Joining The Club -- Once Again, People Are Willing To Pay The Right To Play At The Country Club

You're slathered in suntan oil, reclining in a lounge chair, sipping a gin-and-tonic from a paper cup beside the swimming pool. There's a cacophony of water sounds - splashing, children laughing, yelling, wet feet slapping against steamy concrete. Your friends are there, too, with their gin-and-tonics and lotion and beach towels and babies. You talk about ``the club,'' the neighborhood, your tennis game, your golf handicap.

Sun diamonds roll on the waves of the blue, blue, very blue water. Beyond the pool seem to be oceans of green - dew-lush lawn, fringes of cedar and fir that stretch so far it seems there is nothing that matters beyond this nucleus of genteel living.

As you're about to drift to sleep, you hear the unmistakable clip of golf shoes - and golf is what it's really all about - against concrete. You look up to see your spouse or friends just in from the course and ready for lunch in the air-conditioned dining room where the waiters all know you by your first name.

In the Northwest call it Sand Point, Twin Lakes, Meridian Valley, Glendale, Overlake. In virtually every state, country clubs are flourishing and for the first time since the '50s have waiting lists.

Baby boomers with disposable income are signing up - many for golf privileges as public courses become more and more crowded - but for the social life and business benefits as well.

Country clubs became popular during the pre-crash '20s, when

affluent families sought refuge from city living in the country. Golf then was the sport of the rich. Clubs were handcrafted by the golf course pro - not purchased ready-made - and a round of golf was an invigorating adventure in rural peacefulness.

Then along came television and Arnold Palmer - the first true golf celebrity - and everyone wanted to play. Sporting goods stores sold manufactured golf merchandise. Public courses were built. So were more country clubs.

Those who could afford it joined a club. Those who couldn't fought the crowds at public courses. The golf gulf between incomes began and today still tinges country club membership with the aura of elitism that continues to grow as membership fees soar.

Ten years ago, $15,000 bought membership into Broadmoor, Seattle's most exclusive golf club. Today the initiation fee is $142,500. (The nation's most expensive club is Big Canyon Country Club near Newport Beach, Calif., at $150,000.) Sand Point costs $20,000. Woodinville's Bear Creek, $40,000. Federal Way's Twin Lakes membership is $19,000. Medina's Overlake is about $90,000.

Thirteen years ago memberships to Sahalee Country Club on the Eastside were being advertised in the newspaper for $500 to $700. Today they sell for $84,000.

For all clubs, initiation fees do not include monthly fees, which average $175.

Don't think you can just write out that six-digit check, pay your monthly dues and join, however. Most clubs are owned by members and require invitations to join or at least approval by the membership committee. And sometimes applicants are found to be ``unsuitable'' and asked to withdraw. But not often.

So once you're in, what do you get?

The right to play golf without paying a greens fee. The right to swim, play tennis, socialize, party with the in-group of your choice and to have access to club dining facilities. (Yes, you have to pay for the food and beverages and, if you're not around, your kids can simply charge their burgers and fries to your account.)

But the most important benefit: contacts.

``Lots of deals are cut on the golf course. I've witnessed them myself, seen contracts signed in the men's locker room or the bar,'' says Bear Creek's Max Kamp, who managed Overlake for 30 years.

``People join just to make contacts. It's like the chamber of commerce: No one goes there just to eat lunch. A couple of deals and it will take care of your dues quickly.''

The demand is driving prices up nationwide, says Mike Johnson, managing editor of Country Club magazine. ``And the market will bear the price. The feeling is if you up the ante it will eliminate some of the folks. No one wants to spend four years on a waiting list.''

Those who can afford it are joining at a younger age, bringing the national average down as baby boomers with disposable incomes join in the '90s as their parents did in the '50s.

``My dream has always been to join a country club,'' says Lynne Robinson, 30, a Seattle physical therapist. ``We had so much fun there when we were growing up. It's been my dream because you always know there's a place to go, always have good-quality grounds. And if I had a family I'd know it would be a good place for them to be.

``As a child, it was a place you could ride your bike to and your parents knew you were going to be OK, whereas you probably wouldn't let your kid go down to the public pool alone.

``A country club membership is like having a rec room,'' she says. ``It's a center of relaxation, entertainment and socializing.''

Her parents belonged to the San Francisco Bay area's Moraga Country Club, which remains predominantly white.

Although more minorities are members of country clubs today than ever before - and are relatively common among Seattle's mid-price-range clubs - discrimination is still a factor.

Witness the furor over site selection of the upcoming Professional Golfers' Association of America championship tournament set at Shoal Creek Country Club near Birmingham, Ala.

The club has a policy that does not allow blacks to be members.

Most clubs are far less overt in their discriminatory practices.

Ed Pazdur, 65, publisher and editor of Golf Executive, a magazine for country club members at the nation's most affluent golf clubs (including 20 in 1Washington state), says ``most clubs are very discriminatory, but it's all done under cover. It's not in the bylaws.''

Discrimination against women tends to be the most visible. The bylaws of clubs like Overlake refuse proprietary membership to women. Women can join only through their husbands.

``We've talked about it for years, '' says Jo Bridges, membership secretary. ``Eventually it's going to change.''

The state Legislature may help speed that decision.

Olympia Rep. Jennifer Belcher was among several legislators to introduce bills last session that would remove the open-space tax credits golf clubs now enjoy and tax them as full residential properties if they practice gender discrimination.

Another bill would remove the liquor license of clubs that discriminate.

While club membership is an issue, the most common controversy is over tee times.

Most clubs have times designated for men-only or women-only play, men usually getting the Saturday morning prime golf time.

The long-standing practice began in the era when women stayed home and could play golf midweek. The job market has changed; many tee times have not.

And that has made some hot under the Izod collar, among other things, spawning Teed Off, a group of women lobbying for golf course equality.

``I love to golf,'' says Barbara Neeley, an advertising executive. She joined Glendale under her own name, but until recently wasn't able to golf on Saturday morning, when it was most convenient for her.

The club changed its rules so that any person who has a membership in his or her own name may play during the prime time. While that works to Neeley's advantage, the wives of members still cannot play on Saturday morning, even though their teen-age sons can.

Sue McCoy, a Broadmoor member, until recently could not play Saturday mornings before Broadmoor made a similar change allowing couples to choose who would have prime playing time.

Before the change, women could not tee off until 1 p.m. on Saturday. In the winter, when there is limited daylight, it was difficult to play a full round of golf.

The objections to coed play on weekends revolve around speed of play and the tradition of men playing only with men.

For the most part, clubs are slowly changing the practice, but not without a cry of dismay from some among the old-boy bastion. Publisher Pazdur, for example, bitterly likens the speed of women golfers to a military convoy crossing the ocean.

``They don't take the game seriously and make it a social afternoon and they don't let anyone play through,'' he said. ``Some clubs don't let women play (at the same time as men) unless they have a 10 handicap.''

Neeley has observed Saturday morning play and says most men don't play any faster than women.

``Men just don't like (the idea of playing with women),'' says Kamp. ``They don't know why they don't like it. They just don't.''

Then, tee times aren't a controversy to all women.

At Sand Point a golf cart purrs past an outdoor table where Emelie Mitchell is having open-face sandwiches for lunch. She exchanges greetings with a friend who knows she's been away on a trip. She in turn asks about her friend's health.

Emelie, whose retired business executive husband, Art, is a club past president, plays golf several times a week.

``Tee times aren't a big deal to me, but I'm not a working woman,'' she says.

``When I married Art he told me I had to learn to golf or be a golf widow. The nice thing about golf is that it's a family sport.''

She learned and became a women's golf captain. Her photo is among those of other women's-team captains hanging in the women's lounge.

A gallery of photographs of club presidents - all men - hangs in the clubhouse lobby.

One by one the men are coming in for lunch after a morning of practicing for the annual Hilly Dilly Golf Tournament. A group of women, fanning themselves in the heat, leave for the women's lounge and a game of bridge. Pots of flowers line the patio where someone is spreading a tablecloth, getting ready for a child's birthday party.

The honoree is in the pool with dozens of other children who screech and laugh and make the dazzling surface explode at the impact of twisting, leaping bodies. One of them is Steve, 15, Emelie's stepson. He's on the swim team.

``I think if people can afford it, it's good to join a country club. We've made wonderful friends. We travel together, have lunch together.''

``It's a mixed bag of people who share the same interest - golf,'' says John Augustavo, president. ``If there's a Cadillac club, well then, we're a Buick club. We're not pretentious by nature.''

The same dress code - no short shorts, jeans, shirtlessness or tank tops - that other clubs have, applies here. And you'll find two distinct age groups, baby boomers and a generation the age of their parents.

Sand Point accommodates the age groups in its social planning. The awards banquet after the men's Hilly Dilly Tournament is held in two rooms. The baby boomers get the DJ, rap music and oldies from the '60s, and the others in the formal dining room get a dance band and Mancini.

But the menu is the same - fabulous: medallions of lamb and veal, cannelloni of smoked salmon with Dungeness crab, spinach salad, white chocolate mousse.

In either age group at Sand Point, you may see your doctor, lawyer and among the baby boomers, an occasional Seahawk.

The location of the club does influence who joins.

At Overlake in Medina you'll see timber barons and the who's who of Medina old money and nouveau riche. There also are a few foreign investors with homes in Saudi Arabia, Spain and France who maintain memberships.

At Tacoma Country and Golf Club, one of the oldest in the country, you'll see more timber barons and the ``old money'' families of Gravelly Lake Drive.

In the suburbs, Federal Way's Twin Lakes, Renton's Fairwood, Woodinville's Bear Creek - you'll see business owners and executives.

The common denominator is still as it's always been, though.



Who joins clubs?

Who are country club members? Mendelsohn Media Research's 1989 study says:

Average age: 52

Average income: $123,600

Household net worth: $818,100

Married: 96 percent

21.9 percent own Cadillacs

12 percent own Mercedes

4.87 percent own BMWs

11.9 percent own Lincolns.

(No statistics were given on the percentage of racial minorities, although they are generally believed to be underrepresented.)