Back in the mid-2000s I attended a media day in Aiken, South Carolina for a new golf course development. I was paired with a sports photographer from the local Augusta TV station. He was about novice level - no chance of breaking 100 anywhere - and yet at one point during the round he nonchalantly mentioned how he had played Augusta National several times. He revealed that not only does the club have the famous credentialed media lottery on the Monday after the Masters that lets a group of journalists play the course, but there is also a local media day annually that extends the privilege.
That's it, I realized. The easiest way you can play Augusta National. All you have to do is get a low-paying job with bad hours at a local TV station until the media day and the Augusta tee time will be yours in no time at all.
In 2020, after over a decade of general oversupply in the U.S., private clubs roared back as families sought safe and familiar environs for their recreation close to home. Many of these clubs ended up restricting access to guests - accompanied or not - just to free up enough space for their members.
But as youth sports and travel pick back up and working from anywhere subsides, expect private clubs to normalize operations and begin seeking members or allowing more guest play. (Some new private courses are even being built as we speak; others are opening this year).
Most of my invites to private clubs these days come because of a media event. But a lot of golfers I know have no problem getting on private clubs without any sort of industry connections, but rather some combination of effective networking and an eagle eye.
If you're eager to break up the public routine, you've got a bunch of different ways to do it. Here is what seems to be the most common ways golfers get to play private golf clubs.
The discovery/prospective member visit
Membership directors know that the best selling tool for new members is the golf course itself. While the most elite private clubs with full rosters typically only extend memberships through invitation, the vast majority of them will offer property tours and include a round of golf to those expressing genuine interest. Some destination clubs sell weekend packages that include accommodations, club access and a round of golf or two. Keep in mind that you'll want to be honest about how interested you are in joining and answer any qualifying questions honestly. The golf gods frown upon posers and scammers.
GolfPass has partnered with scores of U.S. clubs coast-to-coast to connect golfers with clubs seeking members. Browse from our list of Private Clubs here, fill out the information form, and you can receive details from the club directly on tours and promo rounds. GolfNow has also partnered with many of these clubs and will post promo tee times on occasion. You can browse the current list by state here and see if any times are online.
Social media can be a very effective and genuine way to connect with golfers around the world. If you like to post about your golf passion, whether it's on Twitter, Instagram or golf-focused apps or message boards, eventually someone will engage with what you're posting and connections will be made. It may also lead to invites to a round at an online golf buddy's club if you're visiting their town. Local Golf Advisor Jake Weaver posts all things golf on his Twitter feed and it's helped him make a lot of new connections and golf buddies, some of whom have invited him out to their club (and vice versa). "I pointed someone to a job application and he was so grateful he got the job he invited me," said Weaver.
On Instagram, Michigan Local Golf Advisor Noah Jurik posts aerial and ground photography of Northern Michigan golf courses, and his awe-striking imagery have helped generate new connections in the sport around the country. Turns out, members like seeing their clubs photographed nicely. "There have been a couple [invites] because of my photos," said Jurik. "But oddly enough one invite came after they saw I could break 80."
Be really good at golf
Jurik brings up a good point. The better you can play, the more invitations to play golf you're likely to receive. Members might be in search of an ace (think: Danny Noonan) to help them beat their nemesis or vault up the ranks of the Member-Guest. Every scramble team loves a ringer for their "A" player. Some members just love having a front row seat to watch the game of an accomplished player and many enjoy hosting aspiring junior golfers (and maybe their parents?). So drop that index and start posting some nice numbers in front of new audiences. GolfPass members: Watch Breaking Par with Cameron McCormick
Enter a competition, for fun or a good cause
Really good golfers tend to play in tournaments, and many prestigious events take place at private clubs, from national-scale USGA and other tournaments to some more regionally competitive ones. Many clubs seek out top-tier tournaments in order to keep their prestige in the local or regional market.
Your local or state golf association is another likely gold mine of competitive opportunities at private courses. It certainly helps (or is required) if you're a near-scratch index to play in the state amateur or open. But if you're not quite at that level, don't worry - private clubs often host golf association "one-day" tournaments, plus other assorted flighted events and tours. AmateurGolf.com keeps a pretty comprehensive database of amateur golf tournaments. A brief scan of the summer schedule reveals events at Detroit Golf Club, Merion Golf Club and National Golf Links of America. (Search here)
Finally, a steady schedule of outings can help keep a private club's finances afloat. Some of the better-connected local charities near you probably host benefit tournaments - mostly fun and lightly competitive - at one of the nicer private clubs in the region. The National Kidney Foundation has an impressive list of outings this year, from the Cassique Course at Kiawah Island in June to Winged Foot in October.
Private clubs are a very philanthropic place and elite clubs know that the general public will pay a pretty nice premium for a tee time. Rather than fill their coffers with guest fees, they will post foursomes to auctions like the ForeBatten Foundation, Rounds 4 Research, Youth on Course, or Member for a Day (among many others) and donate the proceeds to the cause. Local Golf Advisor Bryan Tweed reports having 26 rounds of golf at private clubs on the books through 2022, including Bellerive and Olympia Fields, won at auction from many different sources including his local and state golf associations.
"My key is finding auctions online that aren’t golf 100% golf-centric," said Tweed. "If golf is part of it, but not the focal point, it tends to be less expensive to win."
It's also worth noting that charity donations can be tax-deductible.
Partner hotels with private access
There are quite a few private clubs around the U.S. that have a hotel or resort component onsite and permit non-member play from guests of the hotel. Then there are some even lesser-known partnerships where the hotel isn't even on location or under the same ownership, but a small number of tee times are reserved.
There are big, five-star golf resorts with large memberships that only offer hotel guest access: The Broadmoor and Omni Barton Creek are both multi-course properties with Top 100 layouts available only to members and hotel guests. But then there are your more boutique properties. San Diego's Rancho Valencia, a five-star boutique hotel, has no on-site golf component but offers guests exclusive access to two private clubs in the area, The Farms and Del Mar Country Club. We've marked these hotel properties in the new U.S. resort guide we're building. Look for a "Yes" under the "Is resort stay required for a tee time?" field.
Become a course rater
Golfers love golf course rankings, and they've exploded over the years to be national, regional, state and city-level. Some are digital, others are at your local paper (the Dallas Morning News has an excellent one for Texas). These rankings need panelists to rate the courses and the panelists don't have to be in the golf industry. They're often filled with realtors, lawyers, salespersons, etc.
If you're able to get a spot in one, whether it's state or national level, you can often arrange to visit and rate willing private courses. Don't expect a comp - they'll typically charge a guest fee. Some rater programs also charge their panelists each year as well. Here at GolfPass, our Local Golf Advisors, especially those who actively promote their accounts on social media, have played and reviewed a lot of private clubs over the years. Writing reviews here can also be a good proving ground to share your thoughts to expert panels and get accepted there. | Write a Review
Pick the right real estate agent
Client golf at a private club is an age-old access avenue. If you're going to invest six figures or more into the purchase of a home, why not at least have a round of golf baked in? Real estate agents generally buy clients gifts when they buy a house, and as you look for a representative in your market, try and find out who has the hookup at the best club in town. One agent I spoke with once in Michigan made it pretty clear he could get me on the highest-rated club in the state if I were to pony up for a vacation house.
It shouldn't be too hard to probe which real estate agents have the goods. Just mention golf in your initial chit-chat and, if they want your business, they will likely mention their access in turn. Referring new clients their way may also get you an invite. Real estate agents network like few other professions.
Get a gig at the club
I've always been a muni guy, but I played more private golf clubs in high school than I do now by a wide margin. I worked the bag room at the town's new-money club and valeted cars at the old-money one. Many clubs are closed on Monday or let their staff go play at odd hours (one club I worked at let us go out at the crack of dawn during the week).
I've moved on from these service positions but eventually I can envision my retirement working a day or two a week as a caddie for some exercise and a chance to play the course on occasion. You could also offer your professional skills pro bono or for barter with clubs on a gig basis and see what arrangements can be worked out.
Write a letter
And finally, there's nothing wrong with going old-school. Golf is a traditional sport in many ways and while that might drive some in the new school a little crazy, if you can channel your old soul it could lead to an invitation. Over the years I've heard from numerous avid golfers that a hand-written letter to a club explaining their desire and love of the place has led to a member sponsor of a round there. These clubs are no slouch, either (Sand Hills, the legendary Coore & Crenshaw design in Nebraska, is famously gracious). So try writing something humble and moving to the club you want to play and see what happens.
The fact is, like most things in life, no matter which of these routes you explore, the hungriest and most passionate people are going to get the spoils. Take dead aim!
Tell us how you've managed how to play at private golf courses in the comments below!