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September 2022

An Old Club Shares History Through A New Technology

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By Steve Eubanks

Being a guest is always tough. You show up at a mainline club with a rich reputation and wonder if you’re appropriately attired, no matter how well you’re dressed. Then you aren’t sure where to park or what door to enter. And you certainly don’t feel comfortable loitering in the clubhouse – Should I sit on that chair or is it decorative? Even if you’re an expected guest, getting in and out as quickly as possible reduces stress before a round of golf. 

One famous club is trying to change that. With its 125th anniversary right around the corner, the Atlanta Athletic Club has begun showcasing its history by using modern technology to tell some of its intriguing tales. In the process members hope to make guests feel more welcome and comfortable hanging around the clubhouse and learning the history of the place.

In late August, the club went live with a new system of QR codes strategically located in 38 locations inside the massive Tudor-style clubhouse. Once you pass through the automatic doors at the front entrance, you can spend as much time as you like taking a self-guided tour of the place.

It’s not an extraordinary advancement – museums have been using QR technology for several years and self-guided tours go back decades at historic sites such as Alcatraz – but it is different for this venue. Many private clubs don’t allow you to use cell phones on the premises. Pull one out and you’ll be asked to leave the building. Members at Atlanta Athletic Club have chosen the opposite approach. Two steps in the front door and you are greeted by the first QR code with instructions to take out your phone and have a listen.

“Welcome to Atlanta Athletic Club, founded in 1898,” a soothing baritone voice says in your ear. “Much of the club’s athletic history is presented in the centennial gardens located in front of the club and the hall of fame, located in the corridor between the social and golf wings.”     

That opening message goes on like that for more than a minute, giving listeners an overview of AAC’s current location, which is always the subject of some confusion every year as The Tour Championship is played at East Lake. That East Lake Golf Club, located much closer to downtown Atlanta, was the original Atlanta Athletic Club site, the spot where Bobby Jones and Alexa Stirling played their first rounds of golf. Then in 1964, the club moved north of the city onto what was, at the time, remote pastureland. Today, it’s called Johns Creek and is one of the wealthiest and most populated zip codes in the Southeast.

All of that detail and more is described in great detail as you meander through the AAC clubhouse. 

The obvious next stop is the Jones Museum, a room just to the left of the entrance, where the voice from the QR code invites you to sign a guest book and then gives an expansive tour of Bobby Jones’s memorabilia. “The collection includes a small silver cup he won during his first competition when he was just six years old in a match played against his childhood friends Frank Meader, Perry Adair and Alexa Stirling,” the voice says. “Jones recalls that Alexa actually won the cup but that it was given to Bobby because he was just a boy. It was the only trophy he ever slept with.” 

The Jones Museum has the largest collection of Bobby Jones memorabilia in the world, including hand-written letters between Jones and President Dwight Eisenhower, signed scorecards, family photographs and other fascinating historical items. It would be easy for a guest to miss his tee time if he was a history buff.

Other QR codes include The Hall of Champions which displays memorabilia from the three PGA Championships, won by Larry Nelson, David Toms and Keegan Bradley, and the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, won by Nelly Korda, along with the six USGA championships and the 1963 Ryder Cup captained by Arnold Palmer. Jerry Pate captured the U.S. Open at the club in 1976, hitting an iconic 5-iron from the right rough on the 18th hole, and Betsy King won the U.S. Women’s Open there in 1990.  

There’s also a Heisman Room, which salutes John Heisman, the head coach at Georgia Tech who served as athletic director at AAC. 

“We have such a rich history at the club and we really were looking for a way for our members, but especially our guests, to be able to spend some time and learn more about the people and events that have been a part of the club from the beginning,” said general manager David Shepperd. “We want our guests to engage with the club. We want you to feel like you’re getting a guided tour with our resident historian. The QR codes make it possible for you to spend as much or as little time learning about our history as you’d like.

“The whole thing would take about two hours. We don’t expect a majority of people to go through the entire tour. But if you want to spend some time going through the Jones Museum or the Watts Gunn Room, it’s really a great way to learn about the history of the club, and the history of Atlanta.

“There’s a lot there, and we’re thrilled to share it.” 

Most golf clubs don’t have clubhouse museums, just as most can’t boast a membership that includes Bobby Jones and the namesake of the Heisman trophy. Certainly the Atlanta Athletic Club is in the top one percent of clubs in the nation in terms of facilities and history. But modest clubs can learn from this example. QR codes are a way of breaking down barriers and being more inviting. Obviously, menus can be delivered through QR codes – an innovation that flourished during the COVID era – but you can also add information that guests to your club might find useful: things like who designed the golf course; how long the club has been open; the current course record and when it was shot; and what sort of specials might be offered in the golf shop.

Clubs like Atlanta Athletic Club are giving permission for everyone in the industry to embrace technology, not necessarily as a historical tour guide, but as a vehicle to communicate with members and guests in a way that makes sense for everyone.

“We like to think that the club has been on the cutting edge of a lot of innovations,” Shepperd said. “But it’s not innovation for the sake of innovation. There’s a purpose. In this case, it’s sharing the club’s history. We want people to feel welcome and to embrace that.”

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