The Private Club’s Mission – Have We Lost Sight?

People have a variety of reasons for joining a private golf or country club.  Usually, the primary reasons revolve around sports and social activities or as an escape from the hustle and bustle of their daily lives.  The typical private club mission statement might look like this:

(ABC) Country Club has a proud heritage and tradition as a private, family-oriented country club. We are committed to providing exceptional service, outstanding golf, recreation and social experiences in a friendly and welcoming environment for all Members and their guests.

Because of the cost, it stands to reason that those who join clubs are typically busy folks who value their “downtime” and seek a no-hassle environment in which to enjoy their favorite activities, like golf, tennis, swimming or other sports typically associated with private clubs.  Accordingly, most member-owned clubs’ leadership employ or contract for professionals who can manage the day to day operations of the club and much like the old Greyhound Bus advertisements say “Leave the driving to us”.

Unfortunately, at many member-owned clubs club leaders find it personally and individually appealing and satisfying to dive into the daily minutiae of operations, especially that of establishing, implementing and enforcing club rules and policies.  Club leaders (who often stay on too long) can (and should) leave most of these tasks to their professionals, and in the process enjoy the club they so dearly love, avoiding the uncomfortable and unpleasant experiences with their fellow members that often result.

Sometimes, through their unbridled enthusiasm to improve the club, leaders establish rules that create solutions to non-existent problems and serve only to fabricate an atmosphere that makes some members uncomfortable.  For instance, many clubs have dress codes that prohibit jeans or the wearing of cargo shorts or pants and most require collared shirts on men.  Often, there are rules restricting the length of one’s shorts and requirements that hats always be worn bill forward.  I even know of two clubs that until recently didn’t allow shorts of any type and one of them now requires that shorts only be worn with socks no higher than the ankle.  A little music on the golf course?  Typically a no-no.  Cell phones, considered by many as a safety enhancement and often the key to the chain unlocking the golfer from his desk, are banned from many clubs, even to the point of requiring they be left in the car.  If you take away a cell phone from an inconsiderate person, he’ll find another way to be annoying.  I presume the gentleman who passed out on the practice tee last week at my club (true story) appreciated that someone had a cell phone and called 9-1-1.  At some (very prestigious) clubs, members walk around looking over their shoulders wondering if they’ve violated a new rule they didn’t know about.  The question all this raises is once the club atmosphere becomes so restrictive, does that contradict the club’s stated mission?

Those of us fortunate enough to play golf on the typically better designed and maintained private courses more often than not accept these restrictions as a cost of access.  I’ve observed however, that this same atmosphere created by well-meaning board members simply seeking to enhance the club’s level of prestige and intrinsic value in membership often results in micro-management.

Sometimes, members join a club to have family occasions, entertain guests or have large affairs, maybe for business.  Members often take great pride in their club and want to “show it off”.  It’s not uncommon for boards overzealous about establishing rules and policies to make it difficult for these members to actually use the club for their intended purpose.  In many cases these rules and policies actually prevent members from using the club for the reasons they joined.  In many cases, rules are established which accommodate the (comparatively) few members for whom the club is the center of their social and recreational life.  These are NOT typically the members providing the margin for financial success of the club.  Clubs need to pay more attention to that guy willing to pay dues, who plays 8 times per year and never spends his minimum.  If he becomes unhappy and it becomes difficult for him to use the club, membership declines.  Shouldn’t the club’s key staff (golf pro, superintendent, GM) be able to quickly and efficiently accommodate members’ special requests, especially when there’s little or no impact to other club members?  Isn’t joining a club about making one’s life more simple?  Should the board or committee really be involved in these day to day decisions?

The purpose of this discussion is to address decline in golf participation and club membership.  Those of us in our 50’s and 60’s have become used to private club environments that are sometimes described as “stuffy”.  While we may be accepting of it, the statistics of declining participation and club membership and the preponderance of club and golf course closures and private clubs inviting daily-fee play is a clear result of changing perceptions about private clubs.  Younger generations not only desire but demand more casual, less oppressive and more ethnically diverse and gender neutral environments.  For future success, golf’s culture must evolve with society as a whole.

It seems as though the private club investor community understands these issues.  ClubCorp, Troon, Kemper and other major management companies have reinvented many of their clubs in a much more family-friendly, limited-rules and diverse manner.  Of course, many of the clubs they operate had experienced distress and reinvention was essential, and they have a motive of financial profit.  Those (few) member-owned clubs which are thriving sometimes feel as though they are “bulletproof” and immune to the financial distress of their not so fortunate colleagues.  Not true. For clubs, the future is now.  If the next generation decides (and many have) that private clubs are no longer part of their lifestyle, even some of the most prestigious and successful clubs will struggle.  It can and does happen.

Has your club’s mission evolved with the times?