Club Culture – The Intangible Dynamic

Over the years, I’ve observed the interesting dynamic of club cultures and their evolution.  When I was a young boy, my family belonged to the local “Jewish” club in a small/mid-sized market and I recall that in those days there was only one non-Jewish member.  As in many communities, most of the other clubs didn’t welcome Jews or other minorities and clubs typically took on a particular culture of their own.  While the exclusive nature of many clubs was something of a black mark on society and contributed to the elitist image of golf, it did serve to create a financial foundation for many clubs, as some members (like my grandfather) joined simply to support any institution in their particular community.

As a result, most clubs developed a “culture” over time that impacted the atmosphere, usage and development of club facilities.  While some clubs focused on golf or other sports, others focused on the quality of their food and sometimes serving as venues for banquets, weddings, bar-mitzvahs and other functions.  Still others focused on hosting significant or major golf events or on recruiting members of high skill levels at the various sports.  There were always clubs (like today) that were known for their excellent golf course playing conditions or particularly fast greens.  Some clubs were known as the best places to network for business while others were known as more casual places.  Others simply had the best facilities.

Today, club membership is more diverse in most cases.  While this indicates societal progress, combined with other factors, it has suppressed club membership.  No longer do people join clubs simply to support the institution.  Accordingly, the culture of many clubs has changed.  As our club diversified its membership, there were some members that struggled with that diversification.  Even at clubs considered the most stable, membership turnover can be significant.  For instance, one very established, desirable and successful club I’m familiar with reports 27% of its members joined in the past 5 years, 48% in the past 10 years and 63% in the past 15 years.  Just last year that same club had about 5% of the membership resign or take leave last year while new membership and rejoining members resulted in about a 1% increase in overall membership.  And that’s a strong, stable club!  Ever wonder why your club seems to have so many new faces?

With this type of turnover, most clubs have become more diverse, by necessity.  Those that have resisted diversity, in many cases have struggled, or worse yet failed.  As a result, the “culture” of many clubs has changed.  Many clubs now have (not enough) racial and ethnic diversity not seen years ago.  How does this impact the club?

While most clubs have their “cliques”, it stands to reason that the membership can become somewhat fragmented as most of us are likely to gravitate to those we know and feel comfortable around, without any intentions of exclusion.  As a result of the different groups, it could certainly impact the type of food and beverage offerings by requiring more diversity to accommodate different groups.  There are likely to be groups that gamble more than others and they will gravitate to each other.  The days of the week when one group uses club facilities may be different than when other groups visit.  A younger membership is likely to use the club differently than an older membership.  It is incumbent on club leadership and management to recognize and prepare for this dynamic.

One critical area for planning is golf course access.  A younger membership with kids might tend to intensify play on weekend mornings in order to accommodate work schedules and family obligations.  Conversely, an older membership might play during the week and on weekend afternoons.  Some memberships are busier than others.  I’ve seen clubs where the typical member plays 100 rounds per year and others where they average less than 20 rounds per year.  That means that there is no one right number for how many members a particular club can comfortably accommodate. There is also no ideal number of rounds for all courses, which can be affected by climate, course difficulty, whether players walk or ride carts more and how tee times are spaced.

A big part of the club culture is a club’s traditions, its rules and the atmosphere desired by the membership.  This is an area where there is often conflict.  Many boards are populated with those to whom the club is central to their lifestyle and believe that clubs should maintain a more formal environment.  To others, especially younger members a more casual atmosphere is desired and this is evident nowhere more than the club’s dress code.  Are jeans allowed?  Can golfers wear cargo shorts or backward ball caps?  Are sweatsuits allowed on the golf course?  How about cell phones and on-course music?  The conflicts that can arise between the various cultures that now exist at many clubs can create problems.  It requires flexibility and careful planning to keep things running smoothly.

In conclusion, every club has a culture.  It is imperative for members to choose a club not just for the facilities, but also one with a compatible culture.  As we know, many clubs today are being re-positioned in the marketplace or even sold from members to investors.  This too, changes a club’s culture.  Many clubs are resistant to change, often holding on to time honored traditions.  Some of these traditions are worth preserving, others not so much.  Just like we as golfers select shots and clubs based on changing conditions, clubs also need to be aware of those changes and changing cultures are often challenging to identify.