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Country Clubs Need to Change DNA and Allow Jeans

Earlier this spring, I had a lunch date with a friend at one of the very private, very tony Palm Beach country clubs. As I waited for him in the lobby, I witnessed the most astounding parade I have seen in my life. Nine out of every 10 people who walked in the front door at midday had a walker, a cane, a wheelchair or a portable oxygen tank. This place, I thought to myself, desperately needs a visit from Al Czervik.
Czervik, no doubt you recall, was the Rodney Dangerfield character who invaded the very proper Bushwood Country Club in one of golf’s all-time great films, “Caddyshack.” Although he had designs on bulldozing the place and building condos, in the short run he introduced fun and games to a very staid environment.
I bring this up because of a piece, “Admitting Jeans to the Club,” that ran in the May 27 issue of the Wall Street Journal. For the life of me, I cannot believe that in the year 2010, we are still having the discussion about whether jeans are appropriate dress in private clubs.
Let’s face it, the private-club market in America is under considerable pressure. Some may stick their head in the sand and blame recent economic woes, but realists understand that many private country clubs are really threatened by changes in society at large having little to do with admission fees and monthly dues. Simply stated, many private clubs must drastically alter their value proposition if they want to continue to attract members.
More than 400 private facilities closed or converted to some form of public access between 1999 and 2008, according to the National Golf Foundation. That percentage of the roughly 4,300 private facilities in America is expected continue for the next several years.  And in my mind, the attitude about jeans cuts to the heart of the issue.
I know this is a slippery slope, one that leads to hats worn backward, cell phone usage on the course, etc., and I am not an advocate for denim on the course. But the attitude behind a no-jeans attitude is driving potential members away, especially given high-end alternatives that exist today.
Consider that the baby-boom generation is in its peak potential country club- using years. Kids are older and time is more available. But this generation grew up in jeans. It is the uniform of anyone born after 1955. Jeans are no longer just counter-culture, communist, or rock-band attire.
Consider the following scenarios, all real world: A husband and wife sit down for a mid-week January dinner at a prominent private club in New England. Shortly, the table next to them is taken by two couples fresh off the paddle tennis courts, adorned in attractive sweat attire and altering the aroma in the immediate area. No jeans allowed at this place, but come on in after a hearty workout and stink up the place.
Six months later in San Diego: A couple is enjoying dinner, seeking respite from an extended heat wave. Soon, they are joined at the table next to them. Fresh off the course, four sweaty 30-somethings are recounting the 18 holes while swilling gin and tonics, again altering the aroma. No jeans allowed, but sweaty golf attire is.
One more: A Dallas couple, both working professionals, have had one of those days. Since both work in casual environments, one is wearing jeans, and neither wants to cook. They agree to grab a bite somewhere, but because one is in jeans, the club is out. So it’s off to a local bistro, despite their club has had to impose a monthly food and beverage minimum to maintain top-line revenue. The $115 tab at the bistro was the club’s loss, because of a pair of freshly ironed jeans.
Silly, isn’t it?
Attention Mr. Club President, are you aware that your wife (and daughters) spend $100, sometimes $200, $300 or $400 on a fashionable pair of jeans – and then more on top of that to accessorize? Did you know your wife could be seated in those jeans in any restaurant of the moment in any city in the world and be thought fashionable? And that you might be thought well of for being seated with her?
This column is supposed to be about the amateur game, so why do I digress? Because a good part of the elite amateur game is anchored at private golf clubs in America, and some these clubs are a dying breed. Prominent amateur events such as last week’s Sunnehanna Amateur, played at Sunnehanna C.C. in Johnstown, Penn.,  are owned and operated by the club. Indeed, with their volunteerism and hospitality, the members of these places give these tournaments life, despite the inconvenience of losing the golf course for a week or more.
Sunnehanna is not alone. The Northeast Amateur, Porter Cup and Western Amateur all are played at private clubs. Others, like the Southern Amateur and the Pacific Coast Amateur, play a rota that includes occasional visits to private clubs. If places such as Wannamoisett, Eugene Country Club or Niagara Falls Country Club were to disappear, the resulting loss of events like this would hurt the amateur game.
So if relaxing the fit of the rules to allow denim will preserve the lives of private golf clubs great and small, I say let the jeans into the gene pool.


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