Private Club Update: New York and Palm Springs

March 18, 2009

Bill Pennington authors a solid piece in today's New York Times on the challenges facing private golf clubs these days. Most of the familiar bases are covered: initiation fees being slashed or, in some cases, even dropped; private clubs going semi-private or public; and some struggling facilities being forced to close altogether.

Pennington's story also has some good tidbits. He cites a National Golf Foundation study that claims 15 percent of the country's 4,400 private golf clubs have "serious financial challenges." He contacted the Metropolitan Golf Association, which represents golf in the New York City area, and was told that 25 percent of the private golf clubs in the region have lost at least 30 members since the end of the 2008 season. And he quotes a couple of industry officials who insist that this is a time of incredible opportunity for golfers who have always wanted to join a private club but never felt like they could afford it.

One of those officials is NGF president and CEO Joe Beditz: "In the last 10 years, we've only seen 39 private courses close in America, but we've seen 400 open their doors a little, or a lot. For a golfer, there couldn't be a better time. But the private club isn't going away. In 10 years, there will be about 4,000 private clubs and about 12,000 other golf facilities, just like we have now."

Meanwhile, Larry Bohannon has a story in today's Desert Sun that is more or less the Palm Springs version of Pennington's offering. Private clubs in the Palm Springs area seem to be facing the same economic trials as clubs in the Northeast and everywhere else, with an emphasis on declining membership. Even the best clubs in the California desert are learning that the private club market is different now, and that a prestigious name is no longer enough to guarantee success.

For example, Bermuda Dunes CC — which became famous as one of the longtime host courses of the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic — has 75 fewer members than it did in 2007. "That's [a loss of] about $800,000 in revenue," Jeff Davis, the president of Bermuda Dunes, told Bohannan. As a result, the club now has a full-time director of membership sales and marketing.

— G.R.