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Drones and Instagram have changed golf forever. The modern day player appreciates golf courses like never before, seeing them regularly on their social media feeds in a stunning display. In the past, professional photographers needed helicopters to shoot bird's eye view. Now the entry barrier is only $ 1000 for an enthusiast to fire their drone and make you drool over clubs across the country you didn't know existed.
Jon Cavaliers drone recording from Shinnecock Hills (@linksgems)
That's why more and more golfers want to find ways to access private clubs so they can join in the fun. I am no different. I grew up on Long Island, which has perhaps the largest collection of golf courses in the world. The problem is, most of them are private. As a youth golfer, I looked in from the outside, usually on public courses (Bethpage Black is not such a bad consolation prize). But as an adult, I've made my way to ultra-exclusive courses like Maidstone and Friars Head through my network, private club members, and tournaments. 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 do not replace older membership. Debts are starting to pile up and incoming income is not being paid off quickly enough. Clubs are starting 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 are called Eligo. Founded in 2009, their private network of courses has been hiding in the shadows, but as they grow into a national membership, the word is getting out. At the same time, other golf associations are popping up to serve a growing core of golfers willing to pay for architecturally significant courses across the country.
What is Eligo?
Eligo, which is a Latin word meaning "select", started in Europe eleven years ago. The idea was to partner with a collection of exclusive clubs and create the ultimate private club. The concept proved successful, as membership in Europe has sold out – 400 members will have 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 teacher who worked at Chelsea Piers in New York City for 8 years. Recently I had several conversations with him on the phone. I learned how Eligo works with many clubs to be an important source of income. I also got a behind-the-scenes look at the challenges facing the private golf world.
Eligo initially approached the US market through a regional concept, starting in the New York metro area. The idea was to raise an unanswered demand for golfers who did not want to commit to a club over the long term, as well as access to a network of clubs in their area, or when they were traveling.
"Because private golf can be so intimidating, we served as a bridge for those who wanted to join clubs," Guy told me.
The concept has taken off well. Their New York membership is almost sold out and they recently opened Philadelphia. Eligo members now get access to more than 70 partner clubs between the two regions and get access to partner clubs in Florida during the winter. All members have a concierge who assists with booking tours. If a member is traveling outside of their network, they will attempt to play on behalf of a member by contacting clubs in the region they are visiting.
A friend of mine is an Eligo member based in New York City, and I have seen firsthand the benefits of being a member. He has created a network of friends to play with, and through his membership I have played some fantastic courses that I normally 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 doesn't commit to one in particular.
How They Serve the Private Club World
The private golf world is changing very quickly. Many clubs are struggling to transition into 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 are in financial straits.
Tom Guy has seen these struggles up close and personal as he interacts with hundreds of country clubs around the country.
The ultra-premium clubs will always survive, but the challenge is for the rest. The most important change is the schedule – Friday is now the new Saturday in terms of play. Family time is the weekend, and many of these courses are quieter. Golf clubs must stick to their traditions, but at the same time respond to the needs of the younger generation
At the same time, social media has sparked an intense desire among golfers to access exclusive properties. If they embrace this market, rather than shun it, it could help keep many of these clubs running with new sources of income, according to Tom.
However, it is a very delicate balance. Clubs want the extra income from unaccompanied guest games, 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 support other parts of the course, or even to add new teaching professionals.
In Tom's experience, every course is different. Some want to gain exposure through Eligo because paid advertising can be taken as a sign of desperation. Eligo is seen as a "quieter" marketing opportunity, in the hope that some players will eventually fall in love with a course and join as a full-time member.
As Eligo has successfully overcome these challenges in multiple markets, they now plan to expand. They have just launched a national membership for those who live 200 miles outside of their existing hubs.
The cost is $ 3,200 per year with a one-time entry fee of $ 1,500, which will be credited to events in the first year. National members have access to a calendar of events in New York City, Philadelphia and Europe. They can also play against partner clubs and request access through their concierge service. From the outset it will be limited to 250 members.
In addition, Eligo plans to expand more regional memberships in high-golf areas, but membership will be limited to approximately 200 golfers in each region.
Eligo is not alone in this market. Other golf associations have formed in recent years (Outpost Club, NewClub, Thousand Greens) because of such high demand. While not all have the same model, there is growing evidence that a newer, more open wave model may exist.
Recently I played on a golf course in the top 20, which took me years to get around. The member I played with told me the track is mostly empty which is a shame. This club will never hurt for money, so they can probably continue that model, and they have the financial means to do that. However, in my opinion, every private club below that level should think differently about their future and what exclusivity means.
Change comes very quickly, and I have seen firsthand how an old way of thinking can quickly lead to the ruin of a course. 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 here on their website.