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September 2016

Inclusionomics

inclusionomics.jpgBy Steve Eubanks

How openness and clubhouse diversity have revitalized the private golf club industry

The lines are clear and drawn in permanent marker. Things have been this way for a century and aren’t likely to change. Tradition, it seems, is bred into the DNA of old-line private golf clubs, so much so that their cultures aren’t going to change on a whim.

That was certainly true of the clubs dotting the hillsides southwest of San Francisco, one of the richest golf corridors in America, where being exclusionary and separatist seemed to be an entrenched reality of life. San Francisco Golf Club, founded in 1885 by the wealthiest WASPs west of the Alleghenies, came first. Then the Irish, who had been members of the Olympic Club since 1860, bought one course in 1917 and began work on a second. Five years later, in 1922, San Francisco’s most prominent Jews, shunned from private club life in the Bay area as they were everywhere else in the country at the time, built Lake Merced Golf Club in Daly City.

Throughout the rest of the 20th century, those societal demarcations remained as solid as the rocks on Alcatraz. Then something happened. Around 2006, just as the golf industry entered the greatest recession the game has ever experienced, some private club operators had an epiphany. What if, they asked, we stiff-armed tradition and ran our clubs with the same values and principals that our members exhibit in their everyday lives? Wouldn’t that be good for business?

“Our board and our members realized about a dozen years ago that being a classic hidden gem alongside these other great old golf clubs was not the way of the future,” Donna Otis says of Lake Merced, where she has been general manager for 18 years. “This wasn’t a marketing decision or anything like that. It was a reflection of the attitudes of this new generation of members: high-tech professionals; members from all backgrounds who considered ‘exclusivity’ to be almost a dirty word; members who thought having a club made up of one group to the exclusion of all others was not just bad for business, it was morally repugnant.”

In hindsight this seems like a “Duh,” moment, the kind of decision kids of today would look at and say, “Well, yeah.” Of course, a club should reflect the values of your members. Why else would you be a member?

But the history of private golf has never been that simple. For generations, the stature of private golf was not measured by who the membership let in, but by who they kept out. Stories of Los Angeles Country Club shunning actors still get passed along in the golf world like tabloid gossip, and rumors of this or that titan of industry being passed over at Augusta National remain legend in the game.

“Our board and our members finally asked the most important question of all: ‘What are we doing?’” Otis says. “‘This is not who we are.”’

In the last dozen years, Lake Merced has gone from being “the Jewish club” in the Bay to one of the most highly-recognized and respected clubs in the nation, a place where you might bump into Joe Montana wearing jeans and watching Golf Central in the locker room, or pick up a game with one of Silicon Valley’s top female executives and her same-sex partner on the first tee.

“We are now as diverse as any club anywhere in the world,” Otis says. “We have one of the largest Asian populations in the country here, so obviously that is reflected in our membership. But we have every ethnicity, every background, every culture represented here. Oh, sure, we’re still predominately Jewish (the May calendar is still littered with bat mitzvahs) but that is not how we’re seen in the city, the state or the country anymore. “Now, we’re that classic golf club that has hosted the U.S. (boys and girls) Junior Championships and that hosts the LPGA (Swinging Skirts Classic) every year.”

That’s a theme that now runs through many successful private golf clubs, the ones that not only survived the economic downturn of the last decade, but thrived at a time when others were selling off land and boarding up the clubhouse. Those clubs realized something very simple, not just about themselves but about society as a whole: Members no longer want their club to be a retreat from the world at large. Instead, they see private clubs as a vehicle for outreach; for boosterism within a community; for the betterment of the game and the citizens who play it.

Bert Getz, Sr., a third-generation scion of one of Chicago’s wealthiest families, built the Merit Club in the northern suburbs between the Windy City and Milwaukee because he wanted the farm where he lived and had raised Angus cattle for 20 years to remain green and natural after he was gone. “I put an environmental easement on the property so that it can never be anything but a golf course,” Getz says. “But I also wanted to build a club that was different from others in the area.”

Not only did Getz build a playable golf course that would not beat up the membership, Merit Club proved challenging enough to host the 2000 U.S. Women’s Open and the 2016 UL International Crown.

“We were only three years old when the USGA committed to bringing the U.S. Women’s Open here,” Getz says. “And the course was only eight years old when [the Open] was played here. But we think that’s because we not only have a good, fair golf course that tests the best players while still being playable, we aren’t trying to be what we’re not. Our members really enjoy hosting the (LPGA) girls and having them out to the club. And [the members] enjoy the fact that they can watch their club on television.”

Merit Club’s membership enjoys hosting the LPGA players and others because Getz instilled a sense of graciousness into the club’s culture from day one. In building his membership, he paid no attention to family history, race, creed, gender or religion.

“If you are the kind of person I’d like to have over to my house for dinner, then you are the kind I’d like to have as a member of my club,” Getz says. “I remember coming down the driveway one day, and standing on the putting green was a Muslim woman wearing a veil. Then all of a sudden, this young lady in her twenties comes bounding out of the locker room in shorts, goes up to this woman on the putting green, who is her mother, gives her a kiss, and then hops in the golf cart with her father and heads out to the course…That’s who we are. That’s who we will always be.”

Inclusion is far more important than economics when it comes to the success of today’s private clubs. Modern members recoil at the idea of excluding someone because of their background. In fact, most wealthy young people prefer their golf clubs to be more like the Lions Club or Optimist International, a group dedicated to the betterment of the community, than a bunch of guys interested in getting the 9:30 tee time every Saturday.

“We have something we call the ‘Junior Merit Program’ at Lake Merced for kids that are in junior high and high school whose parents might not be able to afford to belong to a club,” Otis explains. “We open the doors for those players who aspire to play competitively or go on to play in college to come out and work on their games and play a great, classic golf club. They have to maintain a certain GPA and they have to volunteer. For example, when we have our kids summer camps, the Junior Merit kids help run it.

“We encourage them to play and interact with regular members to hone their skills,” she adds. “Then every year they write letters to the board, letting them know how they’re doing, and requesting a re-up in the program. So, it’s teaching them life skills in addition to giving them an opportunity to work on their games.”

The program has its share of great success stories. Emily Childs, who is currently on the Symetra Tour, was part of the Junior Merit program and played at UC Berkley. Andrea Wong, who played at US Davis, was also a Junior Merit player who is going to Palm Springs this fall to try the first stage of the LPGA Q School.

“So, it’s been a big success, not just for the kids who come through the program but for our members who follow their progress and feel as though they’ve played some role in their future success,” Otis says.

The story is repeated time and time again throughout the country. Private clubs that expand their mission beyond the scope of golf, and beyond the insular needs of their membership, succeed in ways that surpass everyone’s expectations. In short, those clubs do well by doing good.

“Of course we have a role to play, an example to set,” Getz says of Merit Club. “Hopefully people will look at what we’ve done here, the character of the club and the membership, and want to model their clubs after it in the future.”

Steve Eubanks is an Atlanta-based freelance  writer and New York Times bestselling author.

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