and $2,000) this summer.

Graves, whose company has worked with more than 900 clubs in 46 states since 1990, advises his clients against slashing initiation fees too drastically, saying that strategy will not solve the problem. He advocates trial memberships, new membership categories (such as one for young executives) and relaxing traditional policies prohibiting, say, jeans and cell phones in the clubhouse.

It's 2009, folks, and the game has changed.

"Thirty years ago, the line was out the door to get into a club," said John Stanley, general manager of North Jersey CC in Wayne, N.J. "You could say, 'Stand on your head,' and people would. We don't have that type of draw today."


Research done last year by the National Golf Foundation showed memberships in private clubs nationwide down, on average, 13 percent. The NGF also found nearly 15 percent of clubs classifying themselves as "seriously challenged," with those clubs down 29 percent in membership.

A more recent survey by the Metropolitan Golf Association of New York revealed more than half of the 100-plus clubs responding expected to lose 16 or more members in the year ending June 1. The survey also showed clubs are becoming more flexible on initiation fees -- nearly half are allowing initiation fees to be paid over time or offering special terms this year.

Beyond new ways to pay, many prospective members also can savor the friendlier screening process. That used to rival the Spanish Inquisition, as one club official put it, dragging on for four to six months at some fancier clubs and including everything from exhaustive committee reviews and two-week bulletin-board posting to a formal interview and cocktail party.

Not anymore. Graves acknowledged this seismic shift, though he encourages clubs to streamline the screening process without loosening their standards too much -- taking new members after less diligent reviews, for example, but putting them on probation for one or two years.

There's still ample incentive for clubs to maintain reasonable standards. Many private clubs enjoy non-profit status, but the requirements for that designation, in the government's eyes, include having specific criterion for membership and reviewing an applicant's credentials. Or, put another way, you're not supposed to let just anyone stroll onto the No. 1 tee.

This doesn't always deter clubs from lowering the bar, as Graves discovered when he asked one club in Alabama how many people it had turned down in the last five years. Club officials laughed and replied, "Nobody," prompting Graves to remind them this could become a problem if the IRS audited them.

"Here's what some of the best clubs are doing -- no more screening up front, no more blackballing, no more cocktail parties," Graves said. "I'm seeing lots of clubs doing nothing. A guy off the street walks in and they let him fill out the application and write a check."

Few clubs will publicly admit lowering their standards so dramatically, of course. One source in Michigan insisted Oakland Hills, after losing 25 to 30 members, held firm on its screening policy and quickly welcomed just as many new members, partly because of the reduced initiation fee.

Stanley, the GM at North Jersey, practically restored his membership roll after Graves helped install a preview program, delaying initiation fees. Stanley said the screening process changed only in that it moved much faster, because the club now covets new members like precious jewels. "There's a sense of urgency," he said. "Rather than, 'We'll get to it,' now it's, 'Let's do this right now!' "

The economy is pinching country clubs enough that they will take any cost savings they can find. One example: The Club at Mediterra in Naples, Fla., with two Tom Fazio-designed courses, a 25,000-square foot clubhouse, custom homes from $1.6 million to more than $7 million and "authentic Mediterranean elegance," according to its website.

New Lease Management, which manages Mediterra and 14 other clubs in South Florida plus another in Louisiana, closely inspected its budgets as the economic slump deepened. Company officials unearthed this nugget, shared by Mediterra GM Michael Seabrook: They will save $25,000 by shutting off the parking-lot lights between midnight and 5 a.m. every day.


Country clubs once frowned on test-driving their facilities. Yes, that's the practice range, but don't even think about taking any swings there until you become a member. See you in six months, pal. Fast forward to 2009 and trial memberships are all the rage, from the decimated landscape outside Detroit to the rocky mountains of Denver to the fog-shrouded fairways near San Francisco.

TPC Michigan -- formerly home of the Senior Players Championship (1993-2006), then a Champions Tour major -- sits on land once owned by the Ford Motor Co., in Dearborn. Members can see Ford world headquarters out the dining-room window, a none-too-subtle reminder of the reeling automobile industry, which has absorbed more than its painful share of the country's economic turmoil.

Even so, TPC Michigan took a cue from the auto industry and launched a lease program for club membership. Eighty percent of leased vehicles in the nation come from Michigan, club officials figured, so they knew people there would understand the jargon -- make a down payment and then monthly payments on a lease lasting one, two or three years. The idea produced tepid results last fall (the club launched it right after the stock market plunged), but membership director Jeff Gajewski was encouraged by the response after TPC Michigan re-introduced its lease program this spring.

Many other clubs also are heading down versions of this path. Green Gables CC in Denver started its dues-only program in February, welcoming new members without charging them the standard $45,000 initiation fee. General manager Christophe Granger said the club has added 50 new members in two months, hoping they will convert to a full membership (and belatedly pay the initiation fee) when their one-year contract ends.

Some clubs, such as Lake Merced GC in Daly City, Calif., are proceeding more cautiously. Lake Merced -- a tight, tree-lined layout which regularly hosts U.S. Open qualifiers and this year will host an NCAA regional and the California Amateur Championship -- recently added a six-month trial membership, with an up-front fee of $6,000 and regular monthly dues of $735. That counts as a bargain compared to the full initiation fee ($103,900) or the cost of an associate membership ($65,000 over five years).

Also worth noting is Lake Merced's family-friendly approach, an increasingly popular concept. In the last 18 months, the club has added a kids' menu at the café, a kids' tennis program, a kids' golf clinic and a parent-child tournament. Plus, in another effort to appeal to younger families with small kids, general manager Donna Weinman convinced the board of directors to change the dress policy; jeans now are allowed in the clubhouse at lunch and during one of the two dinner hours (though they're still banned on the course).

"I think it has appealed to the younger membership," Weinman said.

It's one of many ways country clubs are trying to cope with economic reality. Some are giving credits of $5,000 or more to existing members who bring in a new member. Others are inventing new categories to lure juniors, seniors, singles or even golfers who only want to play during the week.

Graves, the marketing consultant, tries to preach these kinds of ideas as he travels the nation giving speeches to worried club officials. His message is simple, really, and borrows a central tenet from Rahm Emanuel, White House chief of staff: "Let's not waste a good crisis."

*Ron Kroichick covers golf for the San Francisco Chronicle. *