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.
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.