What golf club membership is right for you?

There are all sorts of ways to enjoy the privileges of membership at a golf course, from the muni punch card to private club ownership.

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Approaching the 18th green into the embrace of the clubhouse, as is the case at the Country Club of Orlando, is one way that private clubs instill a sense of belonging in their members. But the benefits of membership are no longer reserved for the game's more exclusive outposts.

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.

Sonoma Golf Club in California is one of many clubs looking to take advantage of increased demand for memberships amid the coronavirus pandemic.

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

Boca Rio Golf Club in Boca Raton, Fla., is an exclusive private club with small membership that collectively administrates the course and related amenities.

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.

Equity membership

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.

Non-equity membership

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.

Corporate membership

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.

Non-resident membership

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.

Golf club 'networks' and reciprocity: an overview

Many private clubs have relationships with one another. One perk of membership can be the ability to ask your head pro to arrange a round at another private club via that club's pro. In many cases, though, these relationships are becoming increasingly formalized as large companies become involved in the ownership and/or management of multiple clubs.

Troon Golf, which operates more than 400 facilities worldwide, has more than 100 clubs in its Troon Prive division. If you're a member of one club, you are entitled to arrange rounds for yourself, fellow members and up to three guests at any other club in the family, pending availability and certain time restrictions.

"When a private club can offer enhanced benefits such as what comes with Troon Prive Privileges, they extend their membership experience beyond the walls and greens of their individual club," said Julia Kelly, Troon's vice president of sales and marketing. "In the case of Troon Prive Privileges, the option may only be offered as an additional benefit to the Full category, which delivers added value to the experience while supporting the club’s sales activities at the highest level of membership."

ClubCorp is another such company you may have heard of. In business for more than 60 years, it owns more than 200 clubs, including Firestone Country Club in Ohio, The Woodlands in Texas and Mission Hills Country Club in California.

Some smaller and medium-sized multi-club companies have established themselves in recent years, too. Arcis Golf has several private clubs - Hunt Valley in Maryland, Pradera in Colorado and Ruby Hill in California, to name just three - in a portfolio with many public and resort courses as well.

Entrepreneur John McConnell made millions in medical software before selling two companies in that space and getting into golf. What started in 2003 with his purchase of Raleigh Country Club has grown into McConnell Golf, a 14-club ownership/management portfolio across the Carolinas, plus Holston Hills Country Club in Knoxville, Tenn. one of Donald Ross' greatest designs.

Dormie Network is a relative newcomer to the space, focusing on several destination-type clubs with on-site accommodations as it grows its portfolio. Its six clubs include Ballyhack Golf Club, an audacious and thrilling Lester George design in Roanoke, Va.; and its namesake Dormie Club, a Coore & Crenshaw gem near Pinehurst. Golfers join the network and receive full access to all six clubs.

Memberships at resort, public and municipal golf courses

Part of what makes Spokane County golf courses like Liberty Lake (17th hole pictured) so successful is that despite being municipal facilities, they incentivize repeat play through various discount programs, making an already strong value proposition even better.

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.

What kind of golf memberships do you hold? What makes them worthwhile to you? Let us know in the comments!

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Tim Gavrich is a Senior Writer for Golf Advisor. Follow him on Twitter @TimGavrich and on Instagram @TimGavrich.
28 Comments
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Commented on

You are forgetting another kind of private club. There is a club here where you pay a very reasonable annual fee (about $200) for the privilege of making teetimes. After that, you can pay for a full golf membership or you can just pay (reasonable) greens fees and pay for practice balls each time you use them.
The club is not pretentious at all, with nothing other than golf and a not-so-special restaurant (that is open to the public) and their clubhouse looks like a small converted house from the 50’s, but they have 27 holes of good golf.

Commented on

The private courses near where I live have increased dues costs along with significant money to be given upon admission. So the costs have not decreased and are increasing throughout Long Island New York. Not a place where someone who is not wealthy can afford a private club. A big change over the last twenty years.

Commented on

I have lived in a high tourist area for the past ten years. The course I play was redesigned a few years ago. It is now a very nice links style 12 hole course. I am retired so I get to play frequently. The course offers full memberships as well as 1, 2 or 3 month memberships. For the 3 months of (hopefully) good weather up north, I can play for $500. A steal! Also, with only 12 holes, I play almost every day...and walk!
12 holes. The way of the future with everyone struggling to find enough time to play. 2 & 1/2 hours is easy to 0lan for in anyone’s hectic schedule.

Commented on

I was invited to join a “Courseless” club 4 years ago and it was the best thing for comoraderie and teaching me how to play golf in “Real” competition . The Kirkwood Forest Country Club was started by a dozen ex-private club members and we maintain a roster of 35-40 members annually. It has satisfied my golf need and we all avoid the cost of club membership.

Commented on

$60K .. life time membership.. no cart fees or any other fees for life .. at TPC course ... can transfer to a kid once for $5000.

Commented on

Lincoln NE
4 public courses to choose from and I have a senior 5 day membership that comes with a cart. I play with a large group and we alternate courses.

Commented on

I have had a membership at a low end golf course until they closed. When covid 19 hit in Michigan you had to be a member in order to play. The course had a deal to join for a short time until the executive order was extended. That put us at the point where the yearly memberships were coming out and they applied what I paid for a limited time walking to a golf anytime with a cart once allowed by our governor. It was a pretty sweet deal Except for the fact that once your a member at a lower level you fight to get a tee time. That is the downside of any membership is the course will do all they can to drum more business at the expense of there members. Now with that said if I was retired then it most certainly would be worth it to me especially if they included access to their other courses.

Commented on

I'm a Champions Club member at Sandia Resort GC in Albuquerque, NM. Sandia is managed by OB Sports. I pay a nominal fee each year for membership which entitles me to discounted rounds each time I play plus accumulated points for each dollar spent per round. Those points can be used for free rounds throughout the year. But what can really save $ is when I travel out of state to play golf, which I used to do twice a year, many times to the Phoenix area. As a Champions Club member I also get a discount at any other OB Sports managed course I play, and there are many in the Phoenix area. That discount is significant, sometimes the same rate as the local members pay - HUGE considering how Phoenix area courses soak out of towners. I've been a Champions Club member for over 15 years and even though I no longer travel much for golf, I will continue as a member because I like how I am treated at Sandia plus I love the course.

Commented on

We belong to two clubs. One is a nine hole semi- private course just a short ride from home. My son plays there regularly when he has time. My wife and I plays several times a week. Our second club is a private course designed by Walter Travis. Both my wife and I use it at least three times a week. Total membership fees are less than $3000. I refuse to divulge the location I order to avoid a sudden surge in membership.

Commented on

Yeah, just prefer to pay as I go. Looked at CC memberships for several years but quite frankly, it sometimes feels like you play because you have to play in order to validate your membership. In the summer months, one can usually play enough to justify the set cost, but come winter? you lose money because there are just not enough good days to play and the courses are not in shape for quality play. I like trying new places and if all my golf money was tied up into one basket, even with a couple of courses available, I would not have any left over to try others.

Then the "hidden" costs such as meal requirements at the club each month. But the biggest is the assessments you get stuck with if something goes wrong or they want to expand.

I also hate the "young executive" model that many clubs have. Explain to me why someone 35 should be paying 1/3 the cost for the same benefits that I do since I am over 40?

May be fine for some, but I will pass.

Commented on

You’re bitter.

These costs aren’t “hidden”. Any club will be very clear if you just request the all in annual required costs. Very simple.

Also, young executive memberships are offered because the game isn’t growing. A 30 year older with 2-3 young kids cannot afford full rates most times. These memberships are offered to ic entivize people to join, then they remain full members.

Don’t be bitter. It’s not a good look

Commented on

Brett Reply 2 of 2
YE are offered as incentives, but not for the reason you think. Has nothing to do with helping out or any sort of empathy for younger people.
To the contrary, clubs believe young and stupid "kids" will spend like crazy at the club. Bring friends, the family, spend, spend spend. Problem is...they do not. Virtually YE program operates in the red. Why? Because of what you said...they actually do not have the spare cash. Most spend only what they have to and not a nickel more. So it makes no sense to offer a reduced membership to someone with limited income and expect them to not only spend the difference between YE and standard rate which would get the club into the black for that member, PLUS even more to feed the capital improvements budget.

Furthermore, the VAST majority of YE members do NOT maintain membership at the club once the YE terms have expired. In fact, exit interviews have shown many YEs only selected a club because of the YE rate and many then join other clubs once the reduced rate is not in play.

To be bitter about something, it has to affect you. YE rates do not affect me, but I still have an opinion about how useless they are and how they hurt full-paying members (who have to foot the bill for the difference). If you paid attention, I am not a club member, but because of work, I know a heck of a lot about them.

But thanks for your completely incorrect, judgmental assessment.

Commented on

So you’re saying they become members of another club? What if they never got the taste of private membership at the first club? They wouldn’t have joined the new one. Whether you like it or not, golf clubs would become a dying breed in the next 15 years without YE memberships, so they need these options.

Commented on

Wow, your reading comprehension is limited.

They do not join to "get a taste". They want to join Club A for whatever reason but cannot afford it, so they join Club B at a reduced rate. Once Club B revokes the YE membership, they bolt to Club A that they wanted all along (or another). People do not join a YE club because it is the club they want, they join because it has the YE rate. Again, exit interviews quoted in articles state this is the typical reason someone joins as a YE. So now the club has taken it on the chin, subsidizing a YE member who then takes his money elsewhere instead of repaying the YE club by maintaining membership there. The model does not work.

And yes, clubs are a dying breed but what you do not understand, is that YE memberships are killing them. Clubs LOSE money on YE memberships that has to be recouped via other means, either by allowing general public play or charging full-rate members enough to cover the loss. Not to get political, but there is a political term for this type of arrangement. It does not work.

You are looking at it from the YE perspective, but then bemoan why clubs are a dying breed.

Commented on

You’re funny. They would never join club A if they didn’t get a taste of club B at the YE rate. Our generation doesn’t care about clubs. Offering a YE rate gives us a taste and convinces us to see the benefits. It doesn’t matter what club we join after, it matters that we are joining a club. Cut out YE memberships and those people won’t join any club in the future.

Commented on

Brett Reply 1 of 2.
I intentionally put "hidden" in quotes to indicate these costs are above and beyond the basic golf play. I never implied a CC was dishonest, it is a term used to indicate a cost of something that is not always considered. These are NOT annual costs, these are requirements that must be met as a member. There is a distinct difference. There are hundreds of articles you can find on the web about hidden costs of a CC membership, many that actually state, HIDDEN right in the article title.

As for the YE memberships, the comment was rhetorical, but since you have replied, let us dig in to the fallacy. They have been offered for eons. They have nothing to do with growing the game. In fact, ClubCorp does not even consider themselves a golf company but a "membership company". If they could make a profit with corn hole, they would.

Commented on

“ These are NOT annual costs, these are requirements that must be met as a member. There is a distinct difference.”

This is hilarious. Please describe how if I have minimums of $100 a month, it’s not a minimum annual cost of $1200. You’re going to spend that money every month, ever year, and the clubs are very transparent about the fact that you have to spend the money. Even using quotes around the word hidden is still extremely false. How can you call something hidden when it’s very clear when you ask about membership costs?

Commented on

Now you are intentionally being dense.

Transparency has nothing to do with this. Get that out of your head. Not calling clubs dishonest.

A club says you pay $20k to join and monthly dues are $750. That is the benchmark figure. Like buying a car that has monthly payments of $750. Now, you have to add in all of the other requirements of "owning the car". Gas, oil, maintenance, etc. which at the club is the other dining, bag storage, range fees, etc. That is the definition of a hidden cost. I did not make it up, that is a common term for ongoing obligations that are not part of the market cost. Maybe you should look up the term instead of trying to be so literal for the sake of argument.

Commented on

Very bad example. Car maintenance is “hidden like because there’s zero transparency in how much it will cost. Food mins are very transparent to the dollar, unless you want to spend more.

Commented on

yep, you just want to argue. Have fun.

Commented on

I don’t want to argue. I just want you to explain why you are commenting lies. If you compare a hidden cost of auto repairs, with clearly define food minimums, that’s not a legitimate comparison.

Commented on

For some it is not about the money, it's about the fellowship.

Commented on

Hmmm, thought it was about playing golf.

Commented on

You can Play golf anywhere. You don’t join a club purely for golf. You join for everything that comes with being a member - community, fellowship, etc

Commented on

You going to go through and argue with all of my posts now? You need a life.

You do what you want at a golf course, I will do what I want at a golf course, which is golf. Not play tennis, swim, eat, dance, party, whatever. I go to a golf course to golf. Nothing else. I have other venues to do whatever else in my life suits my desires. And for the monthly fee at a CC, I could play up to 16 rounds at thousands of other courses...and not have to purchase food.

You sure have a burr in your shorts. Get over it.

Commented on

I’m not arguing with any of your posts. I’m simply commenting my opinion. How angry at the world do you have to be to consider anytime someone disagrees with you to be an argument?

And the conversation wasn’t about golf courses. It was about country clubs. At least based on your initial comment about looking at CCs. Golf is only one piece of that.

Stop being bitter.

Commented on

You are doing nothing BUT arguing with me. Do you frequently call someone a liar whenever you are not in disagreement with them? Do you question their comments? No. You are arguing, but given your lack of reading comprehension, your lack of understanding what an argument is, is not surprising.

The article is in...wait for it....A GOLF MAGAZINE talking about CC options. It is all about golf. Nice attempt at diversion.

I stated my opinion and you took exception to it. YOU are the one who is bitter because my opinion of CCs does not fit your little narrative. Makes one wonder if you do not work at a CC and are compelled to defend the industry.

Does it make you feel somehow (erroneously) morally forthright to call someone bitter? In your edification about what things mean, look up "passive aggressive". I am not bitter in the slightest but your continual arguing is taxing. Move on with your life.

Commented on

You are allowed to disagree without arguing. People do it all the time. Just because my opinion differs doesn’t automatically mean we are arguing

My lack of reading comprehension? That’s hilarious. I replied black and white what you typed black and white.

Just because it’s in a golf magazine does not mean a CC is limited to golf. I’m sorry you’re so closed minded to believe that.

I’m not bitter. I simply provided that your views are not co sister with the younger generations which means they are outdated. You seem to wish that country clubs wouldn’t allow younger people for some reason. Seems like bitterness about you not having that opportunity. I do not work in the industry, I simply have seen dozen of friends get introduced to the life through a YE and they continued to be members after seeing the value and crossing the age threshold.

Again, not arguing so I’m not sure why it’s so “taxing” on you.

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What golf club membership is right for you?
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