On a day so gorgeous you'd like to bottle it up and label it "do not open until Jan. 15," it was no surprise that the Hudson (Wis.) Golf Club's parking lot was full. About half of the license plates were from Minnesota, and a few were from Florida, but there was no way of discerning one important detail about the occupants:
Whether they were members or not.
This year, the longtime private club opened its doors -- and its tees and its dining room -- to the general public. "They exhausted every option to keep it private but got to the point where something had to be done," said Scott Landin, who worked behind the scenes with the board of directors before becoming the new golf pro this year. "It's hard to justify $5,000 [a year] memberships these days."
Hudson Golf Club cut its annual membership dues almost in half, which appears to be the norm for all but the hoity-toitiest of the area's country clubs. Most clubs have annual fees, while the higher-end ones have an initiation fee and monthly dues.
"We're a want, not a need," said John Swaney, general manager of Golden Valley Country Club, where initiation fees have plummeted from $40,000 to $19,500 cash or $24,000 on a four-year payment plan. "People come here to spend discretionary dollars."
The faltering economy and a triple golf whammy -- a glut of new courses, a dropoff in the number of people playing and a change in tax laws -- have prompted new ways of doing private-club business.
The Minnesota Valley Golf Club in Bloomington took steps this year to "save substantial dollars on energy bills," said general manager Steve Gilles. Hillcrest Golf Club first downscaled its food and beverage program and, on Oct. 1, decided to discontinue fine dining and drop monthly food minimums, said board member Dennis Prchal. "We'll probably use caterers for our banquets, weddings, larger tournaments and other outside events."
And everyone, save for the rare nonprofit such as the Edina Country Club, is striving to get more weddings, banquets and other events.
"We do advertise more looking for weddings," said Hillcrest membership director Jennie Schader. "Eight or nine years ago, we could take 'em or leave 'em."
Golden Valley is advertising for events in several publications, including the Gophers' football game program, Swaney said, citing an added benefit to these soirees: "They expose [prospective members] to what we are."
Even on the posh shores of Lake Minnetonka, weddings have proven essential to the Lafayette Club's well-being. "Pretty much every weekend [this fall] is booked, and we're already booked into 2011," said manager Scott Bremer "But [guest] counts are down, and they're ordering chicken instead of seafood."
More bad news: This year is looking a lot like 2008 for holiday parties. "They scaled way back last year," Bremer said, "and the few that have committed this year are scaling back, say, from 600 people to 200 or 125."
That produces a ripple effect on "a gamut of people who need work," Bremer noted. "There's a trickle-down, vicious cycle. If there are not enough banquets, food-service people go on call and might end up in unemployment."
Half off -- and often more
The picture is not universally bleak, especially among "old money" institutions. Interlachen hasn't altered its initiation fees and still has a waiting list. "We're in good shape," said general manager George Carroll. The Minneapolis Club has retained its rates and "not taken any steps above and beyond," said membership director Margaret Leto.
But they are the exceptions; the rule is along the lines of the Rochester Golf and Country Club, where a strong fall membership drive includes 50 percent off initiation fees, according to membership director Allison Weckman.
"Typically, except for the top few clubs, initiation rates have been cut in half, if not more," said Golden Valley's Swaney.
The Hudson Golf Club, among others, has gone a step further. Those who signed up for next year gained membership for the rest of 2009. "The board was pretty reluctant to do that," said once and future member Jay Griggs, "but they were pretty close to desperate."
Griggs had been a member for a dozen years before the "dues just got to be a little too much" last year, and he switched to St. Croix National (paying $875 instead of $4,000-plus at Hudson). He was part of an exodus that saw membership drop from just over 400 to 160 earlier this year, with only 120 golf memberships.
So when the retired businessman heard about a club meeting on the membership problem, he came and "gave a spiel that maybe we can't afford to be private. A golf course is not a department store. Our inventory is tee times, and at the end of the day, that's gone."
When the board not only opened the course to the public but offered a discounted fee and early admission for those who signed 2010 contracts early, Griggs "signed up on the first day. St. Croix National is a beautiful course, but my friends are all here."
St. Croix National is one of four courses that have opened within 15 miles of the Hudson Golf Club in the past decade, and therein lies part of the problem. Beginning in the early-to-mid-1990s, new golf courses proliferated, but participation has waned throughout this decade. According to the National Golf Foundation, U.S. golfers played almost 30 million fewer rounds last year than in 2000.
"All these courses were being built as golfing was shrinking," said Hillcrest's Prchal. "All the new ones have sort of eaten into everybody's margins."
On top of that, a tax-law change earlier this decade made it harder for golfers to claim business entertainment expenses.
With all these factors already in play, clubs were hit especially hard by the economy's sharp downturn. "September and October is when the bottom started falling out last year," said Lafayette's Bremer.
Lafayette "got a fair share of members back" with a February promotion. Hillcrest dropped its fees and added new membership tiers, plus a "legacy program" with guest passes and extra privileges for longtime members who had been paying the "rack rate." Minnesota Valley put in a wood-fired pizza oven, part of a trend toward more casual dining at formerly haute enclaves.
In Hudson, the newly christened Carmichael Bar & Grill's menu has "moved more to golfer basics, burgers and brats, and a little away from the higher end," Landin said, "with some drink specials in the bar, more daily lunch specials."
So far, so good. Guest golf rounds have more than doubled, exceeding 7,400, and the dining room and the course were both hoppin' on a late-September weekday.
"It's been a great thing, and not just because of more tips," said bar manager Becky Koepke. "There were days last year where it was just me and one other [server] for lunch, and 2 to 4 o'clock was just a cleaning period. Now we are constant."
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643