10 Things to Consider Before Joining a Private Golf Club

Have you been thinking of joining a private golf club? Or maybe changing clubs? Being a member of a private club can be tremendously rewarding. You’re part of a community of like-minded people. Everybody on the staff knows your name. You get to make new friends and share all kinds of experiences with the other members. Your kids (if you have any) can grow up with their kids. In short, it’s a social opportunity that has a lot to commend it above and beyond just the golf.

There are lots of things to consider when you’re choosing a private club. Every club is different. Each has its plusses and minuses. That can make it difficult to choose the one that’s best for you—and for your family and/or significant other if they are considerations.

Here’s a checklist of 10 key things to consider when exploring the private club world. Armed with it, your decision should become an easier one, and allow you to make the right choice for your situation.

private club
Harbour Ridge Yacht & Country Club

1. Who is your private club membership for?

If you’re single and just looking for a place to play golf, the job’s a lot easier. In that case, your focus is going to be first and foremost on the quality of the golf experience—the course design, course condition, ease of getting tee times, tournament schedule, and the makeup of the community of fellow golfers at the club. Don’t just spend time with the membership director, who’s incentivized to get you to sign on the bottom line. Ask to meet (or better yet, play with) some of the members. See if you can spend some time in the bar or grille room after one of the club’s busier days. Talk to the golf staff. Get a feel for the place. This is impossible to do in one visit. Insist on several.

If someone else is going to be benefiting from your membership—a spouse or children, for example—you’ll need to take their needs into account. Many clubs pay lip service to being “full-family” clubs, but when push comes to shove, non-golfers and kids are sometimes treated as second-class citizens. No one club is perfect for everyone. Some clubs go out of their way to offer great experiences for families. Others are purely about golf. Do your homework.

2. What amenities do you want?

If you’re looking for a place to do more than just play golf, what other amenities are at the top of your list? Do you need a club with a pool, and how big? Do you need one with dedicated lap swim times, or just one for splashing around and lounging in the sun? What about tennis courts? Is there a comprehensive tennis program, with tournaments, instruction, etc.? Maybe you love paddle tennis—or squash. If you have kids, you’ll want a club that offers kids programs, such as summer and school break camps, and holiday events for the family.

Will you use the club for dining? What kind? Dinners with the family, nights out with your special someone, brunch every Sunday? Find out about the head chef. Taste the food. Ask how often the menu changes. Is there a solid wine list? Are the bartenders friendly? Also—think about whether you might use the club for business purposes—and what facilities are available for meetings and corporate events. Whether you can leverage the club to help you identify new clients or customers may also be a consideration, in which case the makeup of the membership will be a key thing for you. Finally, does the club offer any kind of overnight accommodations? Many clubs do these days, and they’re perfect for hosting out-of-town guests.

3. Who has what privileges?

If you’re joining a club as a couple or as a family, be sure to understand what limitations may be in place. Many clubs will allow one spouse or partner to be designated a full member, and the other to have limited privileges, especially for golf. Or they may limit the use of certain amenities (particularly the golf course) for children under a certain age. Note: This is also worth delving into even if you don’t have children. Nobody wants to be stuck behind a group of 10-year-old beginners on a Saturday morning. It’s in the club’s interest to try to keep everyone happy. But different clubs have different policies in this regard, and you’d do well to explore how membership privileges are arranged at the clubs you’re considering.

The Club at Ibis

4. How important is game improvement to you?

For any serious golfer, this should be a key consideration. Pretty much every club will have a practice range so you can warm up before heading out to play. But if part of your reason for wanting to join a private club is to improve your game, you’ll want more than that. Ideally, the club has not just a range but a large range, which can accommodate many players and offer fresh turf when you want to practice. Beyond that, a short-game practice area with practice bunkers and areas to work on your chip and pitch shots is also good to have—for several reasons. First, you can save a lot of strokes by honing your short game. But also, it’s a great place to introduce kids and beginning golfers to the game. Many clubs today have indoor golf simulators for colder months—or indoor/outdoor hitting bays. If a club has these, it’s serious about its golf.

Finally, who provides the instruction at the club? Is it staffed by PGA professionals with strong reputations for working with golfers of every ability on every aspect of their games? Often, clubs will have head pros who manage the business and leave the lessons duties to assistant pros. This isn’t always bad—you just need to know that there’s someone there who can help you take your game to the next level if you’re willing to put in the work. Check to see if they have swing diagnostic tools on hand, too. It’s a lot easier to fix what’s not working if you can see what you’re doing wrong versus just hearing about it.

5. Equity club or corporate-owned?

There are two basic forms of private clubs: equity clubs and corporate-owned clubs. With equity clubs, the membership owns and operates the club. Committees are appointed, and they decide how the club operates: how much can be spent on the course, the other amenities, the staff, clubhouse maintenance, etc. Sometimes these committees will decide that they need to levy assessments—raise funds in addition to initiation fees and dues to pay for things like substantial course or clubhouse improvements, new course maintenance equipment, etc. Equity clubs have complete control of how money is raised (whether from the membership or via allowing paid outings, weddings, and other private events)—and over how it is spent. This gives members some assurance that they have a voice in how their club operates. In many cases, equity clubs will return some portion of a member’s initiation fee if he/she leaves. But in some cases, this can depend on whether there’s a new member waiting in the wings to take your place.

With corporate-owned private clubs, the members pay their initiation fee and dues, and the owners take care of the details. It’s up to them to present the course properly, manage the operations of the club, and generally keep members happy. In this case, members have less control over things like dues increases and how much money is spent maintaining or upgrading the club, and they generally have little control over how much money gets pocketed as profit. But you can resign anytime without any fuss. And most corporate-owned clubs have dues increase limits or schedules that prevent them from jacking up your dues too much from year to year.

Whichever kind of club you’re joining, there may be payment plans available that allow you to pay the initiation fee over time rather than all at once. It’s worth asking about.

opening shots
Secession (photo by L.C. Lambrecht)

6. What are the costs?

All private clubs will require you to pay some kind of initiation fee. These can range from $5,000 to $50,000 or more depending on the prestige of the club and the demand for memberships there. Clubs almost all require monthly dues payments, too—usually ranging from $500 to $2,000 per month. But there are a host of other fees that clubs will often charge, and you need to understand what they are before they show up on your monthly statement. These include fees for lockers, club storage, carts, gratuities, and guests. Then there are food and beverage minimums—monthly fees that help cover the cost of making dining services available to members. You’ll be charged that amount whether you use it all or not, so be sure to understand what it is and try to determine if you’ll really use it each month. In short, make sure you understand what ALL the costs will be before you join a club, especially if you’re trying to do it on a shoestring. And whatever you do, don’t join a club that requires you to take a caddie if you like to carry your own bag and aren’t up for paying $100 per round for a looper.

7. What are the club’s long-term plans?

This is where assessments come in. If the club is planning to build a new clubhouse in five years or renovate all 18 greens and 100 bunkers sometime in the next decade, you can bet that an assessment will be coming your way. Make sure to review the club’s goals and long-term plans before joining. And use your own judgment, too. If the clubhouse is looking shabby, or the facilities are too small for a fast-growing membership, chances are changes will be forthcoming and you’ll be asked to help pay for the capital improvements. Make sure you know if there are any current assessments in place, too, that may affect you. Any good membership director should provide this information without you even asking, but if they don’t—ask.

8. What’s the joining process?

Here again, it differs from club to club. A new club or one that’s eager to sign up new members may require nothing more than a check. More established clubs will often require that you have a sponsor or receive X-number of recommendations from existing club members. If you don’t know any, introductions can arranged. In rare cases, a club may require a vote on all new members. Sometimes, this is a formality. But other times, it’s not. Friendships have been strained when a friend of a friend has been blackballed.

private club
Biltmore Forest Country Club (photo by Ryan Montgomery)

9. What do members say?

If you really want to know how good a club is, ask some former members. Just be prepared to take any gripes they may have with a grain of salt. If you can’t find any former members, current members are the next best place to make inquiries. Ask them if the club is friendly. If management is engaged. If the club keeps its promises. Describe what you’re looking for in a club and pay careful attention to their response. Are they making it sound too good to be true? Do their answers seem honest? One question to ask: If they could join any other private club in the area, which one would they join? If they name another club, that tells you something. It also tells you that the other club could be worth investigating. Private club players often visit other area clubs; use their knowledge to your benefit.

10. The little things

What separates a good private club from a great one often boils down to a lot of little things. You want a great golf course—one you’ll enjoy playing again and again—and whatever other amenities are important to you. That’s a given. But what makes a great club, and what will make it feel like a place that you want to be, are often the small details—the little things that great clubs get right. This starts the minute you arrive. Is there someone there to greet you and your guests with a smile? Do they know not just your name, but your spouse’s and children’s names? Do they take time to get to know you as a person, and treat you like an individual and not just an account number? Take a look at the maintenance practices, too. Is the place kept clean, in good order, and are things well organized? Pay special attention to management. Do you ever see the General Manager rolling up his/her sleeves and pitching in, or are they more likely to be found eating in the grille room? Great managers inspire their employees to do the little things that make private club experiences worth the money.