No matter what you think of private golf clubs, they do have their advantages at times. They are generally less crowded and in better condition than public courses, for starters. (No, I didn't say always. Generally.)
Many are also in a pretty vulnerable state at the moment. The roller-coaster economy is to blame, along with time pressures putting the squeeze on any leisure activity--much less one that takes four hours.
A handful of companies are doing their best to capitalize on this, by encouraging more nonmember play at private clubs. Their pitch to clubs: Couldn't you use some extra money for your unused tee times?
One of these companies, a Seattle-area outfit called Boxgroove, is open to any golfer and promises direct access to private clubs in the United States, Canada and England. Boxgroove members usually pay the club's accompanied-guest fee, though about 20 percent of the time it's the (higher) unaccompanied-guest fee, says founder McRedmond Morelli. An annual membership costs $50, or you can pay $10 to $20 per booking depending on how many golfers are playing.
The company says it has signed up nearly 700 "affiliated" private clubs. Nice as many of them are, generally these aren't golf's biggest-name clubs. Not all are available to every Boxgroove customer, either. "If you and I both looked on our website for tee times in Naples, Fla., you might see 16 clubs available to play, and I might see only nine," Morelli says. Why? Besides pitching his firm as a revenue generator, Morelli encourages clubs to think of his customers as potential new members. Your desirability as a prospect (based on your location, handicap and club affiliation) determines how many clubs will let you play. Morelli says 70 percent of his affiliated courses allow any Boxgroove member to play at least once.
Not everyone thinks this is such a great way to fill tee sheets. Allowing the public to play for the price of a guest fee "goes against every fundamental principle we believe in," says Gary Rosenberg, co-founder of New York-based Tour GCX. His company, which sells access to about 275 private golf clubs, works something like a fractional-jet program. You load your membership card with golf rounds ("tour units") and then have 12 months to use them. Its clubs are chiefly in big business markets, including New York, Dallas, Atlanta and Chicago.
A Tour GCX corporate membership starts with a $14,200 annual fee and includes a block of 20 tour units that can be used by multiple people within the organization. Each tour unit covers all golf-related fees for a foursome. The annual fee for individuals is $950, and a 10-pack of tour units costs $4,750, or $118.75 per round.
About 10 percent of the clubs in Tour GCX's network are "branded" names and cost more. Some require two units for one foursome to play. A select few charge as much as three units. "I really can't name them because people get sideways about it," Rosenberg says. "Let's just say they've hosted major championships."
A company called Private Club Network offers another way into clubs. This one is for people who already belong to clubs but want to play others when they travel. Asking your pro to set up reciprocal rounds can be a hassle and often involves long delays in hearing back from the other clubs, says founder Steve Graves, a Kansas-based marketing consultant. Also, how do you know which clubs allow reciprocal play?
Graves charges private clubs $100 a month to be in his network. He wants them to promote this as a perk for their members. The only thing members pay is a green fee when they visit another course, ranging from $25 to $250. So far he has signed up about 200 clubs, most in smaller markets. "It's a benefit for members. It's more exposure for the club," he says, "and it's creating revenue from unused inventory. It's a win-win-win."