Golf-centric clubs are on the wane, even as private membership organizations for Millennials are re-emerging in urban areas.
“Country Clubs Sell a New Image,” the New York Times announced in 1979. Below this headline, an article described a young woman showing up to a country club dressed in jeans (and on a motorcycle!) as a reflection of changing times. “[C]ountry clubs must accommodate [a new generation] in order to survive,” the paper noted, “and the accommodations—lower dues and special dances for younger members, for example—are only some of the changes being made.”
Almost 40 years later, a young woman riding her motorcycle to the country club would still be an outlier. Millennials who are burdened with loan debt often can’t buy homes, much less drop thousands of dollars on club initiation fees and dues. (Annual country-club dues run several thousand dollars on average, plus an initiation fee that’s usually no less than $5,000.)
And if cost isn’t a deterrent, many young people are put off by the image of the country club—stuffy and formal, with old-fashioned dress codes and rules about cell-phone use. Not to mention the rich history of racial and religious discrimination that accompanies many such organizations.
The traditional country club and the activity that is its mainstay—golf—are both having a hard time attracting a younger demographic. In the 1990s, there were more than 5,000 full-service golf and country clubs in the 1990s. In 2010, there were about 4,100, and now that number has dipped below 4,000. A 2014 study commissioned by the National Club Association found that club membership was down 20 percent from 1990.
In the ‘90s, around 9 million adults aged 18 to 34 played golf, according to the National Golf Foundation. Today, that number is closer to 6.2 million. The research firm IBISWorld found that from 2011 to 2016, golf-course and country-club revenue grew by a little more than 1 percent annually.
As clubs like Soho House, The Assemblage, and The Wing prove, plenty of Millennials are open to joining a private-membership club—if it’s lounge-y, diverse, and in an urban setting. “‘Country club,’ that category has a lot of connotations,” said MaryLeigh Bliss of Ypulse, a research firm focused on Millennials. “Really, that golf problem is a big one, but also clubs’ history of not being open to certain groups. Country clubs have that long-term history of being only for high-income white families, and that’s not something Millennials are really looking for.”
Jeff Morgan, CEO of the Club Managers Association of America, concedes there’s an image problem. “In the past, the model for a country club has been very golf-centric and largely male-centric,” he said. “Probably if you think of a country club, you think of Caddyshack, and middle-aged men out playing golf on the weekend.”
But Morgan insists that there’s more to modern club life: He calls today’s country club “a family-centric activity center, with golf as potentially [just] one of the activities or assets or experiences that are offered to members.” Besides the standard offerings like tennis and swimming, clubs are adding activities that are a little more social and casual, like burger and beer nights and wine tastings.
Just as in 1979, clubs today are mixing things up to try to attract younger members (although “special dances” are probably not in the cards). “We try to cater our event offerings around [community], with things like paint nights—whatever I see on Instagram that’s getting popular,’” said Kristine Roberson, the membership and marketing director of Woodbridge Golf & Country Club in California. The club is located near Lodi, in the middle of wine country; Lodi has been attracting transplants from the Bay Area in search of more affordable living. A little under 10 percent of the club’s members are younger than 40, Roberson said.
To draw Millennials, many clubs feature more non-golf amenities—especially health and wellness options like gyms, personal trainers, and yoga classes. Tradition Golf Club in La Quinta, California, reported that its fitness center had hosted “guest lecturers on a variety of health topics as well as [being] the kickoff point for biking groups, and planned area hikes.”
How country clubs accept new members varies. Some clubs require a background check on top of initiation fees, and others require an interview. Some clubs are invitation-only, requiring referrals by current members. If a person is new to the area, their real estate agent might connect them with a member.
In the age of Facebook and declining church attendance, country clubs are somewhere to socialize and make friends in real life. An air of exclusivity can be one result of selective membership, but preexisting bonds and similar attitudes can also offer a sense of community.
Kim Christenson is 29 and lives in West Bloomfield, Michigan, with her husband. She works in corporate communications for an automotive supplier, and she and her husband are both members of a country club. She doesn’t have kids yet, but when she does, she said she wants them to make the same kind of close friendships she did growing up.
“The majority of my close friends are ones I’ve known since I was five years old at the country club,” she said. “I think belonging to a club allows children to form close friendships that don’t change the way they do in schools, with different classes, teachers, cliques. I also think it instills a level of respect into children from an early age. They learn how to behave and interact with adults earlier.”
The craving for community might spur more Millennials to join country clubs when they start families, said Bill McMahon, Sr., chairman of the McMahon Group, which consults for private clubs. “[Millennials] aren’t a whole lot different than their parents, but they’re doing everything 10 years later,” he said. “Twenty years ago or so, that generation was joining clubs in their mid-twenties, and this generation is getting married much later; [they’re] still in school, want to see the world. The age where we’re picking them up now is 35 and older, not at 25.”
Some clubs are doing away with initiation fees, breaking the fee down into installments, or offering a one-year trial membership. “We offer a young professional membership that offers the exact same features and benefits as our [full] membership, only it reduces the monthly dues significantly for those under 40,” said Roberson of the club in Lodi. “For the 21-to-30-year-olds, it’s reduced about 50 percent, and for the 31-to-39-year-olds, it’s reduced 40 percent.”
Earlier this year, Galt Country Club in Cambridge, Ontario, introduced a limited-time free membership to the first 1,000 people who signed up, which allows them to use the club’s facilities a la carte. The general manager of the club told the told the Cambridge Times, “Our basic goal is to get more people in there, especially younger people; more millennials that right now, in their lives, just can’t justify paying a full membership for the amount that they feel they can utilize the club.” In Scottsdale, Arizona, the Pinnacle Peak Country Club offers potential members between the ages of 35 and 45 the option of a one-year trial before committing to the initiation fee. (The downside: the fee is $35,000, and trial members still have to put down a refundable $5,000 deposit.)
Clubs have also been adding perks like babysitting services. Brookhaven Country Club in Farmers Branch, Texas, near Dallas, charges less for its childcare services than many daycares. Brookhaven’s director of child development told Club & Resort Business, “We have had people join our club just to use the daycare.” Woodfield Country Club in Boca Raton, Florida, offers a 3,000-square-foot children’s clubhouse and teen game room. And although most clubs still have some stipulations for what you can wear, many have relaxed their dress codes.
Time will tell if these measures are enough to draw a younger generation. Clubs that are located in graying regions of the country may struggle against demographics—and suburban clubs against Millennials’ preference for city living, as well as the urbanization of wealth in some metropolitan areas.
The new urban clubs blend work and play almost seamlessly, with members typing away in coworking spaces before catching a musical performance, or networking over wine after visiting the gym. They are stylishly designed and generally have lower dues than country clubs, partly because their real-estate holdings are much smaller.
Will established country clubs follow the lead of city upstarts? They already are: ClubCorp, the largest owner and operator of golf and country clubs in the country, also owns The Collective, a Millennial-friendly private club in Seattle with craft beer, hammocks, and a climbing wall.