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Private Golf in America

In 2008, NGF undertook a multi-faceted research project to understand the private golf club industry in America. The most salient research findings became the basis of our 2008 publication, The Future of Private Golf Clubs in America. We decided it was time, now that we’re 4+ years post-recession, to see how the landscape of private golf has changed. In late 2013 we conducted a three-tiered research approach that included an NGF golf facility database analysis of supply trends, as well as online private club operator and golfer (both member and non-member) surveys.

A summary of a few of the main takeaways from the 2013 research follows.

Private Club Supply

At the time of our 2008 study, private golf club* supply had grown by about 200 18-hole equivalent (18HEQ) golf courses in the prior 10-year period. At about 4,400 clubs, private supply was near its highest mark in a quarter century and was about to begin declining.

The facility database analysis in 2013 revealed that private supply has subsequently contracted by 9%, or by 384 18HEQ courses. There are currently about 4,050 private golf clubs in the U.S., down about 18% from its peak in 1988. The continued contraction in private club supply is less about closures, which remain disproportionately public, than it is about clubs opening their doors to outside play. Though 78 18HEQ private facilities closed since 2008, more than 400 changed their operating model from exclusively serving members and their guests to opening their doors (some a lot, some a little) to public play.

Club Operations

As was the case in 2008, the top tier of private golf clubs (you know who they are) seems to remain unaffected by market conditions and the decline in golfers and participation, though it is uncertain if this immunity will hold for the long-term. The large middle tier of clubs shows signs of modest recovery from the recession, with memberships and revenues improving slightly for many. However, reported membership levels and rounds played remain significantly below peak (down an average of 13% and 17%, respectively).

A segment of middle tier clubs appears to be offsetting declines in memberships and utilization by lowering or waiving initiation fees to increase attraction. However, these same clubs are also routinely increasing member dues to ensure financial viability. This dynamic bears watching, as this may not be a sustainable model for many clubs as the value proposition continues to weaken with dues increases.

Finally, another 10% to 15% of clubs report being seriously challenged, financially and otherwise, despite nearly 1 in 10 clubs closing, or converting to a public access operating model, in the previous five years. This means that another 400 to 600 clubs may be culled from the exclusively private rolls over the coming years. Some of these “at risk” clubs are lower quality facilities that are unable to draw sufficient members to sustain operations or make facility improvements. However, many are also “market challenged”, located in areas with relatively low household income in proximity to the club (a very clear relationship exists between the affluence of a club’s surrounding neighborhoods and its reported financial well-being), or with too much competition.


With the contraction of supply, NGF estimates that the number of private club members has fallen to about 1.9 million. The reasons that most golfers are attracted to private clubs remain the same – privilege, high quality golf, and convenience.These are also the primary reasons cited by non-members who have an interest in joining.

Approximately two-thirds of existing members were highly likely to still be members of a private golf club five years hence. Another 20% were “on the fence,” leaving 10% to 15% at risk of giving up their club membership. Excluding relocation or health reasons, money was the main issue for at-risk current members – the same as with former members. Two out of three at risk for leaving cited at least one money-related reason.

So what is the key to improving retention and saving those “at risk”? Emphatically…improving the value proposition. And research clearly showed that one of the most effective ways that club managers can improve the perceived value of membership is by adapting policies and facilities to effectively increase the engagement of the primary member’s spouse and children.

What about the potential for replacing members who may leave in the coming years? Even though many may not be able to afford it – money-wise or time-wise – the majority of Core golfers were still attracted to private golf club membership. Research showed that there remain nearly 2 million qualified prospects for private golf club membership … or one for every existing private club member.

In the coming months, we will provide NGF members with a report that includes much more comprehensive research findings and recommendations, including:

  • Factors, policies, strategies, etc. that correlate strongly to club financial health.
  • What operators are doing effectively to increase attraction, retention, and utilization.
  • How clubs are adapting to draw younger members and families.
  • What non-member golfers tell us would get them to act on their interest in club membership.

* A private club is defined as a golf facility that restricts play to its members and their guests.

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