Private golf clubs, their membership numbers in decline during the past four years, have been faced with the same choice: have existing members pay more or get more aggressive seeking new members.
All but the most elite clubs or the ones that decided to go an entirely different direction and start accepting public play got aggressive.
Not only does that mean discounting initiation fees and monthly dues, but also embracing nontraditional methods of attracting new members such as trial memberships, marketing and reciprocal programs.
"Membership at private clubs is down an average of 10 to 15 percent since 2008," said Bruce Bennetts, president of the California chapter of the Club Managers Association of America and the general manager of The Farms in Rancho Santa Fe.
Private clubs' pain can be a potential private-club member's gain, particularly in the overbuilt Sacramento market.
Valley Hi in Elk Grove started an "introductory golf privileges" program two weeks ago. For $295 a month and a refundable $1,250 deposit, a prospective member gets full privileges for a year. Members pay $410. Both have a $200 quarterly food and beverage minimum.
The upside, general manager Jim Davis said, is that potential new members have time to build relationships and experience all the amenities Valley Hi offers. Yolo Fliers in Woodland and Sierra View in Roseville have tried similar programs with a greater than 70 percent retention rate, managers at those clubs said.
The downside is that cherry-pickers, whose eyes get big at the thought of a relatively low cost-per-round at a high-caliber course, have no intention of becoming members.
Valley Hi has 340 members and would like to be at 390, Davis said.
Yolo Fliers has 350 members, which is its break-even number, general manager Bob Meyer said. Dwindling numbers since 2008 prompted Meyer to do something he hadn't done in 25 years in the private-club business advertise.
"I didn't place an ad until the last three years," he said. "It's not like the 1990s when everybody was sold out."
Meyer said the goal is more about reminding golfers that Yolo Fliers is an option than touting its qualities. While advertising in any form was beneath private clubs for decades, reality trumps pride these days.
"I'm worried that people in Woodland don't know that we're here, or that they have an option," he said.
Valley Hi, Yolo Fliers and Sierra View have aggressively targeted young professionals, offering rates reduced up to 50 percent for members younger than 30. Members younger than 35 and 40 receive less significant breaks.
The three courses also are at the core of a group that includes Rancho Murieta, El Macero and Woodbridge that allow reciprocal play with a cart for $25. It's a plan that gives peace of mind to potential members worried about getting stale playing one course or about what they'll do during an invitational or course maintenance.
Sierra View, benefiting in recent years from nearby clubs Morgan Creek and Sunset Whitney moving away from fully private status, is four junior members short of its 430-member cap, general manager Steve Reynolds said.
That doesn't mean the club is sitting chilly. Sierra View didn't offer a distinction between a single and family membership until two years ago. A single now pays $70 less a month. More options potentially means more members, Reynolds said.
Granite Bay, at the top end of the Sacramento private-club market, took action the old-fashioned way in March, dropping its initiation fee to $48,000, a reduction of $12,000. The change worked, general manager Mitch Kessler said.
"We've added 20 golf memberships this year to date," he said.
These days, it's whatever works.