Venerable Golf Clubs Embrace Fun to Draw More Members

Many of the world’s top golfers will be among the about 140 players at the BMW PGA Championship, which begins Thursday and is held annually on the West Course at the Wentworth Club in Surrey, England. Like they have done for decades, the players will be hitting shots around one of Europe’s most historically rich golf clubs.

But like other storied golf-opolises — those vast golf-focused communities built last century — the club is in the midst of a radical reimaging of what it is. This has not always gone smoothly or been well received by its passionate members.

Home to the European PGA Tour’s headquarters, Wentworth is where the idea for the Ryder Cup, to be contested later this month, was hatched. The club also has hosted scores of professional tournaments, stretching from the 1950s.

Winners at Wentworth have included some of the game’s best: Rory McIlroy, Paul Casey and Colin Montgomerie, who won three BMW PGA Championships in a row. Last year’s championship was won by Tyrrell Hatton, who has qualified for the European squad’s Ryder Cup team.

Yet, in golf as in life, things do not always stay the same. In 2014, the club was bought by Reignwood Group, which is an investment vehicle of Yan Bin, a Chinese billionaire whose wealth derived from selling Red Bull energy drinks. After paying 135 million pounds (about $187 million), he wanted to make some changes, which set off a furor.

He decided to reduce the membership rolls to make the club, which has three 18-hole golf courses, more upscale. Instead of having more than 3,500 members, he increased the annual dues to slash the membership count, said Ruth Scanlan, director of marketing for Wentworth.

He reportedly wanted only 888 members, 8 being a lucky number in China. And those members had to buy what are called debentures — essentially a bond held by the club. The fee was 150,000 euros (about $178,000), and at last count the club had about half the number of debenture members he wanted, Scanlan said.

How Wentworth, which in the 19th century was owned by a relative of the Duke of Wellington, is changing is emblematic of a broader trend of older, once-unassailable golf centers. What has happened is difficult for longtime members, but anything new or different at an established club often comes with grumbling.

The bigger issue is how Wentworth and other golf-opolises have had to face down a starker choice: Change now or go into decline as the world of golf resorts leaves them behind.

But what has forced these changes?

There is not just one answer. Before the pandemic, rounds of golf were in decline and traditional golf courses were struggling to turn a profit. This could be seen as a reason for Wentworth’s looking to go more upscale. But other clubs chose a different route, by trying to add more fun to their clubs or letting nonmembers stay at a private club as a way to play.

Which is what Mike Keiser did. Keiser sold his greeting card company in 2005 and parlayed the proceeds into several golf resorts, including Bandon Dunes in Oregon, Sand Valley in Wisconsin and Cabot Links in Nova Scotia. His courses are all about golf and the post-round golf hangout. And they began siphoning off players from the older golf-opolises.

In many ways, PGA National in Florida is Wentworth’s equivalent in the United States. It is home of the Honda Classic, which is played on a tough course, and has been the longtime headquarters of the P.G.A. of America.

PGA National used to have five courses that were stout tests of golf and attracted business golfers and vacationers, and it hosted tournaments for elite amateurs and professional golfers. One of its courses — designed by Tom Fazio, an architect who has worked on Augusta National — was sliced and diced into a family-friendly nine-holes and another venue just for match play — where winning and losing a hole matters more than the score.

Covid-19 was the impetus for the change, said Jane Broderick, club manager and director of golf at PGA National, who has been there for 35 years. “When you see this resurgence of golf, you think, how do we keep these golfers?” she said. “They may not be the die-hard golfer. What we’re trying to do with these courses is make them a social experience.”

Broderick said converting the Fazio course to two, more-relaxed courses was driven by the club’s new owners, Brookfield Asset Management, which paid $233 million for the club in 2018. “We’re unbuttoning the top button of our golf shirt, and we’re relaxing the rules,” she said. “We want people to have fun.”

Firestone Country Club in Ohio, a private club that was originally the company club for the tire manufacturer of the same name, has long been known for being a strong test of golf. It has hosted decades worth of PGA Tour events, most recently the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational as well as the Bridgestone Senior Players Championship. Tiger Woods has won eight PGA Tour events at Firestone.

Yet, more recently, the club has opened up to limited stay-and-play options.

“We always had three really good golf courses,” said Jay Walkinshaw, the club’s general manager. “As the club and the membership has evolved, we realized we had these 86 guest rooms on property and some excess capacity. That was when we started thinking about opening up Firestone.”

Opening it for semipublic play has brought in revenue without hurting member play. “It’s a destination for golf enthusiasts, and now we’re accessible to them,” he said

Even venerable Pinehurst in North Carolina, the host of four United States Opens in the next two decades, has loosened up. Its main attraction, Pinehurst No. 2, considered among the best Donald Ross-designed courses, remains a sought-after test of golf just as when Payne Stewart beat Phil Mickelson in the 1999 U.S. Open. But it now has the Cradle, a nine-hole course, with music piped in. What it is missing in history, the Cradle aims to make up in fun.

“There’s this theme at Pinehurst of going back to our history and tweaking it for the modern era, and the Cradle is a great example,” said Tom Pashley, president of Pinehurst. “Having music at the Cradle is lauded now, but it was a very difficult decision. It’s added to the relaxed atmosphere we wanted. It’s part of the charm now of playing the Cradle.”

Likewise, Pebble Beach Golf Links in California this year converted an underused par-3 course into the Hay, a short course designed by Tiger Woods with lengths that commemorate historical moments at Pebble, including a replica of the course’s seventh hole, the short par-3 surrounded by water.

“One of the nice things is it’s challenging for the good golfer and still accessible for the new golfer,” said David Stivers, chief executive of the Pebble Beach Company.

Yet the company also recognizes that as golf becomes more accessible it needs easier, not harder options. Stivers said Pebble Beach was introducing a shorter set of tees to allow more players to experience the perennial U.S. Open host site.

Similarly, Sea Pines in South Carolina, which is open to the public, operates three courses, including the highly rated Harbour Town Golf Links. John Farrell, director of sports operations at Sea Pines, said his focus was not on adding new things but on speeding up rounds, which can be painfully slow at sought-after courses.

“Our focus has been to take care of the core values of the golf experience,” he said. “If you do that, everything else takes care of itself. We check pace of play every single day.”

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