How Many Members is the Right #?

Last year, resulting from the COVID pandemic many private clubs experienced increased play, additional pressure on tee times and most notably, some frustrated members who were denied course access at their preferred time. 2021 could present some of the same challenges as many clubs have added members, who are playing golf more frequently and golf could be seeing a resurgence in popularity. If true, clubs need to be prepared to deal with this by understanding how many members they can comfortably accommodate.

Accordingly, at many clubs the question of how many members is the right number became a frequent topic of discussion. How does a club determine that number?

Each and every club is different in this regard. Though club bylaws often establish membership caps they are usually based simply on how many memberships the developer hoped to sell to maximize profit or an arbitrary number designed simply to make budgetary ends meet or to promote exclusivity. While there’s nothing wrong with seeking profit, or promoting exclusivity, a private club is typically presumed to provide both a high level of course conditions and access at the member’s leisure. This means that the right number of members for a specific club is determined by several factors:

  • Economics;
  • Market Dynamics;
  • The Membership’s play habits (how frequently do the members play golf);
  • The golf course;
  • The Club Culture (willingness to pay)

One metric that can be used to determine an appropriate number of members at any given club club is the number rounds played per membership. This can include guest and outing rounds, or not. For instance, if a club has 300 members, each generating an average of 60 rounds per year, that would equate to 18,000 rounds.

First, a club needs to define the desired experience. A big part of that is golf course access. Is 18,000 rounds the right number? If the club is cost-sensitive and losing money, maybe more members are required. If the club promotes an uncrowded, easy access atmosphere, the target number of rounds might be less. Assuming play is somewhat evenly distributed, a club can estimate their desired number of rounds, divide that by the average number of rounds generated by each membership and estimate the ideal number of members.

The competitive market is most definitely a factor. Can the club structure its dues and fees within the parameters of the market to limit or develop membership to the desired level? Is the club’s culture one of “owners” or “customers”? If the membership is willing to pay for the enhanced access (“owners”) the club can control utilization as it sees fit. If cost is a primary consideration (“customers”) each member’s access will be compromised in favor of controlling cost. The culture of any given club is NOT dependent on whether it’s a member-owned or investor-owned club, though ownership often impacts the culture.

Factors to be considered in all this can include things like tee time intervals (10 minutes or less, 12, or 15 minutes), the golf course, its difficulty and whether walking or riding carts is more prevalent.

When examining a club’s economics, that club’s culture and target market, along with the characteristics and limitations of its facilities are critical to a credible and reliable analysis. Understanding a club’s realistic capacity for membership is a critical and often overlooked element of the analysis.

Every club should define its desired golf experience based on tee access, pace of play and the other factors described above to establish the ideal number of members for their facilities, economics and culture. As membership evolves, it is incumbent on clubs to review these policies regularly so that the club can continue to provide the desired experience as membership changes. A successful club is one with happy members that stick around and create membership stability. Whether the primary goal is moderate cost, unrestricted access, exclusivity or having the “best” with cost not an object, each club should understand its culture and implement the policies and procedures, along with membership policies to achieve the selected goal. There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to number of members, or rounds to be played. Each club is different.