Venerable Golf Clubs Embrace Fun to Draw More Members

Many of the world’s prime golfers can be among the many about 140 gamers on the BMW PGA Championship, which begins Thursday and is held yearly on the West Course on the Wentworth Club in Surrey, England. Like they’ve achieved for many years, the gamers can be hitting pictures round one in all Europe’s most traditionally wealthy golf golf equipment.

But like different storied golf-opolises — these huge golf-focused communities constructed final century — the membership is within the midst of a radical reimaging of what it’s. This has not at all times gone easily or been nicely acquired by its passionate members.

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

Winners at Wentworth have included a number of the recreation’s finest: Rory McIlroy, Paul Casey and Colin Montgomerie, who received three BMW PGA Championships in a row. Last yr’s championship was received by Tyrrell Hatton, who has certified for the European squad’s Ryder Cup group.

Tyrrell Hatton of England received final yr’s BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth.Credit…Paul Childs/Action Images, through Reuters

Yet, in golf as in life, issues don’t at all times keep the identical. In 2014, the membership was purchased by Reignwood Group, which is an funding automobile of Yan Bin, a Chinese billionaire whose wealth derived from promoting Red Bull vitality drinks. After paying 135 million kilos (about $187 million), he needed to make some adjustments, which set off a furor.

He determined to scale back the membership rolls to make the membership, which has three 18-hole golf programs, extra upscale. Instead of getting greater than Three,500 members, he elevated the annual dues to slash the membership depend, stated Ruth Scanlan, director of promoting for Wentworth.

He reportedly needed solely 888 members, eight being a fortunate quantity in China. And these members had to purchase what are known as debentures — basically a bond held by the membership. The price was 150,000 euros (about $178,000), and finally depend the membership had about half the variety of debenture members he needed, Scanlan stated.

How Wentworth, which within the 19th century was owned by a relative of the Duke of Wellington, is altering is emblematic of a broader development of older, once-unassailable golf facilities. What has occurred is tough for longtime members, however something new or totally different at a longtime membership typically comes with grumbling.

The larger difficulty is how Wentworth and different golf-opolises have had to face down a starker selection: Change now or go into decline because the world of golf resorts leaves them behind.

But what has compelled these adjustments?

There isn’t just one reply. Before the pandemic, rounds of golf had been in decline and conventional golf programs had been struggling to flip a revenue. This could possibly be seen as a motive for Wentworth’s wanting to go extra upscale. But different golf equipment selected a special route, by making an attempt to add extra enjoyable to their golf equipment or letting nonmembers keep at a non-public membership as a method to play.

Which is what Mike Keiser did. Keiser offered his greeting card firm in 2005 and parlayed the proceeds into a number of golf resorts, together with Bandon Dunes in Oregon, Sand Valley in Wisconsin and Cabot Links in Nova Scotia. His programs are all about golf and the post-round golf hangout. And they started siphoning off gamers from the older golf-opolises.

In some ways, PGA National in Florida is Wentworth’s equal within the United States. It is house of the Honda Classic, which is performed on a tricky course, and has been the longtime headquarters of the P.G.A. of America.

PGA National used to have 5 programs that had been stout exams of golf and attracted enterprise golfers and vacationers, and it hosted tournaments for elite amateurs golfers. One of its programs — designed by Tom Fazio, an architect who has labored on Augusta National — was sliced and diced right into a family-friendly nine-holes and one other venue only for match play — the place successful and shedding a gap issues greater than the rating.

Covid-19 was the impetus for the change, stated Jane Broderick, membership supervisor 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 stated. “They may not be the die-hard golfer. What we’re trying to do with these courses is make them a social experience.”

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

Firestone Country Club in Ohio, a non-public membership that was initially the corporate membership for the tire producer of the identical title, has lengthy been recognized for being a robust take a look at of golf. It has hosted many years price of PGA Tour occasions, most just lately the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in addition to the Bridgestone Senior Players Championship. Tiger Woods has received eight PGA Tour occasions at Firestone.

Yet, extra just lately, the membership has opened up to restricted stay-and-play choices.

“We always had three really good golf courses,” stated Jay Walkinshaw, the membership’s common supervisor. “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 introduced in income with out hurting member play. “It’s a destination for golf enthusiasts, and now we’re accessible to them,” he stated

Even venerable Pinehurst in North Carolina, the host of 4 United States Opens within the subsequent 20 years, has loosened up. Its primary attraction, Pinehurst No. 2, thought-about among the many finest Donald Ross-designed programs, stays a sought-after take a look at of golf simply as when Payne Stewart beat Phil Mickelson within the 1999 U.S. Open. But it now has the Cradle, a nine-hole course, with music piped in. What it’s lacking in historical past, the Cradle goals to make up in enjoyable.

“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,” stated 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 yr transformed an underused par-Three course into the Hay, a brief course designed by Tiger Woods with lengths that commemorate historic moments at Pebble, together with a duplicate of the course’s seventh gap, the brief par-Three surrounded by water.

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

Yet the corporate additionally acknowledges that as golf turns into extra accessible it wants simpler, not more durable choices. Stivers stated Pebble Beach was introducing a shorter set of tees to enable extra gamers to expertise the perennial U.S. Open host website.

Similarly, Sea Pines in South Carolina, which is open to the general public, operates three programs, together with the extremely rated Harbour Town Golf Links. John Farrell, director of sports activities operations at Sea Pines, stated his focus was not on including new issues however on dashing up rounds, which will be painfully sluggish at sought-after programs.

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