DETROIT There is at least one job more challenging than keeping a private golf club solvent in this dismal economy: keeping a private golf club solvent in Detroit.
That task falls to Todd Beals, chief operating officer of the Detroit Golf Club, the only private golf club within the city limits. The place has a lot going for it: a storied, 111-year history; two classic Donald Ross courses; a stately red brick clubhouse designed by the iconic Detroit architect Albert Kahn; and a diverse, golf-mad membership.
But it is battling the disintegration of the city that surrounds it. Thanks to Detroit's 15-percent unemployment rate and, more specifically, the implosion of the automotive industry, more than 100 club members have resigned in the last three years, prompting DGC to drop its initiation fee from $39,000 in 2006 to $6,500 today. It is a dilemma faced by many southeast Michigan clubs that have for decades relied on Big Auto to keep their tee sheets full.
"We're the kind of club that [Henry] Ford built," Beals says. "It used to be nothing to have our upstairs bar full every day of the week with salesmen wooing the GM guys or whatever. They'd take them to play golf to close the deal, but that has all dried up."
Even members who have held onto their jobs are reluctant to schmooze at the club during the week. "We don't get hooky days anymore," Beals says. "In years past we could get an awesome early spring day where by noon we'd have 200 guys out there having fun. Today they don't want to risk becoming a blip on [their employers'] radar screens by not being in the office from at least 9 to 5.
"They're not willing to take more than a couple days of vacation at a time in case their management looks at how well their organization did that week without them," he adds. "Guys that were working 40-hour weeks are working 50 or 55."
There's also the matter of the club's location, about 10 minutes north of downtown. Rows of abandoned homes and boarded-up storefronts line roadways leading to the club's leafy confines, a harsh dichotomy for some prospective and even active members to accept. "No question we sometimes struggle being in Detroit," Beals says.
Still, DGC is surviving. The club's revenue is off only 10 percent, a source of pride for Beals given that the club has not had to eliminate amenities, reduce its course maintenance budget or raise dues. "We've cut costs without the members feeling it," he says. Indeed, just yesterday morning workers were busy renovating the ground-floor grillroom.
The club is also a popular venue for corporate outings, a boon to any club's bottom line. In 2009, DGC hosted 13 of them, which Beals attributes to local companies and organizations making a concerted effort to support the club. "There's a 'Think DGC First' mentality," he says.
When asked what the future might hold for his club should Detroit continue its downward spiral and DGC hemorrhage more members, Beals responded with a story about Clem Wolfrom, the club's superintendent of 48 years. After a few years on the job, Wolfrom was considering buying a home in the city, though he feared that the race riots of 1967 and the ensuing urban flight might lead to DGC's demise. He took his quandary to the club president, and as Beals tells it, "the president looked him straight in the eye and said, 'Son, there will always be a Detroit Golf Club.'"
"He was right," Beals says now. "We've been through world wars, depressions, race riots all of it. There will always be a Detroit Golf Club. We will persevere."
The SI Golf Group is reporting on the Detroit golf scene as part of Time Inc.'s yearlong coverage of the city. For more information, visit the 'Assignment Detroit' homepage at time.com/detroit.