Golf's private clubs drive to survive

Private golf courses across Canada, facing a high attrition rate due to aging memberships and other challenges, are slashing entrance fees, boosting recruiting efforts and even changing long-established traditions in an effort to attract younger golfers.

Golf's drive to survive

10 years ago
Duration 6:18
Private courses are changing long-standing traditions to attract younger golfers

Private golf courses across Canada, facing a high attrition rate due to aging memberships and other challenges, are slashing entrance fees, boosting recruiting efforts and even changing long-established traditions in an effort to attract younger golfers.

"Globally, one of the biggest challenges with … private golf is an aging membership," said Cedar Brae Golf and Country Club general manager Sean DeSilva.

"Private golf courses have an average age membership around the 58- to 60-year-old mark which makes you look at how do we bring in new younger players."

Cedar Brae in northeast Toronto is a prime example. The club, founded in 1922, has 435 golfing members. It's looking to grow that number, while at the same is dealing with a growing number of members "aging out," leaving the game for health reasons, or in some cases actually dying.

So Cedar Brae has significantly cut its membership fees. The club once had an initiation fee as high as $30,000 back in the 1980s. Now it's $7,500, payable over five years, interest-free.

Some golf courses have loosened strict dress-code rules and slashed initiation fees to attract younger players. (CBC)

Cedar Brae also offers other flexible options such as a one-year trial membership where the golfer pays only the annual dues, which start at $3,660 for weekday-only access. Golfers can also choose a limited-access, three-month "Play Days" membership at a cost of $1,500.

"There are very, very flexible payment terms," said DeSilva. "Some clubs are advertising 10 years interest-free. We've gone to five years interest-free. Certainly, I think in recent years a lot of clubs have had to lower their entrance fee."

Few clubs have waiting lists

Cedar Brae isn't the only private club forced to adapt. Many clubs across the country are slashing fees, and waiting lists — once common — are rapidly disappearing, according to ScoreGolf Magazine's Robert Thompson.


Still waiting

Despite the challenges facing many private courses, a select few have no trouble attracting new members: 
  • West Vancouver's Capilano Golf and Country Club boasts a three- to four-year wait list.
  • The Calgary Golf and Country Club has one of the longest waiting lists in Canada: 15 years.
  • At Toronto's venerable Rosedale Golf Club, the wait list is reportedly seven years long.

"I think there's one club in Toronto that has a waiting list. There's maybe one or two clubs in Vancouver. One club in Calgary."

Thompson says Capilano Golf & Country Club in Vancouver, Calgary Golf and Country Club in Calgary and the ultra high-end Rosedale Golf Club in Toronto are among the very few that still have waiting lists.

Thompson says many clubs now have an annual membership turnover rate of between five and seven per cent.

There are other challenges too, he points out, including a younger demographic that has less time to golf.

"As this demographic has changed, you have an increasing focus on family time," said Thompson. "It's not the 1950s. It's not Mad Men where somebody's going to grab their clubs on Saturday morning, leave the wife and kids, go to the club and then have a boozy dinner or something. It doesn't play that way anymore."

"I would say 95 per cent of the prospects who sit in my office are doing the math," says DeSilva. "They're dividing the annual dues by the number of times they play. For some people, it can be a really expensive endeavour."

Old traditions giving way

Younger golfers playing hard-to-get are also forcing private clubs to re-examine some long established and fairly restrictive rules and regulations.

For instance, many private clubs are easing bans on cellphone use on course property. They're also easing some aspects of the old-school dress codes.

"Knee socks at clubs in Montreal. Used to be if you wanted to wear shorts, you had to wear knee socks. Craziness," Thompson says.

"Younger members may have a pair of jeans that cost more than the golf pants they wore out at the club and are actually nicer pants .… Some clubs are slowly starting to get around to recognizing that and recognizing that if they want younger people to come into the club, these are things — time-honoured traditions — that are going to have to change."

Private clubs also face growing competition from high-end public courses.

Robert Thompson, author of Going for the Green: On the Links with Canada's Business and Political Elite, says demographics have led to dwindling memberships and lower entry fees. (Canadian Press )

"We've seen these public courses offer a country club for a day." says Thompson. "So you can go play places like Eagle's Nest or Angus Glen (both in the Greater Toronto Area) or Westwood Plateau in Vancouver that offer a very similar experience to a country club. But you only pay a one-time fee, and for a lot of people that's really attractive."

In the United States, which was hit harder than Canada by the economic meltdown of 2008, some clubs have either gone bankrupt or turned public due to a lack of membership. The problem is not as acute in Canada, although there are signs of trouble here.

Vancouver's Shaughnessy Golf and Country Club — which hosted last year's Canadian Open — is exploring the idea of merging with another of Vancouver's best known private clubs, Point Grey. It's considering that, in part, because of the threat of a declining membership at both courses.

Could there be even more changes to the private club business model ahead?

"I had somebody suggest the other day maybe it should be like a cellphone plan," said Thompson. "You agree to be a member for three years and here are your costs. There's no initiation .… If you leave early, you're going to pay something out but if you stay the three years you'll know what those fixed costs are."

Cedar Brae members Frank Diteljan and Diane Webb were both lifelong public golfers until just a few years ago, when they realized the country club set was suddenly within their reach.

"Cost was a huge issue in the past, when it used to be a ridiculous amount of money." said Webb. "I think now it's more realistic in terms of what people can afford and what they're willing to pay."

More entertainment options

Adds Diteljan: "In the $20,000 to $30,000 range for initiation, it just didn't make sense. It probably did back in the '60s and '70s when this was your whole life, but now we have so many other entertainment options."

As for the possibility of other new members taking advantage of the lower rates and joining their club, "I think it's fabulous. The more the merrier," said Webb.

Still, private courses changing fees, rules and dress codes to survive bring an additional hazard into play: golf's traditionalists.

"I think it's a very fine line." says Cedar Brae's Sean DeSilva.

"Traditionally, golf has been a very … rule-heavy sport, not only with the game also with the culture in the clubhouse. I think we still have to respect the game and where we came from. We also have to look at the new individuals who are looking to take up golf and what their needs are."

All of which adds up to greater access to what was once a fairly exclusive lifestyle.