Choosing a Private Club

Winged Foot Golf Club
Winged Foot Golf Club

Did you know that there were more than 4,000 private golf clubs in the U.S. at the end of 2019?

If you are considering membership at a private golf club, choosing the right one for you is a decision that should definitely not be taken lightly. We’ve outlined a few important things to consider when weighing your options—keep reading and save yourself a lot of time and money.

Advantages of a Private Golf Club

Since there are more than 12,000 public golf courses to play in the United States, why would anybody want to spend money on a private club? Here’s a few of the best reasons:

  • Access: Public courses need to book as may rounds as possible to turn a profit, and weekends are obviously the most popular with a premium on the morning. That means it’s likely to be tough finding a tee time at a good golf course if you work during the week and want to get a round in on Saturday or Sunday mornings. Not a problem at a private club, where membership is limited and a good tee time is always available.
  • Finding a game: Unless you have an extensive network of golf buddies to call on whenever you’re looking for a round, it’s likely you will often be playing with strangers at your local public course. Not the case at a private club, where in very little time you will get to know everybody and finding a game will never be a problem.
  • Course condition: As mentioned earlier, public courses need a lot of play to maintain profitability, and that means a lot of rounds, seven days a week. All that play takes a toll on the course, and even top-notch public facilities with a high maintenance budget have a tough time keeping up. Not so for the private club, where limited membership translates to far fewer rounds, much less damage to the course, and generally much better conditioning.

When it’s time to choose, ask yourself a few questions:

1. What else can a club membership offer

  • Family: If you have a young family, look for a club with amenities that include a pool and tennis courts, so while you are out golfing, your spouse and kids can have some fun as well.
  • Business: The golf course is a great place to interact with clients, so if you’re looking to enhance your business profile, find a club with a quality course and top-notch dining facilities.
  • Social: If you like to entertain family and friends, ask what kind of special events are held throughout the year such as holiday galas, music, or outdoor festivities like barbaque and fireworks.

2. What is most important to me

  • Prestige: The year a club was founded and the stature of the architect who originally designed the golf course are directly related to the “prestige” associated with a club. Clubs that were founded a hundred and more years ago with a course designed by one of the master architects (Donald Ross or A. W. Tillinghast for example) will also be among the most prestigious in your area—but likely come with a hefty price tag as well (along with a level of exclusivity whereby acceptance is not necessarily a foregone conclusion).
  • The track: A course doesn’t have to be a hundred years old to be great, and there are a number of modern-day architects that will be considered among the masters as time marches on (Jack Nicklaus and Tom Fazio come to mind). If you are a serious golfer and want to be challenged, look to see who designed the course and check the current USGA course and slope rating (a rating of 73 or better along with a slope of 130 or more will likely suit your needs).
  • Variety: Some clubs offer 27 holes as three 9-hole courses, or two 18-hole courses. In addition to not having to play the same course all the time, it will also help with the pace of play.
  • Practice facilities: The scope and quality of practice facilities can vary a great deal, even at private clubs. If you like to work on your game, be sure to take a good look at the driving range and short-game facilities—particularly the amount of grass area that is available so you are not hitting from the mats too often.

3. Can I swing it financially

Membership at a private club can be a significant expense, so you need to weigh the benefits outlined above against the costs that will be incurred—the most common of which are listed below:

  • Initiation fee: An initiation fee is pretty common, generally non-refundable, and can be a pretty big number, so it’s the first question to ask when you are considering a club. It’s also the biggest reason you want to be sure of your decision.
  • Bond: With private equity clubs, each member owns a portion of the club so you will be required to purchase a bond. Again, the bond can be expensive—but the good news is that the value of the bond is refunded when you leave the club.
  • Dues: Annual dues are generally paid in advance at the end of each year, although payment may be spread over a period of months or throughout the year.
  • Minimums: Often a club will require a minimum spend on food and beverage, and if you are a golf-only person it may be tough to meet your monthly nut—but generally a few lunches or dinners will get it done (or even ordering take-away every so often).
  • Assessments: When a club undertakes extraordinary improvement projects, like updating or remodeling the golf course, expanding the clubhouse, or building a new practice facility, the expenses are shared equally by the membership. Large expenses generally require a majority vote of the members and, if approved, the costs are passed along to all of the members—even if you voted no. The good news is that improvements to the club will increase the value of your bond, while you also enjoy the benefit of an enhanced facility.
  • Ancillaries: Additional expenses to keep in mind when joining a club include golf bag storage, cart/caddie charges, and guest fees.

What’s my travel time

To get the most from a membership you need to use it often, so you don’t want a haul getting over to the club (and as they say, time is money). Optimal distance is within a 20 minute drive, but you may want to extend that for business accessibility.

Making Your Decision

Choosing a private club is a long-term decision, so you need to give it a lot of thought. Hopefully the considerations we’ve outlined will help bring your choices into focus, and assure that you pick the right club for you.

Check out the GolfDay Rating to see the best private clubs in your area.

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