Once considered a jewel of Northern California, Winchester Country Club became nearly unrecognizable after the landowner was forced to foreclose the property during the economic downturn.
During five years of bank ownership, the golf course turned brown, the native areas between the holes overgrown and unruly. Membership dwindled and the course opened for public-fee play just to keep the club afloat.
It barely survived.
But once the economy leveled a bit, Winchester’s new owners took a novel approach to help it rebound: They sank more money into it, hoping a more luxurious club would drive up the real estate and, in turn, make the club more appealing to potential members.
“Nobody believed that you could turn this thing around and make it vibrant again because there were so many things that needed to fall together to make that happen,” said David Bennett, Winchester Country Club’s general manager. “We kind of had to do a dance to choreograph this all to make it work.”
Winchester’s plan worked. Other country clubs weren’t so fortunate.
In the late 1990s through early 2000s, country clubs hit an apex.
Golf was as popular as ever — in part because of Tiger Woods’ mass appeal – and the economy was flourishing. New golfers took up the game like never before and country clubs, along with real estate developments around them, cropped up across the country.
But even before the economy started to sour, interest in golf began to wane.
After years of growth, more golf courses closed than opened in 2006, a trend that continued every year through 2014 at a ratio of more than 10 to 1, according to the National Golf Foundation.
The number of rounds played also went on a steady decline, falling to 462 million in 2013, the lowest mark in 18 years.
Once the economy started to decline, country clubs began to suffer. People had less disposable income or free time and country club memberships were an easy place to trim expenditures.
By 2012, 52 percent of country clubs in the United States reported a loss in memberships, with just 22 percent seeing a gain, according to a 2015 Sports Leisure Research Group report.
That left country clubs and developers caught in a bubble, needing capital to keep running the club and community, but no way to pay for it with initiation fees dropping.
“We got overbuilt, there were too many clubs built for how many golfers there were, then the golfers started to drop off,” said Jim McLaughlin, senior vice president of operations at Troon Privé, Troon Golf’s private-club arm. “When you’ve lost 15-20 percent of your market and growth still going on, that’s when you get into trouble.”
The economic downturn forced many country clubs to dramatically alter how they operated or face shutting down.
Clubs that were once invitation-only began opening their doors, drastically dropping initiation fees or eliminating them all together. Annual dues were slashed and some clubs even offered trial memberships with money-back guarantees.
Many country clubs were forced to offer reduced-rate tee times to the public just to stay afloat. Some became semiprivate, keeping members while allowing outside play, while others were forced to become fully public.
Country clubs also had to rethink fee structures.