It looks like you're using an older version of Internet Explorer. Upgrade your browser to view this site—it's easy and free.



By Larry Gavrich, Founder & Editor,
Home On The Course, LLC


The Cliffs at Mountain Park, Travelers Rest SC

The Kids are All Right, and the Parents, Too

If you are a baby boomer on the precipice of retirement, chances are you have at least one child in the early stages of a career.  Your children, like my own two 20-somethings, are in no position to afford an initiation fee and monthly dues at a private golf club, even though they would be significant users of the facility when they visit dear old mom and dad.  And, yet, until recently, private clubs have clung to the notion that the “emancipated” children of their dues paying members should become members in their own right when they reach the age of 23 (or, in some cases, 26, an outgrowth of the Affordable Care Act).  Most clubs still insist on the young person being a member.  That stubbornness and lack of creativity is symbolic of why private club rosters shrank in the late 2000s and are still struggling to get back to pre-recession levels.

When the recession of 2008 hit and member rolls and green fees started shrinking, the golf club industry’s first reaction was to lower prices, rather than to identify and execute more creative ways to staunch the outflows.  Check out, for example, the published rack rates in a public course pro shop and compare them to the rate you paid through one of the online tee time consolidators.  If you paid more than half the rack rate, you probably overpaid.  Those new low rates are now firmly established, and course conditions are suffering in many areas from a reduction in total revenues.


Brook Valley Country Club, Greenville NC
(a member of the McConnell Golf Group)

Many private clubs had their own version of this race to the bottom, lowering or eliminating initiation fees altogether that had previously been earmarked for capital improvements.  The result was either fewer capital improvements, like golf course and clubhouse refurbishments, or higher assessments on a dwindling member population.

The recession was a wakeup call for many clubs, and those that have scrapped the old game plans and brainstormed their way to new approaches appear to be doing well.  Consider, for example, the forward thinking of The Reserve at Lake Keowee and The Cliffs, both upscale golf communities in North and South Carolina. These communities decided to acknowledge that 20-somethings starting a career are not going to sign up for membership in their own right.  By providing to these young adults full-membership privileges tied to their parents’ (or grandparents’) memberships, at no additional cost, a club at least generates ongoing income (cart fees, food expenses, guest fees) and sets the hook for membership at a later time, when careers have been established and parents, inevitably, are no longer members.


The Reserve at Lake Keowee, Sunset SC

The ultra high-end community of Mountaintop in Cashiers, NC, may have been the first in the Carolinas to offer something like a “legacy” membership to the “Extended Family” of members; Mountaintop’s plan permits children, grandchildren, parents and grandparents to use the facilities, including the Tom Fazio golf course, unaccompanied by the member.  The Reserve at Lake Keowee, however, took it a step farther, making direct family members of the club in their own right.

“It has had a huge effect on sales efforts,” says Rutledge Livingston, a former Reserve sales executive who saw the positive effects of the program.  He added that expanding membership to family members also had a positive impact on other aspects of the operation, including generating revenue through the golf shop (guest and cart fees), food and beverage (guest meals, minimum food expenditures for each legacy member), new memberships and the retention of current members.


Treyburn Country Club, Durham NC
(a member of the McConnell Golf Group)

The Cliffs communities, whose properties along Lake Keowee arguably compete for residents with The Reserve, developed a similar plan that grants access to its legacy program to members holding a Legacy Golf Membership, the top level at The Cliffs.  For what The Cliffs calls its Legacy Access Program, it charges its full-golf members a nominal $100, as does The Reserve, to add the extra generations to the member’s plan.

“Since [Legacy Access] was introduced in 2014,” says Senior Communications Manager Charner Creecy, “we have had over 1,100 Legacy Access Members enroll in the program.”  Creecy added that the availability of the plan has led to a number of membership upgrades to take advantage of the multi-generation membership.  Each member of the family receives his/her own account number and has access to The Cliffs’ seven golf courses, the famed Cliffs wellness centers, outdoor recreational programs, social events and clubhouse dining.


The Reserve at Lake Keowee, Sunset SC

A few independent golf club organizations unaffiliated with golf communities have embraced these legacy programs as well.  The McConnell Golf Group’s portfolio of private golf courses now numbers 11 with the recent addition of Holston Hills Country Club in the Knoxville, TN, area, the first McConnell course outside the Carolinas.  The objective of the Heritage membership program, which spans all clubs in the portfolio, is “family togetherness,” according to Lauri Stephens, McConnell’s vice president of membership.  “We want our members to use their clubs for family celebrations, not have to go off somewhere else for anniversaries, birthday parties and the like.”

As at The Reserve and Cliffs communities, members on the “vertical trunk of the family tree,” as Ms. Stephens describes it, are eligible to be sponsored by their parents, grandparents, children or grandchildren who are full-family golf members.  The Heritage members pay only the difference in current membership initiation fees and the fees paid by their sponsor, along with reduced monthly dues across the 11 private McConnell Golf clubs.  Privileges are equivalent to those of a regular full golfing member and provide reciprocal access to all other clubs in the collection."

No matter how these legacy plans are configured, they benefit the families of dues-paying members while encouraging the retention of current members and setting the hook for future members. They also show that segments of the country club industry are awakening to the need for more aggressive and creative marketing.