Drones and Instagram have changed golf forever. The modern player has an appreciation for golf courses like never before because they regularly see them on their social media feeds in a stunning display. In the past, professional photographers needed helicopters to get the birds-eye shot. Now the barrier of entry is only $1000 for an enthusiast to fire up their drone and get you drooling over clubs around the country you never knew existed.
As such, more and more golfers want to find ways to gain access to private clubs so they can join in on the fun. I'm no different. I grew up on Long Island, which is home to arguably the greatest collection of golf courses on the planet. The problem is most of them are private. As a youth golfer, I was on the outside looking in, mostly playing public golf courses (Bethpage Black is not such a bad consolation prize). But as an adult, I've found my way onto ultra-exclusive courses like Maidstone and Friar's Head through my network, being a member at a private club, and tournament play. The experiences are special, and like many of you, I want more!
At the same time, many private clubs are struggling to survive. Younger golfers are not replacing older membership. Debts are starting to pile up, and incoming revenue is not paying them off quickly enough. Clubs are beginning to fold, and if many don't change their business model, they will be next.
A new way of thinking is required, and one company, in particular, seems to be at the forefront. They're called Eligo. Founded in 2009, their private network of courses has been hiding in the shadows, but as they expand into a national membership, the word is getting out. At the same time, other golfing societies are popping up to serve a growing core of golfers who are willing to pay to get on architecturally significant courses around the country.
What is Eligo?
Eligo, which is a Latin word that means "to select," got its start eleven years ago in Europe. The idea was to band together with a collection of exclusive clubs and create the ultimate private club. The concept proved successful, as they have sold out membership in Europe - 400 members get access to 85 courses across the continent.
Tom Guy, Eligo's Chief Executive Officer, is responsible for the company's expansion into the United States. Tom is a former PGA teaching professional, who had an 8-year tenure at the Chelsea Piers in New York City. Recently, I had several conversations with him on the phone. I learned about how Eligo is partnering with many clubs to be a significant revenue generator. Also, I got an inside look into the challenges the private golf world is facing.
Eligo initially approached the US market through a regional concept, starting in the New York Metro area. The idea was to tap an unserved demand for golfers who didn't want to commit to a club long term, and also wanted access to a network of clubs in their area, or when they traveled.
"Because private golf can be so intimidating, we served as a bridge for those who were looking to join clubs," Guy told me.
The concept has caught on nicely. Their New York membership is almost sold out, and they recently opened up Philadelphia. Eligo members now get access to more than 70 partner clubs between the two regions and get access to partner clubs in Florida in the winter. All members have a concierge that helps book rounds. If a member is traveling outside of their network, they will try to arrange for play on a member's behalf by contacting clubs in the region they are visiting.
A friend of mine is an Eligo member based in New York City, and I've seen first hand the benefits of his membership. He's created a network of friends to play rounds with, and I've gotten to play some fantastic courses through his membership that I usually wouldn't have access to. As a former New York City resident, it's a perfect concept for someone who wants to play multiple courses in the area, but not commit to one in particular.
How They Are Serving The Private Club World
The private golf world is changing very quickly. A lot of clubs are struggling to transition to the future and figure out what their identity will be. Most clubs never had to worry about revenue or attracting new members. But as it gets harder to lure younger golfers, many clubs find themselves in financial distress.
Tom Guy has seen these struggles up close and personal, as he interacts with hundreds of country clubs across the country.
The ultra-premium clubs will always survive, but the challenge is for the rest. The most significant change is the schedule - Friday is now the new Saturday in terms of playing. Family time is the weekend, and many of these courses are quieter. Golf clubs need to hold on to their traditions, but at the same time address the needs of the younger generation
At the same time, social media has fueled an intense desire among golfers to get access to exclusive properties. In Tom's opinion, if they embrace this market, rather than shun them, it could help keep many of these clubs going with new sources of revenue.
However, it's a very delicate balance. Clubs do want the extra income from unaccompanied guest play, but at the same time, they don't want to anger their paying members. Many courses have used the extra income they receive from Eligo to bolster other parts of the course, or even add new teaching professionals.
In Tom's experience, each course is different. Some want exposure through Eligo because paid advertising can be construed as a sign of desperation. Eligo is seen as a "quieter" marketing opportunity, in the hopes that some of the players will eventually fall in love with a course, and want to join as a full-time member.
Since Eligo has been able to navigate these challenges in multiple markets successfully, they are now planning to expand. They just launched a national membership for those who live 125 miles outside of their existing hubs.
The cost is $3200 annually with a one-time joining fee of $1500, which will be credited towards events in the first year. National members will get access to a calendar of events in New York City, Philadelphia, and Europe. They also can play partner clubs and request access through their concierge service. From the start, it will be limited to 250 members.
Additionally, Eligo is planning to expand more regional memberships in golf-dense areas, but limit its membership to about 200 golfers in each region.
Eligo is not alone in this market. Other golfing societies have formed over the last few years (Outpost Club, NewClub, Thousand Greens) because there is such strong demand. While they all don't have the same model, there is mounting evidence that a newer, more open golfing model can exist.
Recently, I played a top-20 golf course that took me years to finagle my way on. The member I played with told me that the course is usually empty, which is a shame. This club will never hurt for money, so they likely can continue that model, and they have the financial means to do so. However, in my view, every private club beneath that tier needs to think about their future differently, and what exclusivity means.
Change is coming very quickly, and I've seen first hand how an old way of thinking can quickly lead to a course's demise. So I'm happy to see organizations like Eligo start to form. Golf needs new ideas to keep these great courses alive.
You can learn more about Eligo on their website here.