Country clubs may be central to perceptions of golf as elitist, but most of America’s 3,700 private clubs are happy to have you if you can afford them. And most charge membership fees that are within the upper end of a middle-class budget—at least, when not competing with, say, youth hockey or college tuition.
Is this the year you take your golf devotion to the next level and join the 2 million golfers who belong to private clubs?
I’ve spent more than half of my 25 playing years as a country club member. Having seen golf from both sides now, let me give you a frank assessment of the pros and cons of club membership.
First, Some Caveats
I’m comparing middle-of-the-pack private vs. public golf—neither Winged Foot vs. Pebble Beach nor Bushwood vs.your weedy 9-hole muni. Nationwide, the average annual club membership runs around $6,000 while the median round at the nation’s 11,300 daily-fee courses costs $35 to $40, depending on the day of the week, riding cart use, public or private ownership, course age, etc., etc., etc.
Also, my perspective is mostly Northeastern. Your regional experience may vary, especially in financial matters. But let’s set aside money, for now—it’s not a fair fight. You don’t join a private club to lower your unit cost per round unless you’re a golfing machine the likes of Iron Byron.
Here are three major factors to consider, as you mull over whether club golf is right for you.
Quality of the course
Pro: Private courses get less play and more care than public ones. Links perfection is in the eye of the beholder, but the effort and money involved in are measurable. The median private club spends $1.2 million a year on maintenance, while the average daily-fee course budget for 18 holes is $467,000. Even acknowledging the apples-to-oranges factor—some private clubs have more than 18 holes—that’s still a dramatic difference.
Private practice facilities are usually superior, too. Along with the usual driving range and practice green, often you’ll find chipping areas and practice bunkers, sometimes an entire practice hole. Time to develop that sterling short game!
Con: You’re playing the same course over and over and over. Monotony is the main objection to club membership from those who can afford it. I think it’s like marriage: fidelity is easiest with a partner who’s intriguing enough to keep you interested. Play your prospective course a few times before committing to see if it’ll keep its allure.
Despite the occasional brilliant (by my standards) round, I could never entirely master my country club’s course, and that kept me coming back. It also drove me elsewhere at times, for relief at easier venues.
Therein lies Con No. 2. I couldn’t master my track because most of the holes were too long for most women to par them. Traditional private club yardage does not suit female players’ average 146-yard drives. Look for a club that has jumped on the further-forward-tee bandwagon and abandoned the traditional red/gold/white/blue markers, so members play the distance that suits their game, not their age or gender.
Quality of play
Pro: Avid golfers go private for speed and serenity. If it takes club members more than four hours from the first tee to the 19th hole on Saturday morning, they start griping to the Greens Committee. If a club has tee times at all, they’re likely to be 10 minutes apart instead of the pack-‘em-in 7/8-minutes at public courses.
On weekdays and Sunday afternoons, you’ll have the course to yourself at many clubs. Thus my seemingly out-of-order advice to new golfers: start at a club if you can afford it. Playing by yourself at off hours, you’ll have room to build competence and confidence. Taking a newbie game to a busy public course is like learning to drive a car at rush hour.
Your club will also provide quantity with quality—one-stop shopping for leagues, lessons, competitive and fun events, equipment and clothes. It’s plug-and-play golf.
Con: Uncrowded is one thing, but my club was so member–sparse that I couldn’t get a game after Labor Day. I’d email 20 people yet find no takers for a weekend tee time, and I assure you, I have no issues with personal-hygiene or club-throwing.
Another oft-heard complaint is that cliques limit club companionship, yet importing your own friends runs up guest fees. A good pro shop should act as matchmaker among members, but that’s not a universal habit, so quiz the pro before joining if you’re concerned about finding playing partners.
The soft stuff
Pro: If you fit in, you’ll feel at home. Everybody from the golf pro to the waiters will treat you like family. For those of us who don’t have a butler at home, club life is the closest we’ll come to having domestic staff.
Also, at a “country” as opposed to “golf” club, there’s a pool, tennis, kids’ programs, maybe a fitness center, and all manner of social activities, if you care about these things. I thought I didn’t, but they became surprisingly important to me, especially the close friendships I made. Business networking was also meaningful: I met my accountant, life insurance agent, and financial advisor through clubs.
Con: The recurring cast of characters in a club means there’s a fine line between hominess and high school, and nobody wants the latter experience twice in life. So you have to edit your behavior carefully on club grounds if you don’t want to get talked about or even shunned.
And then there’s blue jeans. You can’t wear denim at most clubs, or only in limited locations or circumstances. This policy is outdated—jeans cost more than khakis these days—but it persists. (In cold weather, I used to sneak onto the first tee in black jeans, with a sweater pulled over the dead-giveaway topstitched pockets.)
Now show me the money
Unit price per round? The math isn’t pretty. Moreover, the true cost of membership adds on your restaurant monthly minimum; fees for carts, bag storage, locker and tournaments; miscellaneous assessments, and tips galore. It’s like taking a cruise—for the real cost, double the fare.
Club membership starts to approach economic sense when you pair up because clubs notoriously discriminate against single members by charging them well over half of a full family fee. Two avid golfers with the same home address can make a dual or family club membership efficient if they basically live at the clubhouse all season.
The lower fee at a semi-private course works out cost-effectively with greater ease because in effect you’re buying a season’s worth of public greens fees at a discount. (No extra charge for the inevitable member grousing about public play.)
Finally, let me offer a 21st-century solution: the virtual club. The LPGA Amateur Golf Association is the most fully formed option here, with more than a hundred local chapters that provide club-style activities—leagues, competitive and casual play, and social events—without locking you into a single course or a hefty monthly fee.
LPGA Amateurs was a big part of why I gave up my private club membership two years ago. With 200 women in my local chapter, and plenty of them willing to play past Labor Day, I didn’t need a country club anymore.