How To Play Great Private Golf Clubs Without A Membership
The global coronavirus pandemic has driven a lot of people out of their offices – and onto the golf course.
With millions of Americans stuck at home, the great outdoors have beckoned and participation numbers have spiked for all sorts of activities, including hiking, biking and golf. Equipment sales have soared to record levels (July was the biggest sales month since the industry started tracking these stats 23 years ago) and Golf Digest recently reported that “Golf is surging through the COVID-19 pandemic, as it is a perfect outdoor social distancing recreational activity, and the retail results confirm what a lot of retailers and PGA professionals have been feeling.”
This is much needed good news for the golf industry, after many years of decreased participation and a shrinking number of courses and clubs in what had become a badly overbuilt sport. In recent years, the traditional country club model has aged poorly for a variety of reasons, including changes in the ways families spend their leisure time, increased pressure from high-quality public and resort courses, and simply too much supply. As a result, many private clubs have quietly – or not so quietly – begun accepting limited outside or public play. This is not mainly a pandemic-induced phenomena, but COVID has definitely contributed by shutting the flow of weddings and corporate outings, high margin revenues many private clubs rely on.
But whatever the reason, this increased access and new options are especially noteworthy right now as many “retired” players have taken up the game again and current golfers have increased their play.
There is no higher profile new example in the nation than Firestone County Club in Akron, Ohio, one of America’s most vaunted private club facilities and a three-time Major championship venue. Originally built by the Firestone family for employees of their Firestone Tire and Rubber company, it is more than 90 years old, has hosted the PGA Championship, the World Golf Championships, and currently hosts the annual Bridgestone Senior Championship. It was the first venue ever to host three televised golf events in a single year and has members around the world. The club, which is no longer affiliated with the famous tire company, has three eighteen-hole courses including designs by Robert Trent Jones, Sr. and Tom Fazio. The most famous is the South course, the PGA Championship site, though the North has also hosted tournaments. In the dramatic 1975 PGA Championship, Jack Nicklaus came from behind to win his 14th Major here, while Tiger Woods also secured a big victory on the South course, taking home the 2000 World Golf Championship.
Like many classic clubs of its era, Firestone has on site lodging for out of town members and their guests, including 30 rooms in its enormous locker room, spanning two levels with two full-service bars. There are also four-bedroom cottages across the golf courses. For decades these have been as private as the golf, but this year the club decided to open them on a limited basis to the general public for stay and play packages. The decision was made before the pandemic, which delayed the opening until the end of June. “We have something really special to share, great product for both golf and lodging, and we have the availability,” Jay Walkinshaw, Firestone’s General Manager, told me. “We have 65 years of PGA Tour experience, we have 54 holes of really good golf, and we have 87 guestrooms on the property. Instead of a resort with a private club component, we do the opposite – a private club with a small resort component within it.”
Firestone also has a longstanding acclaimed caddie program, and the stay and play packages include forecaddies on the South course. Rates begin at $595 per person for one night and one round on the South Course. There are also two- and three-night packages, the best of which is the Eagle, with three nights lodging and four rounds, two on the South and two on your choice of the others, plus daily replay options, for $1,840.
Similar private club playing opportunities can increasingly be found all over the country, with or without lodging. Where I live in Northern New England there are not a lot of good daily fee courses to choose from, but there are a few excellent private clubs, including New Hampshire’s standout Montcalm Golf Club, one of the highest rated courses in the Granite State. For years Montcalm struggled to retain enough members under its original owner, but the club recently changed hands and the new owners have been welcoming both members and outside guests. I had never gotten to play Montcalm when it was totally private even though it had the reputation as the best course in my region, and attracts players from as far away as Boston, just over a 90-minute drive.
I finally played Montcalm earlier this summer and loved it. Unlike many courses, it has zero real estate development and never will, as it is surrounded by state protected nature reserve, and wildlife, from deer to turkeys to bears, are regularly cited on the beautiful and pristine course. It sits high up on a mountain ridge with fantastic panoramic views and offers a real sense of place and taste of the Green and White Mountains, both visible. Now that the nearby Hanover Country Club, Dartmouth College’s course, has permanently closed, Montcalm is easily the best choice for alumni, parents, professors and visitors to the Hanover area, and sitting very close to the Vermont border, it is also accessible from popular tourist spots like Woodstock, Quechee and White River Junction. For those who crave ultra-luxury, Montcalm is the top choice within easy driving distance of New England’s finest resort – and one of the nation’s best – the over the top Forbes 5-Star Twin Farms. Montcalm just added a state-of-the-art short game practice area and new driving range, and regularly hosts Golf Schools.
“One silver lining of the pandemic is the surge of interest in golf and in markets like ours,” Montcalm’s director of golf Steve Rogers told me. “Both local golfers and visitors have gotten the opportunity to play top private courses of high quality that they otherwise could not. Opening up to the public has been so popular that Montcalm added stay and play packages with local lodging partners and we have also seen a number of day trippers make their way to us.”
Turning 100 years old next season, Martindale Country Club is one of the top private clubs in Maine, but it is also allowing outside play, starting at just $42 for walking eighteen on weekdays. While Montcalm and Martindale openly allow visitors to book tee times (while blocking the most coveted for members), some private courses have opened access more quietly. Like Firestone, Blue Hill County Club in Canton, Massachusetts is a Major venue and has hosted both PGA Tour and LPGA Tour events since it opened 95 years ago. Blue Hill rolled out a “Member for a Day” program allowing visitor to tee it up on a summer Monday, traditionally the slowest day at private clubs. Many are closed to members on Monday and use the day for high-profit corporate outings – which have all but disappeared since the pandemic, leaving an empty tee sheet.
“Almost every private club is offering discount golf on Monday since the outing schedule is down, but I’m sure if you check around you will find them all trying to generate new revenue,” Lynn Luczkowski, a golf industry marketing professional told me.
There are nearly 4,500 private golf clubs in the United States, and while the really famous ones like Cypress Point and Pine Valley won’t be boosting revenues through public greens fees any time soon, the vast majority cannot be so picky. The best way to find private clubs offering public access near you is to simply call the pro shop and ask. You might be pleasantly surprised.