So now you want us? Why some country clubs are lowering the bar

There was a time when country clubs had their pick of who they would bestow membership upon.

Those days are half gone.

Hint: I would not be high on anyone’s list because 1. There’s an echoing sound in my wallet, 2. I make embarrassing noises unfit for polite company, 3. I’m not intrigued by contemplating the lie of a dimpled white ball.

Problems started when the golf bubble turned into a bust, just like its dot-com and housing cousins. Private country clubs focused on golf cut fees to attract more customers. Mere financial semi-mortals had a little better chance of getting in.

The industry looks like it is regaining a bit of composure.

Still, the world is changing. Golf is a time-suck for people increasingly short on minutes. Some private clubs are trying to find ways to keep themselves relevant.

One challenge for private clubs is how to keep members engaged when games are long and time is short. Bill Turner, a guest at The Standard Club in Johns Creek, hits his driver on the No. 18 hole as other members and guests watch. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
One challenge for private clubs is how to keep members engaged when games are long and time is short. Bill Turner, a guest at The Standard Club in Johns Creek, hits his driver on the No. 18 hole as other members and guests watch. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Among them is The Standard Club, a member-owned oasis in Johns Creek. It once demanded $25,000 initiation fees and had potential members endure multiple interviews to prove they would fit the club’s, well, standards.

Now The Standard, where Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus is still a member and plays each week at age 86, is trying to attract younger members by being be more down to earth. At least for a country club.

The club’s volunteer president, Mark Elgart, a member and CEO of Advance Education, an education services and accreditation firm, actually invited me – ME! –to visit the place and write about what I found.

No problem with crowds

Well, for starters it looked nice. I didn’t see a single house from the course. It looked more like a natural retreat with woods and wild grasses than an uptight den of pomposity. But don’t ask me about how the course plays. I’m utterly unqualified to tell you.

Here’s what I did notice: there weren’t a lot of people around, which I’m told is pretty typical these days.

In the mid 1990s, The Standard Club had more than 650 members, according to a club history. Now, it has just under 400, and that’s after regular initiation fees were slashed to $5,000. (They’re slated to double in the new year, though new members can pay over five years instead of all up front.)

More troubling is the average age of the club’s members: 62.

“The lifeline of any club is its ability to attract people in their 20s and 30s and 40s,” Elgart said.

So he told me about efforts to make it easier for people to join, first by trying to convince them they don’t have to be super rich, (though he’s aiming for families that make at least $150,000 a year). Second, by making them feel welcomed.

Membership interviews are no longer a gauntlet. In fact, I’m told they are more of a chance to recruit newcomers.

“We stripped away stuff that made if feel as though you had to demonstrate your importance,” Elgart said.

The Standard Club has another challenge to expanding its base. Over its 149 year history, it’s been known as a Jewish club, a vestige of the days when it was the only Atlanta golf club that Jews could join. Leaders say they are trying to bring in more non-Jewish families as well as Jewish ones.

Of course, there’s a risk to country clubs working to reduce costs and boost membership. Lowering the price of some products can actually make them look less appealing. If I can afford it, there must be something wrong with it, right?

Some want sameness

And as a leader of a local private club told me, the feel of exclusivity and being around like-minded people of the same socioeconomic class is part of the appeal for some members. Those are words that make me feel icky.

Initiation fees for full membership at metro Atlanta’s highest-rated private golf clubs average just over $50,000, according to consulting firm Global Golf Advisors. Dues and other mandatory fees and charges add an average of $680 month more.

Some clubs are getting better about how they market what they’ve got.

The Atlanta Athletic Club, which is packed with amenities, populates its web site with videos that start with women members talking about the club’s benefits for families. Before there’s any mention of golf, there’s footage of tennis, the fitness center and kids playing at the pool.

“We have seen a very positive trend,” Kevin Carroll, the club’s general manager, told me. He said membership and fees charged have risen in the last few years.

“Clubs who have a multidimensional personality to them and a strong family focus to them, those clubs I believe continue to be successful. We adapt.”

Many other private clubs around the nation are doing well, said Henry DeLozier, a partner at Global Golf Advisors.

Maybe that’s a hopeful sign for leaders at operations like The Standard Club, which weathered tough times before in its long history.

“Clubs like us,” Elgart told me, “are survivors.”

Some things I hadn’t realized about private country clubs:

— They really like add-on fees. Often, there’s the initiation fee, a monthly fee, sometimes a monthly spending minimum for food and drinks, plus the potential for special assessments and add on extras.

— It’s common for clubs to offer substantially lower initiation and monthly fees to younger members.

— Of course there are dress codes (no backward hats at the Atlanta Athletic Club in Johns Creek and jackets must be worn by men after 5 p.m. at the Piedmont Driving Club’s main clubhouse in Atlanta). But many also ban talking on cellphones. Hello, the future is calling.

— I guess I knew this, but it’s still interesting: Private, member-owned country clubs are increasingly rare. Corporations snatched up lots of struggling clubs in recent years.

Matt Kempner’s email: Follow him on Twitter: @MattKempner and Facebook: AJC Unofficial Business columnist Matt Kempner ( )

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