At the start of 2009, the Golf Club of Cape Cod waived its initiation fee for new members -- an $85,000 nut reduced to a free pass because the club had trouble attracting new members.
The struggling economy has taken a toll on private clubs -- 10 to 15 percent admit facing serious financial challenges, according to the National Golf Foundation -- but the downturn means clubs are more willing than ever to offer incentives or waive fees for new members. "Club pros and general managers are going to have to get very creative to sustain their memberships, especially over the next few months," says Adam Scott, coordinator at the PGA Golf Management Program at Mississippi State University. "Expect to see more interesting solutions from private clubs, like lower initiation fees or a transition from private to semi-private."
Ninety percent of struggling private clubs have tried discounted initiation fees to attract new members, and even 54 percent of more successful clubs have done the same, according to a recent NGF survey. While Scott doesn't believe higher-end clubs will have a problem staying viable, even Oakland Hills Country Club, site of the 2008 PGA Championship and eight other majors, cut its initiation fee this year from $110,000 to $60,000, according to an anonymous club member. (The club declined to comment.)
The bottom line is that you're more likely to get a better deal now than ever before. If you're not ready for full-time membership, watch for courses that are going semi-private and dip your toes in the water. For every private club that closed down last year, 10 opened their doors to the paying public, so now may be the best time to get a taste of how the other half lives.