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Girls in bikinis, guys in flip flops — the future of private golf?

People mill about Squaw Creek's pool on the afternoon of the July 4 holiday.

People mill about Squaw Creek’s pool on the afternoon of the July 4 holiday.

Last Thursday I sat on the patio at Squaw Creek Golf Club, one-third of the Avalon Lakes course group in Ohio near the Pennsylvania border. If you didn’t see the golf course from we were sitting, you might be convinced that we were at a resort. The massive covered patio was full of comfortable chairs, with wait staff milling about and music pumping out of the stereo. The bar, with its big screen TVs blaring the Pirates’ game, was packed with guys in shorts and t-shirts drinking beer while wearing flipflops. On the other side of the bar was a pool, with bikini-clad young women jumping off a board while kids splashed. It could have been a Mexican resort in January. It didn’t look like a private golf course – but that’s exactly what it was, with a Stanley Thompson course to boot.

Before we even set foot on the course, I was intrigued. The business model for Avalon Lakes seems like the future for a lot of private golf clubs, to be honest, and is one I’d embrace, especially with two young kids.

Members at the club pay (according to the GM) about $3,000 per year for access to the three clubs, gym facilities, pool and tennis courts. There’s no initiation, which likely accounts for why they’ve added 400 new members this year alone. The GM added the club now has literally thousands of members and may need to add a fourth course. In a market where clubs are struggling in Canada and the U.S. – heck there was an abandoned course right across the street from Avalon Lakes’ Dye course – it was fascinating to hear of a club doing so well.

The bar at Squaw Creek in Ohio.

The bar at Squaw Creek in Ohio.

Interestingly I don’t think it is about the golf. The Thompson course, which has held LPGA events, was actually very good (if filled with too many trees in spots and needed some TLC), while the Dye course was far from my favourite. But I don’t think it is the golf that’s the primary lure. It is the mix of amenities at an affordable price with decent golf that makes it intriguing. And the lack of a initiation that runs in the thousands of dollars makes it affordable for a lot of people, many of which wouldn’t think of joining a private club.

Add to that the notion that it was a family club – a place where you could drop your kids off at the pool and head to the range – and you’ve got an attractive proposition for many. I also liked that there was no pretense about the place – it knew exactly where its bread was buttered. No one cared about wearing sandals, or your cell phone or whether your shirt had a collar. The atmosphere was energetic and people seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Still some private clubs insist on trying to sell a bunch of outdated concepts that many aren’t buying any longer. Why? I can’t figure it out. I’d contrast this with a visit I made two years ago to a old Donald Ross course near Erie, PA. It was a great course – neat, intriguing with a great mix of holes. But in the clubhouse I found a bunch of old men playing cards. When we walked in it wasn’t exactly welcoming. The people at Avalon Lakes didn’t bat an eye – they were too busy enjoying themselves.

I can’t say whether Avalon Lakes is a model that makes money – I didn’t see the clubs books. But judging by the fact that dozens of people were around the club on a holiday in July, I’d say they are on to something – something more clubs should consider.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

12 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Funny,

    With the steady decline in curling at our club (and not exactly adding a lot to the bottom line), I have sometimes thought about demolishing the curling structure and using the space for a pool and/or tennis court(s) and/or expanding the clubhouse with a fitness facilty with perhaps squash. The only issue is that the curling rink is close to 18th green. Ambient noise like that doesn’t bother me but, it might create fits with some golfers. Of course there might also be the odd flyer that ends up in the plate of natchos poolside as well….

    It would change the nature of the club from four season to summer but, a club not too far away uses this model – haven’t seen the financials of that one in a long time to comment though.

  • In this piece you say, “Still some private clubs insist on trying to sell a bunch of outdated concepts that many aren’t buying any longer. Why? I can’t figure it out”.
    Those ‘outdated concepts’ you refer to are what some of us call TRADITION. For MOST serious golfers tradition still plays a significant role in the clubs that we belong to AND, the clubs we would join.
    The Country Club model (golf, tennis, pools, shuffle board etc.) has been around for decades. The decline in this space was attributed to the golfers not wanting to pay for the add-ons as described in your piece. Clubs filled in the pools, took out the tennis courts and curling rinks, sold the horse farm etc. It does make sense that this model is making a comeback and having one club that meets all your family’s needs makes sense for some. Having said that, not everyone wants to see people in tee shirts, short-shorts, flip-flops and on their cell phones. (I for one would ban cell phones on the property).
    Your reference to the Erie PA. club is at the other extreme and that space is in decline. I’m sure there are many private clubs who don’t welcome those who are there to assess/judge. You go from one extreme in Ohio (the best one in your opinion) to the other in PA (a terrible environment in your opinion). Fortunately for traditional golfers there are clubs that provide a happy medium.
    The real success story is with the clubs that attract families, demand the etiquette and traditions of the sport and are progressive. I for one would not go near the Squaw Creek Golf Club. If I want that environment I will check into a Motel 6 with a muni next door.
    It’s your blog and you can say what you want but you need to be balanced.

  • John: Since many private clubs have struggled (including yours) to maintain value and pricing for new members, it would appear that model isn’t really working well. I like tradition — I think it is worthwhile at some clubs. But for the average golfer — the one most clubs need to balance their books — tradition (like banning cell phones, which is a nonstarter for most people these days) is almost irrelevant.

    Squaw Creek isn’t for everyone — just like Donalda wouldn’t be the lure for a scratch player like yourself. However, you are in the minority — wealthy, a good golfer — and while a classic course full of Old School tradition makes sense for you, clubs need golfers 20 years younger than you to make sense of their budgets. Those people, with families, time commitment issues, aren’t joining Old School private clubs.

    Is Squaw Creek the future? I think the answer is clear — Donalda is one of the most solid clubs in Toronto, not because of its golf course — which is marginal — but because it embraces a holistic club culture that other clubs are ignoring.

    • Robert,
      My club is an equity club and moves with the economic environment however, I do believe our membership would argue the club does offer value and, they value the privilege of membership.
      To be clear, I AM NOT wealthy; I am an average golfer and, people 20 years my junior are joining. The financial problems courses are facing are not caused by the rules/traditions etc. The problem is supply. We have an over supply of golf courses. The industry built out like crazy in the 80’s and 90’s and now there are simply too many golf courses for the number of golfers.
      Also, some of the older club’s (I stress some) members did want to pay the increased freight though dues so they leveraged, and the clubs began to struggle financially. As a result the product cheapened and it lost whatever appeal there was.
      My point is there is room for the full service CC but there still is a strong demand for courses that hold to the traditions of the sport. The moment the traditions of golf are lost and replaced with screaming children, bikini’s, flip flops, tennis, shuffle boards, daycare centres and morons on cell phones (not because they must but because they can), I will find a new sport.
      PS- If you check the best and most desirable clubs you will find VERY restrictive cell phone policies. Most of these clubs count as their members business, political and professional leaders. If they can go without a cell phone for 4 hours so can you and I!

  • Robert,

    I believe i was lucky enough to find the perfect golf course to be a member at and that would be Monroe in Rochester….incredible Donald Ross golf course, laid back atmosphere, awesome pool and facilities and just a perfect blend of tradition and modern lifestyle….it really doesn’t get better.

    We should try and get out .

  • RT, I’m more in J’s camp than thinking the Bikini’s & Flip Flop’s are taking over. I think I can agree that some formalities will become more relaxed (limited cell phone use, no tie required at dinner), but golf is a game with many attractive traditions that a large number of younger prospective members appreciate.

  • Bayview was originally a family club with a great pool, active membership, multiple club house activities, etc. I hear it’s changed.

  • I’m all for the new wave of golf clubs, the more clubs the better and we need to keep young people excited by the game even if it means loosening up a bit. But some traditions are about courtesy and manners – dressing sensibly for dinner and keeping mobile phones out of use may be old fashioned but (with the latter especially) they allow us to show each other respect.
    Having said that, I do love my flip flops…

  • RT,
    As you well know country club golf quietly professes to be an elitist activity with tradition trumping all else. And as you’ve written about extensively REAL golf (in true volume) is an activity available for all. The model IS broken and there is no support at all to say otherwise. Though not golf related the analogy I can use with knowledge is The Boulevard Club in Toronto. 3-5 years ago the club was in desperate financial straits and only because of strong leadership over riding the old line members did a huge capital project involving new pools and family friendly programs mean that the club now has a 9 month wait list and an initiation of 4x to the previous one.
    This model WILL be incorporated into the golf culture at the club level in the geographic regions it makes sense. An overload of the same old same old will do so at their own risk.

  • John: Anyone who can afford $50,000 to join a private club is, by my definition, wealthy. But your points are well taken.

  • Many of these comments are entirely valid including those made by RT in his original blog. Private golf clubs do need to change (as do private curling clubs, private social clubs, etc.). Clearly the question is HOW?

    Seems to me that clubs which do not support family values are in dire straights. Our culture is not nearly as male centric as it was even 30 years ago. Entertainment of all kinds must appeal to families and especially to the female members of the family. Unfortunately golf based clubs (those that cater mostly to their male members) don’t understand this. They keep trying to make the golf more appealing when they should be making the whole experience more appealing. If that means pools/flip flops/cell phones, etc. then so be it.

    The occasional course which is highly rated and appeals to the wealthier, better golfer (e.g. The National) will likely survive intact but the everyday club (e.g. Whitevale or Cedarbrae) will be hard pressed to sustain membership appeal as the male golfing boomers start to disappear.

    BTW, I’m a 67 year old male retiree who plays about 100 rounds a year at a private club…but I’m certainly NOT wealthy.

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