Shinnecock, Winged Foot, Oakmont, Olympic—every serious golfer knows the names, but only a fortunate few have played the courses. In contrast to the UK, where the host sites of the Open Championship extend a warm welcome to visitors, U.S. Open venues and other top American courses are, for the most part, shut tight, exclusive bastions of the members and their pals.
Now, however, that’s starting to change a bit, thanks to the age of Facebook and a fellow named Manish Goel. Goel retired at age 52 after a successful career as a Silicon Valley executive. Like a lot of retirees, he looked forward to playing lots of golf, and on the very best courses—until he realized that most of those courses weren’t as anxious to see him as he was to see them. Gaining access was a hassle at best.
“I looked at the usual ‘Old World’ approaches to connecting and found them sorely lacking,” Goel says. “Asking my club pro to set something up usually resulted in an unaccompanied round and I don’t much like playing alone. Golf to me has never been about notching the belt, rather about the experience of playing with a fellow golfer. I found the ‘work my network’ method equally tedious both because of its inefficiency and its inherent ‘I’m doing you a favor and now you owe me one’ attitude.”
That’s when he brought his Silicon Valley chops to bear, creating Thousand Greens, a social network of like-minded private club members seeking to link up for games at each other’s courses. At first it was a cozy little program for a few of his friends, a way of facilitating connection and chat. Then it began to take on a life of its own. In a bit over a year, and with little more than word-of-mouth publicity, thousandgreens.com has attracted nearly 4,000 members from 1,700 clubs—major clubs—not just in the U.S. but in more than 30 nations around the world, and it’s adding several members every day.
Now, this sort of thing has been tried before, but never with great uptake, largely because the previous attempts all were conceived as for-profit ventures while Goel started Thousand Greens as a labor of love and continues to run it that way. There is no charge for membership: just go to the website and sign up.
There’s one catch. In order to join this group, you need to be a member of a private club. In fact, that’s the key to the whole program, a tier system of membership based on four levels (each designated by a curiously drab shade of green):
Fern: You’re a member of a club with a course listed among the top 100 in the world.
Sage: You’re a member of a club with a course listed among the top 100 in your nation.
Moss: You’re a member of club with a course listed among the best in the state.
Olive: You’re a member of a private club.
Currently, Thousand Greens boasts just over 500 Fern members representing 78 of the world’s top 100 courses. There are another 600 Sage members, 1,600 Moss, and 1,000 Olive. As to the unrepresented courses in the top tier, says Goel, “I’ve always assumed there would be a set of ‘super-clubs’ that will be very unlikely to feature on the site—Augusta National, Pine Valley, Cypress Point, etc.—but I doubt that number is more than 20–30 clubs worldwide.”
Goel uses the top100golfcourses.com website as well as GOLF Magazine’s golf.com rankings to identify his tiers. Since the two lists are slightly different, his super-lists for the Fern and Sage tiers actually total a few courses over 100. The top100golfcourses.com site, which is the most comprehensive ranking, is used for the Moss category, Goel conceding that the lists of top courses for some states (those that are more golf-rich) run deeper than others.
Each Thousand Greens member receives three digitally generated “tokens,” allowing them to seek invitation to three courses at their own level or lower. Once you use your tokens, you can earn additional ones by hosting other members at your club or by posting an “open invitation” to your own club. You can also bump yourself up a level for a period of time by hosting a member from a higher tier.
Here’s how the “dating” part works. Let’s say you want to play Winged Foot. On the website’s interactive map of courses, you click the fern-colored icon for Winged Foot and see there are three Thousand Green members at Winged Foot. Click a button and an automated request is sent to all three of them. At this point, you don’t know their names and they don’t know yours—all they know is your age, gender, and skill level. Names aren’t exchanged until a request is accepted, at which point you and your prospective host agree on all the particulars—date of play, guest fee/caddie fee, etc. Under the Thousand Greens guidelines, you may also bring along a friend, as long as the friend also is a member of a private club.
It’s usually not more than a day or two before you learn your fate, and after two weeks with no reply the request times out. No member is ever obligated to accept a request and the current acceptance rates run at about 25 percent, but Goel says that’s increasing as membership expands. His membership’s age skews a bit younger than might be expected, with more than half under 50. “Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram—that’s the way that generation connects,” says Goel, “and they’re totally comfortable reaching out to each other in this way.”
As his base grows—and he’s confident it will reach 10,000 and beyond—Goel hopes to provide a suite of American Express Platinum Card-type benefits. He also foresees adding a tasteful sponsor or two as well as member events and tournaments. Goel concedes that his labor of love has grown into something larger than he’d ever envisioned, but his motive remains the same.
“Our vision for Thousand Greens is to enable people to enjoy a golf experience that is similar to what they’re used to at their home clubs. Our members are passionate about golf—they like to play golf, they like to talk golf, they like to hang out with other golfers. We’re just reducing the friction, helping people build new relationships. We’re offering them a whole new way to find playing partners—women golfers can connect with other women, couples with couples, people of similar playing skills, age groups, etc. All of this is intended to make the entire golf experience that much richer.”