By Tom Harack
In the early 1990s, Joe Onstott learned of an opportunity to join Tralee Golf Club, which sits on a bay in the southwest of Ireland. At the time few private golf clubs offered international memberships, and Onstott, who had played there on his first trip to the country, decided he couldn't pass it up. He doesn't regret it. Since joining, he's played numerous club events, including the international members' championship each September, and he's solidified business relationships. "I've met many interesting people from around the world, and I've also been able to treat people to a special golf experience," says Onstott, who owns an executive search firm near Boston. Hisson, a 1-handicap college golfer and now a junior member, has visited Tralee several times.
It's not hard to understand the appeal. Says Gordon Dalgleish, co-founder of PerryGolf, an Atlanta based golf-tour operator: "For Americans, clubs in the British Isles offer a combination of instant tradition, exotic golf terrain, and bragging rights back home."
Adds David Baum, publisher and editor-in-chief of Golf Odyssey, a golf-travel newsletter: "Given how expensive the high-end clubs are at home...international clubs look surprisingly affordable. For the price ofjoining Liberty National across the Hudson River from lower Manhattan [$400,000 initiation, $20,000 annual dues], one can join a half-dozen international clubs and still have money left over for first-class airfare."
The appeal makes just as much sense from the clubs' standpoint, says Heidi Voss, president of Bauer Voss Consulting, which specializes in private-club memberships: "These members typically spend much more per visit than the average local member. So while the initiation fees and dues are generally low, out-of-town and overseas members are more of an ongoing revenue generator. And because they are usually members of other clubs, they bring prestige to the club."
The popularity of international memberships has prompted many permutations of initiation fees, procedures, dues, and privileges. Ireland and Scotland remain the most fertile ground for such programs,but the principles have been embraced worldwide, and many clubs are conceived specifically to cultivate absentee members. How do you wade through the numerous options? Start by learning about different clubs you have in mind on the Web, contact the membership director about requirements, and arrange a visit. The successful equation requires a sober appraisal of your priorities, including:
CAN'T GET THERE FROM HERE
What seems exotic during the first commute can become tedious. Be realistic about how often you'll use your membership.
BUSINESS OR PLEASURE?
Many clubs allow overseas members a generous number of rounds. But there are often restrictions on guest play, so pay heed to a club's limits if you plan to use it for business entertaining.
It might be impossible to calculate them all, but some clubs, for example, require you stay on-site whenever you visit.
GOLF GAME OR LIFESTYLE?
Events and concierge services are integral to the selling points--and pricing--of many memberships. How important are non golf aspects of a club's surroundings?
TRADITIONAL OR CONTEMPORARY?
One golfer'stradition is another's stuffy anachronism, says SamBaker, founder and CEO of Cincinnati-based Haversham & Baker Golfing Expeditions. "The easier a club is to get into, the more it's likely to cost," he says. A club with a pedigree is important to some; others prefer to get in on the ground floor and consider the lack of a rigorous approval process a plus. Here's a quick trip around the world to sample some of the clubs offering international memberships:
The San Roque Club, Cadiz, Andalucia, Spain (sanroqueclub.com).
Membership provides preferential rates to nearby Valderrama and Sotogrande. The club, part of a resort, has 36 holes, the old 18 by Dave Thomas, the new layout by Perry Dye.
BASIC FEES: $28,120 with limited rounds during the year and $1,915 annual dues.
PROs: Although overbuilding threatens the area,nearby attractions include Marbella and its beaches,Jerez (the home of sherry), Ronda, Gibraltar, as well as the incomparable Alhambra, the ancient citadel of Moorish kings near Granada.
CONs: The usual itinerary from the U.S. includes a connection in Madrid, a flight to Malaga, and more than an hour's drive, making for a long travel day.
Doonbeggolf Club, County Clare, Ireland (doonbeggolfclub.com).
A club that caters to an internationalmembership, Doonbeg creates a sort of "instantaneous heritage." Its lodge, opened in the spring of 2006, is designed to look like a medieval castle, in keeping with the spa and the rest of the complex.
Its Greg Norman-designed course runs along the Atlantic and could pass for a century-old links even though it was completed in 2002. Doonbeg is a commercial endeavor, complete with residential real estate, not a club in the member-administered sense.
BASIC FEES: A one-time $60,000 refundable initiation; $1,555 a year for individual, $1,955 family.
PROs: It's about a 45-minute drive from Shannon Airport. For residents of the East Coast, the plane ride takes about as long as a flight to California. With Ballybunion and Lahinch as neighbors, you are at the nexus of Irish links golf.
CONs: No matter how astute management's rendering of an ancient golf atmosphere, it can't be re-created in a matter of months or years. About two-thirds of the 400 members signed up thus far are Americans.
Cruden Bay Golf Club, Aberdeenshire,Scotland (crudenbaygolfclub.co.uk).
If your devotion to the game includes its history, a place like Cruden Bay is for you. The original course was designed by Old Tom Morris and opened in 1899, but it is said that golf was played in the village a century before that.
BASIC FEES: Annually, $500 (men), $470 (women). Initiation fee is the same as the annual fee.
PROs: As a member pointed out, at these rates you can view your membership as a contribution to the game. When you do play, it's on one of the classics.
CONs: Even if you don't combine a visit to Cruden Bay with a stop at St. Andrews, this is a long trip. The club is a three-hour drive north from Edinburgh.
Tianma Country Club, Shanghai, China (tianma.cc).
China increasingly is becoming an attractive golf destination. With 27 holes by Pacific Coast Design, an Australian firm, this is the sort of addition to the scene that will proliferate: immaculate conditions, dramatic settings, tons of amenities such as a full-service spa, fine dining, and recreation activities. With a booming economy, the Chinese will skip the egalitarian aspects of the game's evolution and proceed directly to the golf-as-business phase.
BASIC FEES: $77,500 individual initiation, $1,600 annual dues; $102,500 family and corporate initiation, $2,400 annual dues.
PROs: Businessmen with dealings in Shanghai and golfers craving the unusual will revel here.
CONs: Even though China is becoming a more familiar golf destination, a club closer to home may be more appealing.
Millbrook country Club, Queenstown, New Zealand (www.millbrook.co.nz).
Membership in this club was until recently confined to property owners of the nearby residential real estate. Now there are a limited number of non residential memberships. The valley, framed by a mountain range named the Remarkables, where you can ski in summer, is emblematic of the country's immense natural beauty and topographical variety, and nearby Queenstown is a combination of quaint and chic.
BASIC FEES: $14,209 nonrefundable family application fee, $600 annual dues.
PROs: The resort, at which international members get hefty discounts, makes a great base of operations for the wealth of activities available to guests.
CONs: Apart from the dateline-traversing commute, the voucher-regulated guest-admission policies seem a bit arcane, a point worth considering if copious entertaining is part of your plan.
All the variables involved in evaluating international memberships could result in a problem common in golf: paralysis by analysis. Michael W. Sweeney's experience might prove ameliorative. "I joined Enniscrone Golf Club in Ireland a few years ago on a whim, "recalls Sweeney, a partner and investment analyst for Waterville Investment Research in New York. Flying home from Nebraska, he met a father and son who had had a great time at Sand Hills Golf Club, and he decided to create that type of "retreat golf"atmosphere for his son, who is now 10. With the name Sweeney, Ireland was an obvious choice, but he did not want to wait on a list at Ballybunion, Royal Portrush, or Lahinch. "Playing with the locals at Enniscrone is fun, " he says, "especially when they have competitions every Sunday. " And the onetime $2, 000 fee at Enniscrone epitomized "the luck of the Irish" for Sweeney. The fee is now $5,110.
The trick is to find that same kind of lucky opportunity today.
Tom Harack is a writer/photographerspecializing in golf destinations