Thursday, May 10, 2007

Secrets to Getting on the Top Golf Courses in the World

In one of my previous posts I committed to posting some of the secrets of my success to my loyal readers when one of three events happened: 1) I played 75 of the top 100 courses; 2) I played Pine Valley or 3) I played Cypress Point.

Well, I haven't played 75 courses yet, but I'm a happy man and will share some of the love on this post!

I have always appreciated the approach to golf in both the British Isles and Australia in that they grant outsiders access to even their most elite clubs. Granted, you have to book in advance, follow their rules and they don't allow too many visitors, but at least they are sharing their treasures with the world. It is a lot more difficult in the U.S. to gain access to most private clubs. The resort courses such as Pinehurst, Pebble Beach and Bandon Dunes are accessible to anyone who books in advance and pays the fee. Golfers everywhere should be grateful for people like Mike Keiser, the founder of the Bandon Dunes resort, for building some of the top golf courses in the world with a philosophy of making them accessible at a reasonable price to all golfers.

On the other hand, gaining access to Seminole, Pine Valley, Augusta National, Los Angeles Country Club or Garden City Mens Club is a lot more difficult. While doing research on these clubs I finally figured out why they don't have more liberal visitor policies like those in the U.K. and Australia. Most of the elite golf courses in the U.S. are organized as non-for-profit entities. Allowing access to the public and generating profit beyond the private pleasures of their members would jeopardize their tax-exempt status. I always thought they were just being snooty and no doubt some are, but there is some logic to their position.

There have been a handful of people who have played the top 100 golf courses in the world. The Americans who have done so have all been members of a top private club. This makes gaining access to other clubs a lot easier, particularly if you belong to one of the highly regarded ones, by being able to offer a return visit to a member who hosts you. I have been successful gaining access without being a member of one of these clubs. Nor am I a member of the R & A as some of the prior participants have been. Nor am I a member of the press. I am doing this the old-fashioned way, gaining access one course at a time through nothing more than the charm of my glowing personality. What is surprising when I look at the courses I have played is that in only two instances did I directly know the member. As the hypothesis goes, there are six degrees of separation between all people on the planet. In my case, I have never had to go further than three degrees to get on a course. In most cases it was only two - that is, someone who knows an acquaintance of mine.

So, how have I gotten onto so many of the top golf courses in the world? Well, here for the first time, I will reveal my secrets to gaining access to the top courses:

1. Pine Valley allows non-members access during early October for the playing of their annual club championship - the Crump Cup. While you can't play the course or visit the pro shop, you can walk it (sometimes in peaceful seclusion), which is closer than most people will ever get to playing it.

2. You can get on the normally difficult to access Muirfield on short notice by staying at the Greywalls Hotel, which is adjacent to the golf course. They have a small amount of tee times on Monday and Friday mornings that are allocated only to guests of the hotel. Overall, it will be expensive, but you are playing one of the top five ranked courses in the world, after all.

3. Your golf professional can be very helpful. The pro at your course can sometimes get you access to courses of other private clubs. Be discrete. Don't abuse the privilege. It probably won't work getting you onto the really elite courses such as Seminole, Shinnecock or Augusta, but you can get access to some of the lesser known, private courses on the list. Also, it is not free, you have to pay the greens fees. I have played about six of the courses this way thus far.

4. Make yourself known - Believe it or not I was called unsolicited to play two of the courses in the top 25 by getting my name out. Start a blog or a web-site. Chances are it won't be as insightful or wry as mine, but give it a shot.

5. Ask - but not for Augusta. If you ask a member of Augusta it's an automatic no. They have to ask you. Also, writing to or calling an Augusta member won't work. They've heard it all and get letters frequently requesting access to grant someone's dying wish. But aside from that one, as every effective sales person knows, you have to ask for the order if you want to get invited. You can lookup members of most golf courses in the United States by going to to see if people you meet or acquaintances are members of any courses you want to play. You'll be surprised at some of the names you see.

6. Network - knowing or meeting members of the private courses is the best way to gain access. You don't necessarily have to know them directly, sometimes your friends know people. Don't be obnoxious, but when appropriate, ask and you can often gain access. Have good etiquette, though. Always offer to pay greens fees. Always offer to pay the caddies and tip generously. Send your host a gift afterwards.

7. Join the club. This is not really a practical option for most private clubs in the U.S. since you need to be sponsored by multiple members, pay the initiation fee, etc. However, you can join several of the top 100 courses in the world, particularly those in the British Isles as an overseas member, usually by just applying. Turnberry, Cruden Bay and Ballybunion among others, allow overseas members to join for a modest annual fee.

8. Playing the Old Course at St. Andrews can be difficult if you don't book well in advance, book through a tour company or don't spend a small fortune staying overnight in town, as is normally required to secure a tee time. A certain number of tee times are allocated to a daily lottery. Your chances of entering the lottery to play the next day are roughly 65% in season, but your odds go up to an almost certain 95% off-season. I suggest going off-season. Put on a sweater and some gloves and enjoy yourself. Or, alternatively, if you are a single, just show up and wait on line. Believe it or not there are people that don't show up for their tee times or threesomes that need a fourth.

9. A member of the greenskeeping staff can sometimes get you access. You probably will have to play at a non-prime time and won't have access to the clubhouse, but as lovers of the game, greenskeeping staff and superintendents can sometimes be very helpful. I played one of the top 25 ranked courses on the list this way. Again, this is not one where you can cold-call them and ask, you have to at least know them or know someone who does.

10. Befriend the course architect if they are still alive, they can sometimes get you access. This worked on one of the top 25 courses for me.

11. Bid for a round at a charity auction. You will probably write a big check, but you can usually split the cost with two or three friends, and after all, it's for a good cause.

12. Half of the courses on the list are public or resort, including some of the best- Pebble Beach, Pacific Dunes, Bandon Dunes, Pinehurst, Harbour Town, Kiawah Island, Kingsbarns, Turnberry, Casa de Campo, Kawana in Japan, Highland Links in Canada and Cabo del Sol in Mexico, are all public or resort courses. Just book in advance.

13. Follow the proper booking process to gain access to the elite private courses in the U.K. and Australia. You have to play on the days that they allocate for non-member play, have a valid handicap card, usually below 24, and follow their dress code. If you do, you can play some of the world's historic links and heathland courses such as Royal County Down, Royal Portrush, Royal St. George's, Walton Heath, Sunningdale, Royal Lytham & St. Annes, Royal Birkdale, Wentworth and Royal Liverpool, Royal Melbourne, Royal Adelaide and Kingston Heath, among others.

14. Play in a Pro-am at one of the courses if you can. It might not be cheap, but again, the money normally goes to charity.

15. You don't have to wait in the parking lot all night to play Bethpage Black. If you know a New York State resident, they can book a tee time a week in advance.

16. Get a job at CBS or become a golf journalist. Select employees and journalists that cover the Masters get to play Augusta National the Monday following the tournament. The winner and runner up of the british and american Amateur championships also get to play in the Masters. There is another longshot way to get on Augusta National but it requires a change in lifestyle. It involves moving to Augusta, GA and joining Augusta Country Club which is the course behind Augusta National. Augusta National only sends out foursomes. In the unimaginable circumstance when someone doesn't show up (our imagination can't conceive of a valid reason for not being able to play) Augusta National has been known to call over to Augusta County Club to have them send over a member to round out the group. I can already mentally picture myself sitting in the Augusta Country Club locker room every day in my boxer shorts, smoking a cigar just waiting for the call to come!

17. Join a golfing society. There are several societies that sometimes will have an annual outing at a named architect's course that you otherwise wouldn't be able to get on. There are societies for many of the architects that designed some of the world's premier courses: Seth Raynor, Donald Ross, Stanley Thompson, H.S. Colt, A.W. Tillinghast.

18. If the course hosts a PGA tour event, volunteer for the event. Depending upon the event, sometimes they let volunteers play the course after the event. You may have to work in the parking lot or at a non-glamorous job, but we never said this was going to be easy.

19. Work at a top consulting or financial firm. The unofficial best top ten employers to work for if you are golf crazed are McKinsey, Bain, The Boston Consulting Group, Booz Allen, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers or Sandler O'Neill. Chances are someone working there is a member, knows a member or has a client who is a member. Being in the right circles like these helps a lot.

20. Become a rater for Golf Digest, Golf Magazine or Golf Weekly. Many courses grant access to raters, although it is not universal.

21. Become a caddy at an elite course. Typically caddies are given playing privileges at off-times.

22. Become the US Ambassador to France where the Golf Club de Morfontaine has a tradition of granting the current post holder playing privileges. In the absence of becoming the ambassador you could freqently beseech him and his staff for access. Or, I am lead to believe that French professionals have reciprocity rights on certain days of the week and can help you get access to elite french courses.

24. Get invited to join The Links Club in New York City. Although his ultra exclusive club has no golf course, its member outings are at some of the world's best including Shinnecock Hills, The National Golf Links, Maidstone, Somerset Hills and Chicago Golf Club.

24. I've got no clue how to get on the private courses in Japan and would welcome any suggestions.

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