Kirt Lamb stumbled on the golf deal of the young century.
An avid golfer, the 45-year-old Turlock resident routinely played all the local public courses. But with six children, including five still at home, he was looking for a way to save money and time while not giving up golf.
Lamb heard about a no-risk membership trial at Turlock Country Club, where someone could be a nonvoting member for three months by just paying the monthly dues.
After three months, Lamb had the choice of becoming a member or walking away.
In January, just weeks before the end of the trial period, Lamb was presented with an offer too good to ignore. A longtime member wanted to leave the club and was willing to take a loss on his equity stake of roughly $1,500. He was willing to give the membership to Lamb, who would take over the membership simply for the cost of the monthly dues.
"I have a lot of relatives in the area looking for ways to cut back in the current economy, and here I am joining a country club," Lamb said.
Lamb's story is unique in that free memberships generally are not there for the taking.
But in the current economic climate, country clubs are looking for new members to replace the ones walking away because of age or financial strain.
Across the nation, many private clubs have fallen on times so hard they've been forced to sell, offer nonequity memberships to increase the number of dues-paying members or even open their tees to public play.
A survey of four Modesto area private golf clubs revealed financial situations not quite as rosy as the booming early '90s, but none of the four — Del Rio in Modesto, Spring Creek in Ripon, and the Turlock and Oakdale country clubs — has resorted to any of the most extreme measures. None of the four claim they're facing critical financial hardships.
On the other hand, golfers looking to join a country club will find unprecedented bargains.
A membership in tony Del Rio Country Club that only a few years ago was going for $35,000 can be had for $10,000. Turlock members not too long ago were able to ask and receive $20,000 for their stakes, and similar declines can be seen at Oakdale and Spring Creek.
The price of a membership, however, has little impact on a club's well-being. Each time a membership is sold, the club reaps a transfer fee, generally about $4,000. Any amount above that is kept by the seller; any membership sold below the transfer fee requires the seller to make up the difference.
The area's largest and most prestigious country club also might be the one most susceptible to widespread economic downturns.
Turlock, Oakdale and Spring Creek country clubs were established as clubs for the everyman, with local farmers and ranchers at the heart of their charter membership. Del Rio always has been a club for businessmen, and when businesses close, membership can shrivel.
Del Rio's membership stands at 481 equity owners, 19 below the number the club has established as a maximum. A benefit to country clubs during hard times, according to club general manager Duncan Reno, is that members tend to cut back on travel. And when they stay home, they make more frequent use of their memberships.
"We know that if the economy continues to get worse, members may not be able to afford the memberships," Reno said. "But right now, our memberships are doing fine and Del Rio is doing fine."
Del Rio is by far the most expensive club in the area, with a posh clubhouse, restaurant and bar to match that status, and it's the only club to offer a full gym and a tennis program, including a teaching professional.
Still, it's not all birdies, eagles and ace serves at the club. Del Rio relies heavily on outside sources of income, such as banquets and weddings, and Reno said those areas have suffered because of the economy.
"We're down 35 percent in nonmember activities, and that's a big number for our members to overcome," Reno said. "We try not to reduce services or lessen what our members are accustomed to enjoying. It may require more dues or assessments as we continue to find ways to reduce costs. But we've made some smart financial decisions that have helped."
Problem? What problem?
Although the going rate for a membership has fallen from a 1996 high of $17,000 to its current $4,000, the club has 477 equity members — two above its charter maximum. Oakdale has turned over 23 memberships in the past five months, with those transfer fees bolstering the capital fund.
Oakdale members pay by far the lowest dues in the area at $216 per month. Add cart fees and the mandatory quarterly food and beverage minimum, and Oakdale still comes in as a bargain among country clubs.
"Oakdale members can play all the golf they want for $325," said Oakdale general manager Rick Schultz. "My guys are farmers and ranchers and local guys, so if the price of beef and nuts go up we'll all be happy.
"I realize we're the anomaly. I have a full membership and my revenues are up. Our directors for years have been farmers and ranchers who pay cash for everything, so there's no debt on the club."
As is the case at Del Rio, Oakdale's members have tended to stay close to home in these tough times. Instead of traveling, they're spending more time and money at the local club.
"Our food and beverage is up $70,000 over the last five months," Schultz said. "We're still doing our own cost cutting and saving what we can because we're trying to sock a bunch away. The other clubs, being short members, will have to raise dues, and if you're down 30 to 40 members it can be tough."
In 1965, a group of 250 Ripon residents opened a nine-hole course after assessing themselves a charter membership fee of $250. The club expanded to 18 holes in 1972, and 22 of those original nine-hole members remain.
In December, their club maintenance fee jumped from $365 to $380 — a higher fee per month than what it initially cost to join the club.
From a membership standpoint, Spring Creek has been the hardest hit of the four clubs surveyed. It stands at 340 members after years of maintaining its maximum membership of 450. The current asking price for a membership is $4,000, down from a high of $15,000 about a decade ago.
Those numbers might seem to paint a bleak picture for the club's oak-lined fairways, but club manager Jim Toal prefers to work in brighter colors.
"We have a few less members, but our dining is up in each of the last two years, the number of rounds are up and our members are bringing more guests than last year," Toal said. "The more people are exposed to the private clubs and see the value here, the better we'll be in the long run. I think if we stay creative and continue to present value to the members, we'll be in great shape once we get on the other side of this financial crisis."
General manager Michael Blevins sees creativity as a key to building and maintaining membership and amenities, and a major part of that is pushing the concept that Turlock is a families-first club.
"The whole staycation theme really takes hold when it comes to membership," Blevins said. "That goes with our theme of making the club as much of a resort experience as possible.
"Today's members are different than a decade ago because there are more families that belong and we need to make sure there's programming for them."
Turlock has expanded its youth golf programs from what was a series of camps to a summerlong focus. But no matter the current financial position of clubs, Blevins is dedicated to making certain members are the last to feel the pinch.
"Through the first two months of this year we're ahead of our budget," he said. "Our revenues are down but we're saving on expenses. Even with those savings, we want to be the place where members get away from their stresses, so we're attempting to enhance services."
Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2300.