Persona Non Grata
What it takes to get kicked out of a private club these days
Let’s pretend congratulations are in order. You just joined a private golf club, a place where you can let loose with friends, indulge in a few cocktails, play, practice and escape such mundane matters as career and family. Plus, if you’ve plonked down the cash for initiation and dues, odds are you’re not living paycheck to paycheck. Take a moment to appreciate your place in life. Many golfers would sacrifice a pinky toe to be in your position. You’re doing swell.
With those pleasantries out of the way, let’s move on to a more pressing (if slightly awkward) conversation. Having a membership number does not give you carte blanche to do whatever the hell you want. There’s a line, and crossing it can get you kicked out—which, reputationally, is worse than never getting in at all. Some clubs are glorified fraternity houses, others bring to mind a place of religious worship, and that vibe typically shifts the line. It’s your task to act accordingly. But there are certain infractions you can almost never overcome.
We’ll begin with one of the most egregious sins in golf: cheating. This might be the fastest way to return to your club-less days, and it happens more often than you might expect. The seminal cheating story comes out of one of those blue-blood, ultra-exclusive clubs in the Hamptons. The member wasn’t the culprit, but the strong response tells you everything you need to know about how cheating goes over in this most honorable game.
The golfer in question was the guest in a member-guest competition and hit his tee shot directly at the flag on a blind par 3. A large dune obscured the landing area, but the group assumed the shot was perfect, so there was general confusion when no one could find the ball. Finally, the guest announced to the group that he had found his ball in a back bunker. He then played a nifty shot to four feet. When the caddie grabbed the pin, he noticed a ball resting in the cup. A hole-in-one, with a major asterisk.
The caddie lifted the ball out of the cup and looked at the dumbfounded member, who picked up the ball his guest had obviously dropped in the bunker and tossed it back to him. He then directed the caddie to escort his guest in and delivered a stern message: “You are never allowed back here.”
Another common expellable offense is disrespecting the staff. These folks show up ready to serve with a smile on their faces and enjoy scant days off in season, and if you’re known as someone who treats them poorly, your days will be numbered. At a place in the Northeast, a member made a racist remark to the bartender. The reaction by the new club president was swift and decisive. “I had to show the rest of the membership this would not be tolerated,” the president said. The offending member was cast out immediately with no appeal.
At a club on Long Island, a member raised his voice at the general manager after being told that he should not be dining on an outside porch—the member was with his child, and this section was adults only. “No, I’m a member here; I’m sitting outside on the porch,” the member said. The owner of the club overheard the incident and asked the GM why the man was sitting where he shouldn’t. The GM informed the owner that the member wouldn’t listen.
“Go get me my checkbook,” the owner said. He wrote a check to reimburse the member’s initiation fee. After lunch, he asked the member how his steak was. “Good,” he said.
“I hope it was, because it was your last one ever here,” the owner said.
Considering the relative financial security of most private-club members, you wouldn’t think petty larceny would be a recurring theme. Yet there’s something about a gleaming new range ball worth 75 cents that unfurls the inner kleptomaniac. We heard multiple tales across the country of golfers getting caught with balls in their bag stamped “PRACTICE” and getting suspended or even the boot, on principle. At one club in Naples, a member was caught stealing toilet paper from the various comfort stations on the course. It was an awkward scene during the confrontational discovery of a towering stockpile in his garage. This was pre-pandemic, so I suppose we can give the gentleman credit for being ahead of his time.
Even the best of intentions can lead to exile. At one old New England club, a good player sought to leave his mark as greens-committee chairman by being the man who finally fixed the weakest hole on the course. Never mind that a substantial portion of the membership thought the little par 3 was fine the way it was. After an expectedly disruptive and costly construction project, the verdict was unanimous: the par 3 had become unquestionably the worst hole on the course. The wild breaks of the new green were apart from the unified character of its 17 much older siblings. To his credit, and perhaps sensing the pitchforks of the angry mob, the chairman executed his own honorable discharge and left the club. If you ever find yourself in a position to make permanent changes to the golf course, proceed with caution.
Arriving at one’s dotage or even full-fledged senility buys some latitude around the club, but even here there are limits. At one swanky club near Los Angeles, which counts athletes and celebrities as members, the patriarch of a family that had been members for decades picked up an odd habit in his old age: befouling the showers. This, of course, did not fly, and he was politely asked to cease and desist. Undeterred, he left a parting gift at one of his next visits to the club, which incensed the locker-room attendants tasked with cleaning it up. The member was promptly suspended from the club but seemed to have learned his lesson upon returning. Many weeks passed without incident until he again wrote his unmistakable signature. That was the end of his membership. Indeed, the shower floor is more sacred ground than some fail to appreciate. At another club, a member was ejected permanently for tippling to excess one evening and leaving a shattered bar glass there.
Unless your club offers martial arts classes, getting physical with anyone on club grounds won’t end well. One course that has hosted 75 multiple major championships had to navigate a tricky situation when a caddie accosted a member’s son for blasting balls from the practice range onto one of the holes, putting groups in semi-danger. The confrontation rattled the child, who told his father about the distressing interaction. Pop didn’t take too kindly to a caddie speaking to his boy that way, and he let the caddie know and then some. Accounts vary, but the consensus is that the member shoved the caddie forcefully.
“He did what any father would do when an adult yells at his child,” one former employee at the club said, “but you can’t do that in the caddie yard of such a prestigious club.”
The caddie went to the hospital, and later recruited a bunch of his fellow loopers to essentially blackmail the member, threatening to sue him if he did not meet their demands. Not long after, the caddie made a serious misstep in an unrelated matter and was fired, but the club wanted nothing to do with a legal minefield and decided to also suspend the member indefinitely. He is no longer a member of the club.
Fights between guests on club property are treated similarly. After an interclub match among three upscale clubs of a posh suburb, four members of a guest club were invited to stay for a drink by a member of the host club. The member had to depart unexpectedly but, like the consummate host, invited the guests to stick around and hang out. Despite it being a weekday and not even 5 p.m., the guests downed several drinks in quick succession. With his inhibitions melted away, one of the boozers decided to spill a spicy secret to another: that one of their acquaintances, in his 50s, had slept with the other man’s sister, in her 20s. Incensed, the brother insisted it cannot be true.
“Say it again,” he taunted viciously. And so, the man did.
Enraged, the brother flipped the heavy table where they were sitting and threw the messenger over a railing onto a lower level of the locker room. A four-man scuffle ensued, and the stricken bartender called 911. All four were questioned by the police, and although no charges were filed, the brother who flipped the table was suspended from his home club for a full year and forced to pay $4,000 to repair the “rare mahogany” railing.
Yep, destruction of property is not acceptable, either. At one hyper-elite club in the northern half of California, a member repeatedly parked his gas vehicle in one of the electric-car-only spots. A fellow member, finding this irksome, decided to take matters into her own hands by keying the gas-powered vehicle. It’s never a good idea to mess with the eco-friendly clan in California. Perhaps the keyer sent a message, but the club sent her a louder one with an expulsion letter.
We can’t say for certain what mixture of alcohol and self-prescribed medication was involved in the following ordeal, but those tend to be key ingredients in flagrant infractions. At one of the oldest clubs in the country, a young member started a weekday morning round with three pals on a concoction of substances. Perhaps he was a bit too comfortable there given that his family had been members since before World War II, but the group’s hooting and hollering rankled other golfers on the course, who alerted the staff. Promptly after ordering three transfusions each at the turn, they drove a cart through a bunker on the 10th hole. On 11, they ripped the cup from the green. On 12, they drove a cart onto the green— at which point a caddie from another hole confronted the group. The member, the most inebriated of the bunch, invaded the caddie’s personal space, which prompted the head professional to come check out the disturbance.
The member tried to fight the head pro, and at this point, the entire course was aware of the ruckus. They managed to get the instigator off the golf course and into a shower, and his three cohorts went to sleep it off in the locker room. But the member, not content to let this binge end, snuck out of the shower and ran into the parking lot, where he began damaging cars. The head and assistant pro chased after him as he ran toward a nearby train station. It was there that his liquid courage did him in, for he attempted—without clothes on—to jump the train tracks. He fell flat on his face and knocked himself unconscious. As you might expect, our aspiring long jumper is no longer welcome at the club, though his grandparents are.
Liquor was also the lubricant for the most lewd story we’ve come across, which happened the night before a member-guest at a pants-required club that costs more than $150,000 to join. A guest who had played in the event multiple times couldn’t make it one year because of injury but asked his host if he could still show up to the dinner party the night before to mingle with some old pals. He showed up stumbling drunk and with a female companion whom many suspected had been paid for her services. The pair disappeared from the party, only to be caught by security cameras in flagrante on the golf course. The guest was not welcomed back to the member-guest or any associated soirees, and the member was served a lengthy suspension.
At a club that is operated essentially as a one-man dictatorship, a member did something stupid—the actual offense has been forgotten in so many retellings—and was thrown out of the club by the all-powerful El Presidente. The ex-member waited an appropriate length of time for tempers to cool and then wrote a letter of abject apology ending with the statement: “I hope you will find it in your heart to forgive me because I love the place, and I know it takes a son of a bitch like you to run a great club like this.” The dictator paused, laughed—and commuted the death sentence. The reinstated member was right.
Now, don’t take all these cautionary tales the wrong way. We’re not suggesting you’d ever engage in such tomfoolery as to find a pink slip in your locker. (We hear that at one private club a black cashmere sweater is how the castigated are informed.) You’re an upstanding member of society, and you have a shiny new membership to prove it. It’s yours to enjoy for decades—so long as you don’t cheat, you treat people like humans and you’re never the drunkest one at the party. Now get out there and enjoy.
At my home course, Mesa Country Club, we play stakes where no more than $200 changes hands, usually a lot less, and winners cover the bar tab. It’s the same scene at another private club nearby, where a guy was recently kicked out for welching. When they handed him his equity check back, it was for $10,000 less than what he paid to join. Why the discrepancy? the dude asked. “A rough estimate for all the debts you owed across the years,” they told him.
I hate being in limbo with other people. Even on the PGA Tour, there are guys who will lose Tuesday money games and then say things like, “Oh, I’ll see you at the Memorial in two weeks.” No way, bucko. This isn’t double-or-nothing. My dad taught me from a very young age to pay fast. His game was a $2 nassau, and if a guy still owed my dad two bucks, my dad wouldn’t play with him. Also, all golf debts should be settled in cash. My Venmo is linked to the joint bank account I share with my wife, and she doesn’t need to see how much I’m winning or losing. That’s no fun. In my humble opinion, if you make people ask to be paid, you deserve the boot.