Upgrading a National Membership

I don’t know much about wine, but I know enough to look at a bottle and identify it as the one I ordered. Or I thought I did until the waiter poured some for me to taste, and it was red. Typically I would let this slide, but here we had splurged on a nice bottle ($56) at a restaurant famous for its wine cellar.

When I told the waiter that this was not the bottle that I ordered, he told me that they were out of the wine I requested, but that his selection would be a better complement to our meal. He then assuaged my larger concern with an offer to charge me $56 for the new bottle.

The Zinfandel was the perfect complement to our steaks, but the meat didn’t come out cooked to temperature. It took them more than two hours to complete service, which wasn’t the biggest deal because we were out without our son, but it was a long time to be at dinner.

All of this happened at Dismal River Club, where we’ve been national members since 2018. The club credited back my initiation as dues, which was generous, but when they were bankrupt and basically giving away memberships, they took care of the golf course. Now they are full in all membership categories with a years-long (and closed) waitlist and the course conditions suck.

We were there for family weekend, July 4th, and the greens were completely unplayable. Apparently, it didn’t snow last year. They need snow to insulate the greens from the wind and freezing temperatures of the Nebraska winter. I had seen pictures of these dead greens and heard promises to the effect of ugly, but playable from the club. The pictures didn’t do the dead greens justice. Playable was a blatant lie, the greens were completely dead.

We were timing out of the incentives we got five years ago, and the dead greens in the height of summer, combined with the burnt steaks, the wrong wine, and some problems that we had with our room, had me wondering if we could do better. We had the capital for an upgrade, and our national membership has meant so so much to us.

Dismal’s bones, 18 good holes from Jack – holes that he actually built and is very proud of – and 18 more from Doak –  his course a masterpiece of minimalism and coherent routing –  the Sandhills presented as unpainted canvas, would be very tough to beat. I started with what I knew, Stonewall, where I had once played in a tournament, and I loved both courses and the club’s vibe.

The online terms listed for the national membership seemed too good to be true. When I enquired, the general manager quoted me the $35,000 rate for a membership share and told me that the waitlist for a national membership was very long. When I forced the issue he allowed me to submit an application, but he wouldn’t take my money. That sounds great, unless you’re familiar with waitlists (we are very familiar with them, our 16-month-old is in daycare). If they don’t take your money, you’re never getting off the list.

I looked around that area, Applecross, French Creek, but it’s a HAUL to get out there for prospective member visits, and that sent me scrambling to places serviced by a direct flight to Denver. White Bear Yacht Club, an hour from MSP, looked sweet and was selling national memberships for $11k. Cedar Rapids and Davenport were asking for member sponsors. The Dormie Network has some sick courses in their portfolio, and I got them to waive their $10,000 initiation fee, but yearly dues were another 10k, which is significantly more than my local membership. From there, I shot the moon:

Nothing at Southern Hills. Initiation at Pete Dye Golf Club was 15k, which is another course where the travel logistics are harrowing. Inverness, who I had talked to before the pandemic, had raised the dues for their national membership from $10k to $30k.

At this point, I broached the subject with my wife, who told me that flying to any of these courses was a complete non-starter. She was not wrong here, flying with our toddler is excruciating. Worse than your steak coming out well-done, worse than being cajoled into a bottle of red. Exponentially worse than dead, cratered greens in early July.

This brought the search closer to home. I love Durango, and I love Hale Irwin (yes, the goddamn architecture of Hale Irwin, leave me alone) but I can’t get anyone from Glacier to call me about membership. Any type of membership…

Cornerstone is also in the best part of Colorado, and it would be a great get, but the national membership is $10k a year, the same price as Dormie Network. The Rio Grand Club in South Fork is equidistant to Dismal, and comes at a similar price point. I haven’t played the course, and I’m a horrible snob, but in terms of prestige, it’s a big downgrade.

Frost Creek, a Tom Weiskopf gem in Eagle was happy to sell me a membership. Their reasonable annual dues, $5,000 were more than offset by the initiation fee, $80,000. Eighty-thousand-fucking-dollars. If you’re not priced out at $80K, I would advise you to look at Catamount.

I’m not sure how I found it, but I’ve been watching this ariel video of Kissing Camels for years. It is very soothing. I saw a rate for national members in their pricing guide, and I reached out. I’m not typically bashful about this stuff, but here I am not going to publish the price as they don’t advertise this membership. 

Deals at private clubs are few and far between during this post-Covid boom cycle, so let’s just say Kissing Camels is making you something like a deal. If you’re searching for a national membership, I would advise you to enquire.

But be warned, you might end up buying. The conditioning at Kissing Camels was unlike anything that I have ever encountered. Certainly, if you’re evaluating architecture, there are better designs. And if you’re evaluating scenery, courses have been built in more spectacular settings, but I have never encountered a course this nicely conditioned.

Of course, this is subjective. For me, perfect conditions are cut down and dried out. I have only stumbled upon this at one other club, actually Dismal, when they had three nights where the temperature dipped below freezing, followed by three days where it climbed above 100. Everything died, they brought back the greens before they brought back the fairways.

Firm and fast from tee to green leading you to lush greens – links golf as it was meant to be experienced. I begged them to retain these conditions. They told me that I was not the first member to make this request, but they couldn’t grant it, the fairways need lush grass to accommodate (gag me) cart traffic.

With knee surgery looming in late August, I tried my best to max out the golf that I played earlier in the summer and I played some awesome courses, including some really nice public tracks. I got to thinking maybe I didn’t need a club, that I could allocate the monthly dues I paid to travel and to greens fees at new courses.

Here are this summer’s courses ranked in order of my preference:

Banff Springs. My wife has always dreamed of staying at the Fairmont Lake Louise. When she told me she wanted to stay at the fancy hotel in Banff, I immediately took over the travel arrangements, accidentally booking us at the Fairmont Banff Springs. This turned out to be the happiest of happy accidents, the rooms at Banff Springs were nothing to write home about, but the views and the amenities? Otherworldly.

The golf course, a SPECTACULAR eighteen-hole routing by Stanley Thompson, jumped to the top of my public course list, and also to the top of my every course that I’ve ever played list (at least momentarily). As I play more mountain golf, I’ve noticed that architects, skilled architects, architects that I admire, often run into trouble when they are handed an exceptional piece of land.

When the mandate is to step out of the way, they’re sometimes not up to the task. Thompson allowed the scenery to be the star of the show by not doing anything too crazy with the course, a testament to his formidable architectural skills as there was an option to go buck wild. The bunkering is terrific.

Next was Catamount, which I booked through Thousand Greens. This course has been on the tippy top of my want-to-play list for a long time. I had been working every possible connection for years to get on at Catamount, and with sky-high hopes, I was hedging against disappointment. The course blew me away.

First, it is a massive achievement of architectural and civil Engineering. Architecturally, I had no idea, even as I was playing the course, how they slapped the track onto the side of a mountain. Civilly, the holes are serviced unobtrusively by a one-way cart path. This couldn’t have been the easiest solution to come to, but it is the right decision.

While you can’t walk the course, the contouring of these greens is beautiful, rivaling that of the preserved Ross Greens at Beverly (keep reading). Weiskopf’s template, visually spectacular, but with holes that are not as exacting as they appear from the tee, is upheld on this unique property. The course is uber private. It’s by far the best Weiskopf design that I’ve played. If I could pick one course for more people to experience, it would be Catamount.

Next is Beverly Country Club, a Donald Ross GEM on Chicago’s South Side. Some things that stood out to me were the preservation of Ross’ architecture – I don’t hit the ball that far, but the risk-reward decisions from the tees that we were playing were very much intact, and Ross’ green contouring. I can confirm that those greens were meant to be played at much, MUCH slower speeds. They are still fun sped up.

What’s more, the club had turned its tennis pavilion into a short game practice area, three interconnected greens with acres of mown fairway and rough. They had also blown up the pool, and turned that area into a putting green. So all golf, and golf heaven. I would put their practice facility against any practice facility in the world.

I was able to play Sweetens Cove, another course that had haunted the upper reaches of my bucket list for many, MANY years, by joining NewClub Golf Society and registering for their spring meeting. The course lived up to the hype with big BIG shades of Rustic Canyon, another one of my favorites.

They had the place cut down and dried out to hardpan for the event, and I can’t really play on hardpan, but this course, the most raved about course of the last five years, deserves every ounce of praise heaped upon it and then some. It is EASILY America’s best nine-holer.

While we’re talking about courses that aren’t flying below the radar, I made my way out to Sand Hollow for a bachelor party in March. Sand Hollow is sick. If it’s overhyped, it is also excellent.

Their three nines exist in a progression, from average, the nine-hole links course, to good, the front nine on the championship course, to the GREAT back nine on the championship course. The back nine on their championship course is the winningest combination of width and views – I could play it forever…

I found River Valley Ranch on Golf Week’s Best Courses You Can Play in Colorado list. This was not one that I had heard of before this summer, and I was skeptical because it was priced well below market for Aspen. This course was incredible. Maybe not the toughest track, but well conditioned and SCENIC. I couldn’t score on the front nine. I was so amped by the quality of the course that my hands were shaking.

I played Coronado, where the tally for an advanced booking fee, 18 holes, a medium bucket, a nine-hole trolley rental, nine holes with a cart, a jar ball, and a hat, was $91. This course is not good because it is inexpensive, but it is very, VERY inexpensive. People in my pairing were complaining about the $14 booking fee, and they are cheap fucks. The booking fee to play Torrey Pines, another San Deigo Muni (you may have heard of it) is $81.

Nado is fun and scenic, as good as anywhere else, but on a slightly smaller scale. Unfortunately for Coronado, I also got to play Pelican Beach this summer. Pelican Beach only has nine holes, and the scale of the course is even smaller than Nado, lets say ¾ rather than 9/10. Believe it or not, it’s also cheaper, $12 for nine holes, $15 all day, and $200 for a season-long membership.

I went out with a half set in my Sunday bag, my preference on an honor box course – Pelican Beach is seven clubs, from your feet, perfection. We played the tips, and there were TEETH. The course placed a premium on driving accuracy and wedge play, and featured some no-bullshit forced carries, many in the 160-190 range. On hole nine we clocked the all-carry distance from back teebox to fairway at 225 yards.

At this point, late in August, I had spent just over two months obsessing over upgrading our national membership. We did 36 holes at Dismal the day before we went out to Pelican Beach, the greens at Dismal were, as they had promised 12 weeks ago, ugly, but playable. The staff was very kind to me, they all thanked me for giving the course another chance.

I had it dialed at PB, which from an experience perspective, is impossible to beat or even replicate, but it was at Pelican Beach, walking the course with my Sunday bag, that I had the best round of the summer. Less subjectively, the greens at PB were nicer than Dismal’s (they’re working with MUCH less square footage, I would say 95% less).

I’m past the point of no return with public golf. I’ve already been ruined by faster pace of play and better course conditions at private clubs. When I was in film school, a professor told me that I would learn more from watching one movie 100 times than I would from watching 100 different movies. One needs to look no further than the robust private club ecosystem of 70-plus-year-olds with sub-10 handicaps who putt 25 or fewer times in a round to know that this is true for golf too.

Still, this summer was a reminder that great golf exists at public golf courses. Banff Springs is second on my rankings to Estancia, and it’s CLOSE. If I lived closer to Sweetens, I might not need a club. Sand Hollow? Primo. Unfortunately, my wife and I don’t match the age demographics for Canyon Country.

Testing my driving accuracy and my wedge play with odd-numbered clubs in my tennis shoes at Pelican Beach is what I live for. When we pulled up, a man stopped knocking around the driving range in a tractor, apologized that the greens weren’t mowed yesterday, and found a cart for my idiot friends (I’d recommend walking). Honor box golf is golf at its finest, but this course is four hours from my house.

As I feared, when the bill came from Dismal the bottle of wine we were served cost $980 dollars. Our waiter credited $930 of those dollars back. A quick recap, on our July 4th trip to Dismal: the greens were dead, there was no WiFi (the club doesn’t have cell service), and we tried three rooms before room four had functioning electricity. We did, however, get a massive, (93%!!) discount on a very expensive bottle of wine. Dismal is so fucking bad at running a club, and that’s often frustrating, but sometimes, inexplicably, it’s endearing. I’m not sure if there is anything that could make us abandon our membership.

Most likely, I’ll also go down to Garden of the Gods Club next year. Lesson learned (wink), play enough rounds as a prospective member eventually you’ll get stung.

I’m not too angry here, the GOG from Denver national membership represents the bougiest of my life is good in Denver aspirations. Traveling with Brooks is difficult, I don’t think it gets easier as the family expands, so it will be nice to have a club of that caliber closer to home.

I am getting to a place in my life where I have more and better access to private clubs, but I never want to forget how good honor box golf is.

One thought on “Upgrading a National Membership

  1. Hey Zaq,
    Really enjoyed this, have been thinking about a national membership somewhere warm (I’m in Kenosha across the street from KCC, a sweet restored 1922 Ross that rivals Beverly).
    I’m also a NewClub member but will be dropping it next year as my Golfweek Rater opportunities are too good to pass up. Hope you recover well & would be happy to host you at KCC next season. Fair warning though, you will want to join (good thing it’s so ridiculously under priced).


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