May 13, 2024

People Aren’t Teeing Up to Join Country Clubs

There may be at least five reasons why. We’ve found them

By Ed Goldman

According to a recent headline in the Sacramento Business Journal—I wrote a daily column there for eight years yet it continues to publish—”Country clubs and golf courses are at a pivot point. Will subscriptions change the game?”

Well, I don’t know. I suppose if you buy a “subscription” to a country club, rather than a $500,000 membership, that could certainly represent a pivot. Or even a divot. (Don’t you love golf terminology? Don’t you wish everyone used it at all times?)

Edgy Cartoon

Course not

Years ago I helped create the initial marketing plan for the Serrano Country Club. I had never played a round of golf in my life—unless it included windmills and “greens” that were really indoor/outdoor carpeting. Despite this, I feel entitled to have an opinion of what’s causing the plummet of golf-club memberships across the country. One important caveat: I really don’t care.

First, let’s assume one of the problems is attrition. When it applies to golf-club memberships, “attrition” can be a synonym for “death.” Now, the clubs are rarely to blame for those deaths. After all, why should the sixth-green myocardial infarction of an overweight, hard-drinking 64-year-old who was also a heavy smoker be attributed to a lovely sport which originated in the 1500s in “an area close to the royal capital of Edinburgh in Scotland” (according to the website historic-UK.com)—and which, in 2014, saw more than 30,000 people visiting the emergency room with golf-course-related injuries (and “15,225 more as a result of a golf-cart ‘incident,'” per Golf Digest)—seem game-related? Maybe it’s just what Midwesterners, with the possible exception of the late Abraham Lincoln, like to call a co-inky-dinky.

When I was promoting the private Serrano Country Club—and a few years before that, when I marketed the City of Sacramento’s public golf courses—I got to know a tad about the game. My principal takeaway was that its allure for me was a notch or two below “extreme frisbee”—and, in recent years, right down there with pickleball—on my Chuck-It List. Throw in its having inspired the ugliest wardrobe in the world of sports—the old-time knickers were kinda cute; not so the current clown-slacks and paisley Banlon shirts—and I can tell you five reasons why America’s country club membership is imploding:

1. If you’re an average-wage earner, you may have to choose beyond buying a home and a car or a golf club membership. Or: Between your daughter’s orthodontia, your in-laws’ rest-home arrangements or a golf club membership. You can’t do all of these simultaneously unless you turn to a life of crime or run for political office. But, as Mark Twain would say, I repeat myself.

“Country club initiation fees range from $0 to more than $550,000,” reports the website countryclubcontent.com.  “The initiation is a one-time fee that gets you in the door of the club. Some country clubs allow you to pay this fee over time, but most will expect it to be paid upfront when you join.”

More good news from the same source: “Some clubs have dues as low as $400 a month, and others get closer to $2000 monthly.”

2. At some point it’ll occur to you that the term “golf club” does double duty, both as the overpriced institution you yearn to belong to and one of the overpriced tools you’ll need to buy in order to play the game. If you tend to go off on tangents, you’ll expand this in your mind to wonder why a ballpark isn’t called a catcher’s mitt, a hockey rink isn’t called an ice-skate and a hospital isn’t called a stethoscope. As you can see, it’s much more economical to engage in a flight of fantasy than a round of golf. 

3. If you’re someone’s employee or even if you own the business, finding four-plus hours to play 18 holes of golf on a weekday isn’t dissimilar to unicorn hunting. But at least when you do the latter you’ll get to wear cool camouflage costumes, khaki hats and cunning boots—not, as in golf, shirts, trousers, shorts, “skorts” and even shoes whose patterns bring to mind what a floral bouquet would like while throwing up its breakfast of Miracle Gro.

4. If you join a country club and play golf, it won’t be long before you find yourself assigned to a foursome with three people you’d never spend a moment with much less four hours in blinding sunlight.

5. If you think golf will prove to be a fine exercise, be advised that most country clubs require you to rent a little putt-putt cart of dubious durability. How dubious? Let’s just say that if you accidentally crash into a possum the possum will likely emerge the victor.

Carts are mandated to preserve a course’s so-called “speed of play”—i.e., they can allegedly cover the course in less time than you can walk it. But if you’ve ever watched four guys in their 60s play golf, you know that even if you arranged for them to race from hole to hole in a chauffered Koenigsegg Jesko Absolut—for non-motorheads, this is currently the fastest car in the world—they’d still slow down the action arguing about who’d win an Indian leg-wrestling match between Biden and Trump. (Answer: The possum.)

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Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).