David Wood, general manager of Shaughnessy Golf and Country Club.
As Shaughnessy readies to host the only Canadian stop on the 2011 PGA Tour, the state of Vancouver’s private golf clubs will come into focus. Surprisingly, it’s not a bad-looking picture.
It’s July and the RBC Canadian Open is underway at Shaughnessy Golf and Country Club when you happen to overhear a conversation between a host-club member and an equivalent from a prominent American club.
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“How are things up here in Canada?”
“Tell me about it. Down our way, private clubs are losing about 10 per cent of their membership every year. Nationwide, there used to be three million members. Now it’s more like two million. Golf was already in decline, but the downturn just killed us. Hundreds of clubs have closed or gone public.”
“That sounds tough. Problems here too. Our lease runs out in 2032, and we have no indication it will be renewed.”
“Well, we’ve purchased an old cow pasture of a course beside a freeway in the suburbs, but if we can’t get regulatory permission to expand it, I don’t know how things are going to turn out.”
“Gawd, you must be losing members by the hundreds.”
“Not really. We still have a two-year waiting list to join.”
“Your lease is running out and no one knows what will happen? The most likely outcome has you moving out to an inferior place in the ’burbs, and yet you have a waiting list?”
“Yeah, to pay a $70,000 initiation fee.”
“Wow.” Wow, indeed. There is complicated and then there is complicated. The italicized version is about bare survival, and describes the situation at hundreds, perhaps thousands, of private clubs in the U.S. The local variation is more about out-duelling competitors and adapting to changing circumstances – the time-honoured routines of business as usual. It’s not as if the economic downturn didn’t cast a shadow on public and private golf clubs in B.C., and thorny issues such as Shaughnessy’s lease problem with the Musqueam Indian Band do exist.
At some of the second-tier clubs, attracting and retaining a membership sufficient to cover expenses has become a real challenge. Still, when the golf world arrives in Vancouver in July for the country’s national championship and sole PGA Tour stop, it will discover something of a sheltered enclave, where wait-lists aren’t listing and bankruptcy talk in the executive office is no more common than blue jeans in the clubhouse (though more on that in a moment).
How healthy are the handful of private clubs at the top of the Vancouver golf pyramid? “I can see the day when one of them will be charging a $100,000 initiation,” says Richard Zokol, the former PGA Tour player and honourary Marine Drive Golf Club member. Zokol has a vested interest in the prosperity of private golf clubs, it could be argued: for 2011 he plans to return his Nicola Valley Sagebrush Golf and Sporting Club to the membership-only format originally envisioned for it, an Augusta National-like setup (suspended in favour of limited public play when the course opened into the 2008 economic downturn).
Still, his point is valid. With their classic golf courses located handily near the city’s most affluent areas, the big five clubs – Capilano Golf and Country Club, Shaughnessy, Marine Drive, Point Grey Golf and Country Club and Vancouver Golf Club – occupy a blessed position. (In terms of desirability, Zokol places the five in that order; another rung down sit several others, including Beach Grove Golf Club, QGolf Club [formerly Quilchena], Richmond Country Club and Seymour Golf and Country Club.) Throw in the uncertainty surrounding Shaughnessy, says Zokol, and the four other clubs should benefit even more. And indeed, initiation at Point Grey is already $80,000, while Marine Drive is raising its from $65,000 to $75,000.
At Shaughnessy, meanwhile, the leasehold situation still has two decades to unfold. General manager David Wood says the club has not given up hope that it can come to an agreement on a renewal arrangement with the Musqueam, but in the meantime, it has purchased Greenacres in Richmond, along with an adjacent parcel of land that is protected under the Agricultural Land Reserve. Shaughnessy has not received permission to use the land to expand the cramped, bare-bones layout, but a lot can happen in 20 years.
Wood is not quite as ebullient as Zokol about the current state of the private clubs. “The game has slipped a bit,” he says of golf in general. The heyday of private clubs ended about two decades ago, he thinks, when memberships ceased to be a tax deduction. The current wait of about two years is considerably shorter than was the case even a few years ago. “Business still gets done,” he says, of the clubs’ longstanding role as places to impress colleagues and win over customers, but the appeal is more about golf and socializing nowadays. And with monthly dues of more than $300, in addition to the hefty initiation, it’s an expensive way to play the game.
Shaughnessy the host
Shaughnessy’s current situation might be worse but for its successful hosting of the 2005 RBC Open and subsequent climb up Score Golf magazine’s Top 100 ranking of Canadian courses (from 24th in 2004 to 13th today), a combination that benefitted it in the genteel but real competition for members between the top clubs. Although PGA Tour stalwart Robert Allenby said at the time he would never return to Shaughnessy after spending too much time in its ultra-thick rough, the course rated highly on the tour players’ year-end poll and held up well against par despite its relatively short length (about 7,000 yards). This year, says Shaughnessy’s Wood, superintendent Rob Barr has the course in such good shape that there will be no need to thicken up the rough – the pros will play much the same course as the members do, albeit as a par-70 instead of par-73. Incidentally, prestige is not the only benefit to Shaughnessy of hosting the RBC Open. “The members lose the course for a couple of weeks and are compensated for that,” says Wood, though he won’t specify how much.
The 2011 event should also attract a larger number of potential members, as attendance is expected to rise from 2005’s 72,000. For one thing, this year’s RBC Open promises a stronger field, thanks to the bank’s recent emergence as one of the biggest-spending sponsors in the game. Among the players it has agreements with are some of the sport’s top stars, including Ernie Els, Anthony Kim, Luke Donald, Camillo Villegas, Matt Kuchar and Jim Furyk, all of whom are likely to attend.
Just down the road from Shaughnessy, both Point Grey and Marine Drive will be attempting to capture a few stray beams of reflected glory. Marine Drive hosts an event on July 19th celebrating Zokol’s induction into the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame, and will be showing off a just-completed renovation by architect Jim Urbina, who with Tom Doak designed Pacific Dunes, the first stablemate of Bandon Dunes, the Oregon coast course that helped usher in a new era of golf course architecture hearkening back to the golden age of golf design, which ended around the mid-20th century. Marine Drive COO Ron Pauls says Urbina took into account notes from the course’s original 1922 designer, Arthur Vernon Macan, who revisited the club just before his death in 1964.
With a stable waiting list that sits at about six years, Point Grey has neither need nor plans to piggyback on the RBC Open beyond a few small functions based on its proximity to Shaughnessy. Perhaps the biggest news there was a decision last fall to follow Marine Drive’s lead in allowing blue jeans in the clubhouse, a move that is already paying dividends. “The impact on the club has been dramatic,” says executive secretary Brad Pinnell, citing significantly higher clubhouse revenues.
Progress, to be sure, and a sign that the private clubs recognize the danger of being perceived as the last refuge of snobs and fuddy-duddies. But there is perhaps a more alarming spectre hanging over them, suggests Ted Hunt, a member at Point Grey and the author of two instructional books based on the lost secrets of Ben Hogan. “I have seen too many Vancouver golf courses bite the dust because of rising real estate prices,” he says, pointing to Jericho; Hastings; the original Quilchena site near 33rd and Arbutus; the original Shaughnessy Heights site at 49th and Oak; and Langara, a chunk of which was carved off for housing before its redesign in the 1990s. “Now Shaughnessy is on the chopping block, to be followed soon by the University course. Could Point Grey or Marine Drive be next?”
At first glance this might strike many as alarmist. But it would take little more than an adverse outcome of a vote by city council, suggests Hunt, a former school principal who spent several years as a trustee on the Vancouver School Board. “What if Vancouver City Hall decided to prop up its own battered budget by increasing land taxes on golf courses?” he asks.
Well, it could happen, especially if public sentiment continues to grow that golf is an elitist sport rather than the egalitarian, everyman’s game that was once the Canadian norm. Somehow word just has to be spread about those blue jeans.