How To Fix Private Clubs

By Davis Sezna Illustrations by Seymour Chwast
August 12, 2008

The most successful private golf clubs have a succinct master plan and have been loyal to it.

Yet the majority of American golf clubs don't have a plan and tend to blow in the most current wind of opinion, qualified or not, of their annually or biennially elected president and board.

Every club needs to write its story: What is its purpose, who is it trying to attract, what is the comprehensive experience it is trying to achieve?

Once this master plan has been approved, clubs should compose training manuals, not only for the staff but also for the president and the board. Presidents and board members need to see themselves as carrying their club's baton forward and becoming caretakers of the club's vision. They shouldn't feel obligated to reinvent and try to leave their mark.

Two great examples of new clubs that have developed and stayed true to their master plans are the Boston Golf Club and Whisper Rock in Scottsdale. Both were created with an autocratic vision rather than a committee. The classic old-guard standard is the Cypress Point Club, whose leadership has resisted any excessive expansion of the course or the amenities and has preserved its charm.

Ninety percent of the clubhouses today are overbuilt and underutilized. This is because memberships tend to build for their busiest day of the year rather than for the other 364. I'll never forget the club in the Northeast that decided it needed to knock down its charming original clubhouse and build a modern one. In doing so, after many focus groups, the club constructed a 60,000-square-foot, three-story clubhouse with 17,000 square feet of banquet space, 10,000 square feet of dining, grill and bar space, 10,000 square feet for locker rooms and 5,000 square feet for offices. When I asked the club's president how he and the board were going to utilize and justify a clubhouse of that size, he informed me they were not interested in outside functions; as for how they intended to fill their new 120-seat dining room, he said members really preferred to go down the road to their beach club to dine. Asked my opinion on what to do with this ill-conceived monster, I suggested they bulldoze it and relieve the members of the wasted maintenance expense for the next 50 years.

Members often blame their disenchantment with their club on the facilities rather than looking deeper to realize that the club should be about the camaraderie of their membership, with a professionally trained staff serving great food, ice-cold beer and a reasonably priced wine list. Most clubs could save millions of dollars by not competing with the Joneses. Instead, they should recognize the charm of their clubhouse and fill it with an incredible hospitality experience.

The same is true for golf courses. Many clubs are compelled to renovate or reinvent their courses, when 95 percent of golfers don't play regulation golf and can't perform an architect's prescribed shot on each hole. For these players the conditioning and aesthetics of the course are much more important than the design--and the costs are far less to improve the conditions rather than renovate.

The boards and committees of most private clubs consist of intelligent, successful, well-intended people who have never been in the golf, food-and-beverage, catering, tennis or merchandise business. Therefore, there are very few people serving on private-club boards today who are qualified to interview and hire a general manager, a director of golf, a chef or a superintendent.

A separate but no-less-pressing problem is that the majority of the general managers in the club industry have worked only for 501(c)(3) corporations--nonprofits--and have never been motivated nor inspired by profitability, marketing, human resources and training. Though private clubs are wise enough to hire the finest lawyers and accountants for guidance, they rarely engage experts in hospitality to assist with their needed master plan and the intended experience that would be appropriate for their members and guests.

Clubs get in trouble because they are ill-conceived and poorly managed. They don't create and maintain an environment that people want to become aligned with. Why do clubs lose their competitive status? It's not necessarily because of the new product down the street. It's because of the experience, the lack of a respected master plan and the absence of qualified leadership. It's easy to be good, but few are great!