This is the kind of economy that should inspire public golfers to join a private club if they have the money, because we've never seen bargains like this. Private clubs lost about one out of every 10 members last year, give or take a few percentage points, and some industry analysts estimate that upward of 1,000 clubs will close or merge or go public before stability returns to the market. I don't think that's such a bad thing, because a shakeout will benefit the game. The weak will fall away and the strong will have to become smarter.
Private clubs should use this downturn to change the fundamentals of their membership and services. We need to get rid of the last vestiges of discrimination against women and minorities. We need to gravitate toward course conditions that are firm, fast and maybe a little brown in spots, because we'll be using less water -- a cheaper and ecologically sound decision *(see Golf Digest's Green Star award
).* We need to encourage walking and pushing a cart or taking a caddie. But most of all, we need to develop a welcoming attitude that makes people -- the young especially -- feel comfortable in the golf environment.
Some private clubs are small and rich and privileged enough that they can ignore this advice, but the vast majority of them won't be exempt. Some dissenters will say that the very essence of the game is built on elite traditions. But golf has changed many of its customs, and looking back on them we'd say for the better.
We no longer play in neckties and wool coats, in knickers or even in metal spikes. Long pants have been replaced by shorts at hallowed Winged Foot, and casual dining is everywhere. Golf Digest surveyed more than 2,600 public and private golfers about the mores of club golf, and the results *(see Golf's 'Other' Rules
).* offer an agenda for board meetings across America:
• Denim is not allowed at 63 percent of private clubs. It's the fabric of the young and the young at heart. I don't even own a pair of bluejeans, but I'd say that policy needs a mulligan.
• Forty-six percent of private courses don't allow cargo shorts. You're kidding, right?
• Seventeen percent of private clubs don't permit cell-phone use. I guess all the places I play are among that 17 percent, because telecommunications appear to be barred in the Northeast. I understand the sentiment, but that has to change if we want to welcome kids and business people trying to fit golf into modern life. Ditto for iPads, Kindles and e-Readers of all kinds. The Harvard Club of New York City has a card that outlines which rooms allow which devices -- stuffy but practical. Every club should offer wireless and at least some closed-off facilities for texting and transacting business.
• Thirty-one percent of private clubs still restrict tee times for women. Hello! Is it not the 21st century?
• Sixty percent of private clubs limit tee times for juniors. We should be doing everything possible to get kids onto the course and feeling like we're happy to have them. Who doesn't agree with that?
• And how about this one:
69 percent of private clubs ban the wearing of hats backward. In other sports it's called the rally cap, used for good luck. Golfers think it's an anti-establishment declaration. For the young people I know, like Rickie Fowler and Bubba Watson, it's just a fashion statement.
Times are changing even if we resist. I wouldn't be surprised if American golf moved toward the British model with private courses welcoming outside play to keep expenses down. The finest clubs in Scotland and England are open to the public if only you write ahead. Every club should have a charity day when it donates tee times to nonmembers as a fundraiser for the local community. And they should offer a deeply discounted junior membership for men and women under 35. If clubs are to survive in this new century, these questions are just the start.