Country club's efforts aim to turn broader tide

Membership has fallen nationwide, but a promotion in Walla Walla is getting results.

A golfer at the Walla Walla Country Club pops out of the sand Friday afternoon. The club is hoping to draw more golfers to its course with a substantial reduction in fees for its golf-only memberships.

A golfer at the Walla Walla Country Club pops out of the sand Friday afternoon. The club is hoping to draw more golfers to its course with a substantial reduction in fees for its golf-only memberships. Photo by Jeff Horner.

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Walla Walla Country Club membership

The Walla Walla Country Club has a three-tiered membership program for local residents.

“Regular golf member,” the top level, with a current promotional cost of $2,000 for newcomers and members wanting to upgrade.

“Special members,” or those younger than 36. The promotional price is $500 up front. Upon turning 36, instead of paying the remaining amount of half the regular fee, the special $2,000 price for a regular membership will be grandfathered for special members joining between March 1 and June 15. Thus they pay just $1,500 more to upgrade to a regular golf membership.

“Social members” — those limited to just three rounds of golf during the year — pay the same amount as usual for the initiation fee at $500.

Each level of membership also requires monthly dues and a minimum $45 that must be spent across all tiers in the dining room each month.

Membership includes access to tennis courts, a swimming pool, pro shop and golfing amenities and the clubhouse.

Perry and Darleen Dozier always figured they’d have more time for golf when their kids were out of high school.

But with more than a year left before that happens, the Waitsburg couple recently upgraded their Walla Walla Country Club membership, giving them all access to an 18-hole golf course they yet have time to play.

The Doziers were enticed by a hard-to-refuse offer that’s drawn more than 75 new or upgraded memberships to the private, member-owned club since the start of March.

Through the membership drive, the initiation fee for “regular golf members” has been reduced by $6,000.

As with private clubs across America, the Walla Walla Country Club has endured a trickling but steady decline in membership over the last two or three years, said General Manager Jeff Thomas.

“We were low on memberships,” Thomas explained from a window-side seat in the clubhouse overlooking the 18-hole golf course. “Just about every country club in the country is in a tailspin.”

To build its numbers, the Country Club launched a three-month promotion that ends June 15.

Instead of paying $8,000, newcomers and upgrading members are charged $2,000 to join as regular golf members.

Only the first $1,000 must be paid at the time of joining. The second $1,000 is payable by next February.

The organization could have continued financially with the number of regular members it had when the promotion began. In fact, it would have been sustainable with even fewer, Thomas added.

But that direction was not one members wanted to continue.

A greater number of members can help share the cost in operations and capital projects for the club that in peak times employs as many as 60 people. The initiation fees build the capital reserve for new items, repairs and upgrades. That includes new lawn mowers for the fairway at $50,000 each and updates such as clubhouse carpet and furniture. In five more years, it could pay for new shingles on the roof of the sprawling building.

The Country Club’s has a three-tiered membership program for local residents. The “regular golf member” level is the highest and most costly level. There’s also a “special members” tier designed for those 36 and younger. The promotion includes discounted rates for those members as well. Another tier is “social members” who are limited to three rounds of golf on the course during the year.

The initiation fees are just part of the cost for club membership. Each level also includes monthly dues and a minimum that must be spent in the dining room each month.

For members such as the Doziers, who’ve been part of the club since they joined as special members in their 20s, the reduction in price was the deciding factor in the upgrade.

“It was a good incentive,” Darleen Dozier said. “I definitely would have waited had we had to do the full (initiation fee).”

With the new or upgraded membership, the Country Club isn’t so far from reaching its self-imposed maximum of 450 or so regular golf members, Thomas said. When the promotion began, the Country Club had about 380 regular members.

Although it’s difficult to point to any one reason for the decrease, there are several factors that likely contributed, he said. The slow-to-reach-Walla Walla effects of the recession are one, he said. As the economy hit some members, membership might have been an area in their budgets they could trim.

But there’s also been a well-documented national decrease in golf since the 1990s. And in Walla Walla, which now has all three of the basic types of golf courses — private club in the Walla Walla Country Club, a daily-fee course at Wine Valley Golf Club and municipal at Veterans Memorial Golf Course — there’s increased competition for the golfers’ time and money.

According to media reports on National Golf Foundation statistics, the number of golfers in the United States dropped from 30 million people age 6 and older in 2005, to 25.7 million in 2011 — reportedly the latest year for which the figure was available.

Jim Dumont, director of the Walla Walla Parks and Recreation Department that contracts out operation of the municipal course, said the decrease in golf is a sign of the times.

“The hard part in today’s society is how do you find four-and-a-half or five hours to commit to doing something like that,” he said.

Based on fees collected by the city for operation of Veterans Memorials, Dumont said income at the city-owned course took a 10 percent hit to the tune of about $40,000 in 2009. Activity decreased again in 2010, but climbed up in 2011 from the previous year. It has yet to return to pre-recession profitability.

“The industry has a problem because it’s not attracting more golfers,” he said.

Walla Walla has another challenge on top of that, he added. The number of local residents doesn’t tend to grow beyond 1 percent a year.

“A lot of this is based not only on trends in the industry, but also on the population base,” he continued.

Those who do take up golf or continue their own tradition will find a completely different experience at each course.

“The difference between a public golf course and a private one is that at a public golf course you can wear jeans and at a private club you can’t,” Thomas said. “We hold onto an old history of golf as a gentlemen’s game.”

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

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