Connecticut's Private Golf Clubs Still Offer Great Perks But Want New Members
Fine food is still a staple of private country club life.
For the members of exclusive country clubs, the grass truly is greener—and not just because there’s less wear and tear on the course.
“There’s a certain selectivity to being a member at a private club. I just heard a guy today talking about how he has a private jet, because he doesn’t want to wait in the TSA line and he doesn’t want to be stuck when there’s 20 planes backed up at LaGuardia,” says Ralph Salito, head golf professional at The Club at River Oaks in Sherman. Salito says being a member at a private club is the golf-world equivalent of that private jet—you can do what you want, when you want to and you never have to wait in line. “At our club we have basically unlimited accessibility. There are no tee times; you don’t have to make an appointment for a club fitting, or a lesson. So it’s extremely personalized service. We have people who play nine holes, take a two-hour break for lunch, then go out and play the back nine holes, which you can’t do at a public course.”
Country club staffers strive to make a trip to the club feel like a visit to a personal golfing playground. “I know the likes and dislikes of almost every member,” says Donny Kirkpatrick, head pro at Wampanoag Country Club in West Hartford. “I know what apparel they like and I know what they shot last week because they come in and talk to me about their rounds. They’ll say, ‘Oh I’m having trouble hitting shots out of the sand,’ and because they play their golf here I might walk out and help them for a few minutes, then I’ll inquire how their sand game is the next few times they play. This is their course, I’m their pro and we have a professional staff here that cares about their golf game. I think members appreciate that.”
The perks extend well beyond the game of golf. Swimming pools, elaborate clubhouses, mint condition clay tennis courts and top-notch cuisine at club restaurants are all par for the course. The Club at River Oaks offers a five-star menu featuring decidedly un-19th-hole-like fare such as wild-mushroom-and-goat-cheese tart, duck confit with white bean cassoulet and steak au poivre. Some River Oaks members have grown so used to the amenities the club offers they have built homes in the private community located on the club grounds.
Peter Joyce, Wampanoag’s general manager, says, “Our club offers babysitting on weekends and we have a wide range of family activities from pool parties to drive-in movie night on the driving range. During the summer our swim team has close to 100 participants.” He adds that at the bar and restaurants, the staff knows “exactly how you like your dinner prepared and what your favorite cocktail or wine is. We get to know the family as a whole and treat each one special. A lot of time and energy is put into making our membership happy.”
Yes, membership still has its privileges, which can even extend beyond the club—a golf pro can even help you when you’re on the road and looking to tee it up. “If a member inquires about playing at a course while they’re away on business or vacation, I’ll go out of my way to accommodate them by calling the host professional at the requested course and make accommodations for them to play,” says Kirkpatrick. “Usually the answer is yes. As Professional Golf Association members, we’re a close-knit group and look out for each other.”
In the past, private golf clubs attracted members simply by heeding the advice given to Kevin Costner’s character in Field of Dreams: If you build it, they will come.
“It used to be easy. You just opened the doors and you had more golfers than you could imagine,” says Thomas Gleeton, head pro at the Country Club of Waterbury. But as the economy struggles to emerge from the economic sand trap of recent years, the business side of the peaceful, well-manicured world of private golf clubs has become increasingly Darwinian. “With the challenges now, you have to adapt,” he says. “You have to be creative, you have to think outside the box, because if you don’t you’re not going to survive.”
Fees at private clubs vary greatly. Social members at a club like Wampanoag can expect to pay about a $1,000 initiation fee, with monthly fees approaching $200, plus a small food spending requirement. At least one exclusive Fairfield County club charges as much as $50,000 for annual membership, and when the Bull’s Bridge Golf Club in Kent opened in 2004 members put down $102,500 for an ownership share in the club, and then paid annual dues between $4,000 and $6,000.
Connecticut is home to 79 private and 87 public golf course facilities, according to the Connecticut State Golf Association, and despite recent setbacks, the state’s multimillion-dollar golfing industry is still swinging. Some enthusiasts even say recent trends in the golf world have been good for players because it has forced clubs to become more affordable and family-friendly.
“There’s no question that when the economy tanked in 2008, a lot of businesses, including golf operations, had to rethink their models and strategies,” says Michael Moraghan, the association’s executive director. “The overall economy is much better than it was a few years ago, but the collapse has brought changes not only in fee structures, but the entire membership experience. Clubs have made a real effort to improve their level of service and provide greater amenities, all of which is a good thing for golfers looking to join a golf or country club.”
Gleeton says the Country Club of Waterbury still has a waiting list, in part because of its ability to appeal to families.
“What used to be a male-dominated sport is now a family-dominated sport,” he says. “In your typical family if the guy wants to play more, part of his routine needs to include spending some time with the family on the course. If our industry is going to grow, we’d better be embracing the women and we’d better be embracing the family.”
Personnel at Wampanoag Country Club in West Hartford echo Gleeton’s comments. In keeping with the times, Wampanoag now offers a few different membership categories to accommodate potential members’ needs. This year the club also is allowing social members, who have weekday-only access, to upgrade to regular membership without paying an additional initiation fee.
“We want to reward our members for wanting to spend more time with us to enjoy our club,” says Wampanoag’s general manager Joyce, adding the club also has made efforts to market itself to families. “Everybody is looking for that high value and overall experience that’s going to exceed their expectations. It’s a tough sell when just the father or mother get to enjoy the amenities and not the children.”
The Tradition Golf Club at Oak Lane is a public golf course in Woodbridge that opened in the fall of 2011 on the grounds of what was once the private Oak Lane Country Club, which closed in 2010. It’s owned by the same company that operates the Tradition Golf Club at Wallingford.
Gina Berrafati, director of operations at the club, says it was the more affordable clubs like the former Oak Lane Country Club that were hit the hardest by the recession. “The high-end courses, they’re not going to feel the pain, but the private clubs that are catering to upper-middle-class families, those are the clubs that are struggling,” she says. “When we opened, country clubs in this area just weren’t thriving and the private club that had been here was unsuccessful, so it didn’t really make sense for us to reopen as a private club.
“We find that people are responding well to the fact that they get to play what was designed to be a private course and we’re keeping our conditions comparable to what you would find at a private golf course,” she adds.
Connecticut has a long and rich golfing history. The Connecticut State Golf Association was formed in 1899 and is the oldest state golf association in the nation. But even the historic country clubs have been affected. Brooklawn Country Club in Fairfield has a 118-year tradition of golf that began in 1895. Mary Cunningham, the club’s president, says Brooklawn has been able to flourish by striking a balance between tradition and innovation.
“Since 2008, many country clubs have faced declining waiting lists for memberships due to changing demographics and a sluggish economy,” she says. “Brooklawn has been fortunate in that we have a healthy pipeline of new members, even though we’ve experienced the current trend of higher-than-average resignations and a shortened wait list.
“Change is necessary, but must happen within a framework of tradition,” Cunningham adds. “We have become more family-centric and more casual. The days of jacket-and-tie dress codes in the formal dining room have been replaced by more casual attire. That said, our formal black-tie Christmas dinner remains one of our most popular events. We are able to maintain our membership because we’ve reacted to changing times while respecting our history.”
“I see slow, steady growth in the number of players, with continued expansion in participation by women and minorities,” says Moraghan, of the Connecticut State Golf Association, who predicts a bright future for golf in Connecticut. “Most everything is cyclical and I believe we’ll see another golf boom sometime in the next 10 years. There are a lot of reasons for non-golfers to be drawn to golf—the health benefits of being outdoors playing a game, the fact that people of all ages and abilities can play, and the networking benefits for business and professional people. There is great camaraderie among golfers, and as more people discover these things, the game will continue to grow.”