I may be biased because it's luckily been the case for my entire golf life, but I think it's great to have a home course. I know that there are many areas where for the sake of variety the nomadic approach is more attractive, but just like at a friendly neighborhood bar, you want to go where everybody knows your name, from the bag drop guys to the head pro to the bartender.
For decades, the traditional divide between public and private golf made it seem like only people who could afford a private club membership were entitled to feel like they "belong" to a golf course. The sense of stability and community that comes with practicing and playing the same golf course most of the time used to come at the cost of a sizable initiation fee and significant monthly or annual dues.
Thankfully, this has never been less true. I was privileged to grow up and learn golf at a private though relatively unpretentious country club, where even when not being supervised by my father, there were adults around to keep me in line and support my growing love for the game. Now, my "membership" at my local course amounts to the annual fee I pay to maintain a USGA handicap there, plus the regular Saturday morning money game I play in.
Just as it has had broadly beneficial impacts on total golf rounds, the coronavirus pandemic has proven a boon for clubs, with memberships on the rise. Public golfers who were previously used to their local courses being relatively empty (good for golfers, bad for operators) are seeing courses more crowded and are complaining of the need to plan their rounds farther in advance than before (inconvenient for golfers, great for operators). An article published by Club and Resort Business in June reported that in the county of Yorkshire, England, "a large majority of its 183 clubs have seen a boom in members," with one particular club gaining 120 members since May.
Around the same time, Sonoma Golf Club in California asked the local county government for permission to increase its membership from 319 to 554 members, a 70% bump that included provision for 125 new golf memberships and 100 new social memberships.
Even before the pandemic, courses of all stripes have sharpened their focus on customer loyalty and service. As a result, several types of golf club memberships have cropped up, mostly falling between the traditional scheme I grew up under and the casual one I have now. Here's a rundown of popular golf membership types, both traditional and more recent.
Private golf club memberships
Great for: Avid golfers with considerable disposable income; retirees focused on centering golf in their lifestyle; younger professionals looking to combine leisure with networking; avid traveling golfers who want to return to a couple particular places repeatedly.
The traditional model: pay an initiation fee up front, then pay annual dues, usually in monthly installments. But exactly what these dues can entitle you to can vary depending on the history and structure of a given club.
In simple terms, each member owns a piece of the club. Typically, the up-front initiation fee (sometimes called a "joining fee") represents a share of the club. On top of that, the member pays regular dues, usually monthly. Equity clubs adopt and change policies via various committees, which are typically directly elected. If the membership wants to renovate the golf course, they vote on it and charge a committee (usually a Green Committee) with coordinating it. Expenditures above and beyond the normal operations of the club tend to be distributed among the members as assessments on top of their regular dues. When a member leaves an equity club, his or her initiation fee is usually returned either in full or in part, depending on the club's bylaws. Sometimes, members may sell their shares of the club to another private party.
In these situations, ownership may be a single person (the term "benevolent dictatorship" comes to mind with respect to certain clubs), a group of a few people or a corporation. Initiation fees are common but are usually non-refundable, and monthly dues function in much the same way as for other clubs. As more corporations buy and operate clubs - including Troon, Kemper and ClubCorp - non-equity clubs are rising in popularity.
In these cases, companies buy into a certain level of membership at a club, designating a certain number of employees as eligible to use the club facilities, often for business-related activities. East Lake Golf Club, home of the Tour Championship on the PGA Tour, has long had corporate memberships as a strong pillar.
Often a category of membership for second clubs or clubs near someone's secondary residence, these memberships often carry restrictions as to how close the member may reside to the club. Distances of 50 or 100 miles are typical. Initiation and dues may be less expensive than "full" membership, often with the implication being that a member will only visit the club a certain number of times per year.
In the UK, one type of non-resident membership is often called an "overseas membership," often marketed to Americans in an effort to get them to visit the club repeatedly. These schemes are often attractively priced and carry a relatively low maximum number of rounds.
Memberships at resort, public and municipal golf courses
Great for: Value-focused local golfers; seniors on a fixed income; newer golfers who are still determining their level of commitment to the game; second-home owners who don't want the deep commitment of a fully private club in their favorite vacation spot.
Your home course doesn't need to be closed to non-members in order to make you feel like a valued regular. While it's true that plenty of busy courses still have a "golf factory" feel, both privately owned public course operators and municipalities are increasingly aware that encouraging repeat play through certain programs have a strong appeal.
Whereas the sheer cost of most private club memberships makes them a luxury item, public golfers need to be sold on the value proposition of similar schemes. If a golfer can see that playing regularly means paying less per round, that is often a winning proposition for both sides.
At Sandridge here in Florida, locals have the option to buy a County Card for $50 per year, which provides for eight-day-advanced tee time reservations, as well as a savings of between $5 and $10 per round, depending on the time of year. If you're a six-months-plus-a-day Snowbird who spends the winter playing golf, you could pay for the cost of the card in a couple weeks.
Greater Spokane, Washington has one of the best municipal golf systems in the country, in part because of its range of discount options for locals. Spokane County offers a $50 discount card that averages $8 or $9 savings per round on its three excellent golf courses. In addition, they offer multi-round loyalty punch-cards for between 10 and 50 rounds, which reduce green fees from around $45 to as low as $26 per round (including a $1 'green fee' per round each time a discount card is used).
Many public courses offer annual membership models that are similar to those used by private clubs. Caledonia Golf & Fish Club and True Blue Golf Club, two of the best courses in the Myrtle Beach area, have a popular annual program, with 250 members currently supporting both courses' typically robust vacation-golf business. Annual dues max out at $1895 for a single golfer over 40, and members pay $30 (Caledonia) or $25 (True Blue) per round. With Caledonia's regular greens fees running between $100 and $200 during the year, a member who plays more than 20 or so rounds per year starts to save considerably. That doesn't even factor in the other perks of membership: unlimited practice facility use, 20% pro shop discounts and 10% discounts on food and beverage.
Golf clubs without home courses
Great for: Golfers who value the opportunity to play a variety of different courses; social-competition-hungry golfers; avid traveling golfers.
Club culture can be as strong a draw for golfers as the course. In the UK and Ireland, there are many courses which each serve more than one discrete golf club. St. Andrews is a classic example. Everyone has heard of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, but it is one of several clubs whose members play over the Links Trust courses. The St. Andrews Golf Club, the New Golf Club, the St. Rule Club and the St. Regulus Ladies Golf Club all have their own clubhouses near the courses, as well as dedicated playing privileges.
In the U.S., several "courseless" clubs have arisen in recent years, focusing on camaraderie and competition at many courses during the year as their draw. The Outpost Club's membership loves to travel, and so it hosts social and competitive events throughout the year, often at top private clubs around the country. Club members also have regular playing privileges at several other clubs.
Other membership programs offer the promise of discounted golf at a range of courses. This is central to the value of memberships offered by our partners at GolfPass. In addition to access to GolfPass' vast online library of golf instruction, other videos and a host of further perks, the $99 annual membership fee grants $120 in direct credits on tee times (in 12 $10 installments, released monthly) booked throughout the year. It is certainly more casual in nature, but more than 130,000 golfers have joined GolfPass since it began in 2019, making it one of the world's largest golf membership programs.