The Country Club

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In the 1980s the generation that had fought the civil rights and antiwar battles of the 1960s was joining country clubs. One might suppose these new members would be a force for change in the clubs, but that does not appear to be the case. “In 1970,” said one member of the Homestead Club in Kansas City, “I thought country clubs symbolized the effete establishment and the Vietnam War machine. But today the club is a safe harbor for my family.” Another of that generation admitted that her club “gives me a sense of belonging and being with others of my kind.” (Her father had a slightly less charitable explanation: “Her generation has decided it’s O.K. to be filthy capitalist swine like me.”)

With the highly prosperous 1980s, people in their twenties and thirties began to join country clubs in growing numbers. Unfortunately for club finances these younger members, far more fitness-conscious than traditional country-club types, are more likely to play racquet sports than golf, which generates higher fees, and much less likely to end up at the nineteenth hole, which has traditionally been a reliable source of income to finance deficits elsewhere in club operations.

Consequently, many clubs have come under increasing financial pressure and increasingly have turned to professional management. ClubCorp is by far the largest manager of clubs in this country, running more than two hundred of them, along with its own proprietary clubs. It has also begun acting as a real estate developer, often locating developments around a new country club for the use of the developments’ populations, an arrangement highly reminiscent of the old Tuxedo Club. Last year ClubCorp had revenues approaching $100 million, and it is growing by 30 percent a year.

As the demand for country-club memberships has been increasing swiftly in the 1980s, waiting periods of five years and longer are not unknown at the old, established clubs. This demand for country-club memberships has boosted the number of proprietary clubs, with entrepreneurs smelling profit. Many of these have sought success by seeking to provide instant prestige to the members. The Brookstone Golf and Country Club, near Atlanta, is only two years old, and the brass plaques with the names of the club champions on the walls are almost empty. But its brochure boasts a “time-honored tradition of togetherness and camaraderie.” It also boasts a fifteen-thousand-dollar initiation fee and professional membership director, who is paid to decide who is in and who is out.

Only in America, probably, could the role of social arbiter become a profession. But then capitalism, like the country club, is as American as apple pie and, like the country club, a WASP invention. The productive merger of these two fruits of WASP tribal wisdom was just a matter of time.