Some of the least-known, post-recession recovery stories concern private golf clubs.
They have been a high-end target for trouble as consumers reduced golf rounds and brandished less disposable income over the past several years. With the glut of competition, especially in golf-rich Atlantic and Cape May counties, private facilities have formidable foes.
Yet they endure. And one of them, Linwood Country Club, thrives. It has about 250 members and has made a bold move with a two-year promo rate. Players pay a special rate for two years before deciding whether to continue at normal membership fees afterward.
It's a long-term “test drive,” symbolic of the innovations private courses make to entice members. Expose them to a luxury world inexpensively.
Linwood allows anyone to apply for membership — although a candidate must be approved — a major departure from the days in which a prospective member had to be nominated for consideration by a club member.
Once accepted, players using the two-year promo have sufficient time to determine their future. The concept has stirred interest. Midweek leagues at Linwood have 84 golfers and about 30 percent of them are the promo-rate players, according to Jeff LeFevre, the director of golf at Linwood Country Club.
“The program has been tremendously successful,” says LeFevre, a 32-year veteran of the club. “We show our facilities to people and after two years, hopefully they love us. We offer personalized service. The people here know what your favorite sandwich is, what you like to drink, when you are going to play and they have your bag on the cart quickly.”
As for the course, it is charming and deceptive. Built in 1920, it features a premium on accuracy. Although the yardage isn't punitive — 6,349 from the back set of four tee boxes and 6,019 from the mid tees most people use — greens are not easily hit in regulation. Wind, strategically-placed bunkers, small sloping greens and special design elements enhance course character.
There are a couple holes, however, for which hitting the ball too long, even straight, creates a problem.
Fifteen is a sharp dogleg left, playing at 390 yards from the mid tees. An ideal tee shot winds up about 220 yards off the tee. Any more than that puts the player into trouble via woods and out of bounds. The second shot must clear the bunkering in front of the hole.
Nine is a strong test, a 487-yard par 5, golfer against water. A significant body of water must be cleared on both of the first two shots. The hole also ranks high on the testosterone meter. Aggressive players hoping to reach the green in two shots can succeed with a 240-yard drive and 230-yard approach, provided they avoid the water and stay along the right side. This hole will coax many players to try reaching the putting surface in two shots.
The eighth is a 198-yard, all-you-can-hit par 3 from the tee. It is practically all forced carry, with a waste area complicating the second shot if the tee ball is short of the green.
“Wind is usually prominent on this hole,” LeFevre says. “It can play anywhere from a 7 iron to a 3 wood. If you become a member here, and you play often, you will get several different golf courses, because of the wind.”
Seventeen is a 513-yard par-5, with the tee shot originating from a chute into an expanding fairway. Danger looms on the second shot because of the “church-pew” bunkers patterned after Oakmont, where a record eight U.S. Opens have originated. he pews are a 70-yard nightmare of sand and elevated strips of thick rough. The strips are shaped like church pews, hence the name. The pews run from between 220 and 150 yards of the hole. They will easily force at least one, if not two, punch-out shots to the green. Crosswinds often push balls into the pews.
After the church pews, right-side traps jut into the fairway and a bunker guards the left edge of the green.
The 418-yard, par-4 seventh, meanwhile, is probably the hardest on the course. A forced carry of 150 to 185 yards marks the tee shot. The approach requires a tough decision because a creek runs across 20 yards in front of the green. A conservative play results in a lay up shot and a pitch over the water. A gamble means trying to clear the water on the second shot. But the green may not hold the shot and a pin placement behind the left-side bunker makes the shot more difficult.