What’s In a Name? Golf Course & Club Branding and Culture

We are living in extraordinary times.  Social stresses from Coronavirus, Black Lives Matter and an economic crisis have converged on our society and impacted our culture and social branding like never before.  Many TV commercials now focus on the safety precautions taken by advertisers to prevent community spread. Politicians (as usual) are divided on how to respond.

In recent weeks, we’ve seen the NASCAR auto racing circuit seek to modify its brand by banning confederate flags.  The country music band formerly known as Lady Antebellum changed its name to “Lady A” to mitigate association with the era of slavery.  Athletes at The University of Texas have requested discontinuing singing of “The Eyes of Texas” at football games.  The US Navy and Marines banned any use of the Confederate Battle Flag, a result of society’s current racial tensions.  Just this morning, it was announced that the Quaker Oats company would be retiring the “Aunt Jemima” brand of pancake mix after 131 years due to social sensitivities.

Should golf courses and clubs consider being similarly proactive?

Golf courses and clubs are similarly branded and often recognized by their names and logos. There are numerous clubs named for states, cities and towns, like Philadelphia CC, Oakmont CC, Boston GC, The Golf Club of Georgia and more.  There are clubs named for geographical features, like Mountain View, Twin Lakes, Bent Creek, Double Oaks, Four Streams and Mount Snow.  Of course, who could ignore Pine Valley, Pebble Beach and Cypress Point. Clubs named for golf course architects or famous golfers include the Jack Nicklaus Golf Center, Pete Dye Golf Club, Donald Ross Memorial, Robert Trent Jones GC and the Palmer Course at PGA West.  Many courses are named for the property they occupy or its one-time owner, such as Hamilton Farm GC, MacArthur Club, Gillette Ridge GC and Kemper Lakes GC.  I know of at least one club named for the year (The 1912 Club) it was founded.  The branding used in their logos is designed to be recognizable and often to project the club’s culture.

Old Works in Montana is named for the former site of the Anaconda Copper Mines.  Furnace Creek in California is situated 214 below sea level and temperatures can reach 130 degrees in the summer.  Brickyard Crossing GC is both adjacent to and inside (4 holes) the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, commonly known as “The Brickyard”.  Prison View in Louisiana overlooks the nearby state penitentiary and requires a background check to book a tee time.

New Jersey has The Architects Club, with each hole inspired by a different golden age course architect.  Hideout, an upscale private club in Florida was conceived as a place for its members to seek refuge from the outside world.  Winged Foot is named for and shares its logo with the New York Athletic Club and Augusta National simply says what it is, a club with a national membership situated in Augusta, Georgia.  It’s logo suggests the same thing.

Other clubs are often named for the history of the property or the surrounding area.  There are numerous courses named after Indian tribes that once inhabited the area and or significant historical events that occurred. There are several golf/country clubs in my home state of Pennsylvania named for Indian tribes and sporting similar Indian head logos.  Native Americans have objected for years about the team names of the Washington Redskins, Cleveland Indians and other professional and college sports teams.  This 2011 article in Golf Digest  profiled the many clubs with Civil War monikers and connections, most all referring to a specific battle, landmark or event.

Most of these courses and clubs incorporate these characteristics into their logos, which are often used to generate revenues through the sale of merchandise bearing the club logo.  As a result of recent events, some clubs are considering name and/or logo modifications in response to the long held sensitivities that have been brought to the forefront of our national discourse.

At a time when our nation is enduring crisis, clubs with names, logos or worse yet admissions policies that are perceived as offensive to some are risking their brand – and their financial future.  Certainly, social progress has occurred since the days when many clubs excluded persons because of race or a certain religious preference.  Now, the ante is higher and few clubs are positioned to absorb the potential social and economic fallout that a tarnished brand could create.

Many recall the National Organization of Women (Martha Burke) targeting Augusta National some years ago.  That was about admitting women as members. Golf clubs, especially private ones are very protective of their names, logos and tradition/history – rightfully so.  Most (not all) private clubs have diversified their membership since the more exclusionary times, either from economic necessity or a sense of moral obligation.  To some, the idea of political correctness is seen as an infringement on rights and there aren’t laws against socially or morally offending someone.  Each has to decide if it’s the right thing for them by weighing the social and economic risks against the rewards.

These risks are significant.  Many private club memberships are populated with captains of industry and pillars of their communities.  In some cases, executives of publicly traded companies, small businessmen or political leaders make up a significant portion of the membership of many private clubs.  They often constitute the core of the club’s culture.  Can these members risk the fallout of association with a club using an offensive name or logo?  For those clubs who rely on outside functions (often sponsored by corporations, charities or other community groups) for economic vitality, can they risk their outing and function clientele seeking alternative venues because of the name or logo?  The value of both membership and the club itself can be impacted.

All clubs should take the proactive step to (at least) sincerely examine whether their name or logo is offensive to anyone.  If they wait until  there’s another Martha Burke seeking “trouble”, it’s too late.   At that point, the club(s) being targeted risks losing a significant number of those prominent members who need to avoid association with the controversy.  That’s an economic risk that few clubs want and few can absorb.

Whether a club’s name or logo is offensive is a potentially endless debate.  For some clubs, it’s a social/moral issue and for others the economic issue.  For some it could be both.  For Augusta National in the Martha Burke situation, they could absorb the economic fallout.  Most clubs probably can’t if the protest is loud enough.  Any club potentially targeted for being perceived as insensitive can mitigate that risk by proactively implementing changes before being targeted.  Some food for thought.