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Members Only : Country Clubs Report Booming Business; Those Who Join Claim It Is Money Well-Spent

February 04, 1988|MIKE WYMA | Wyma writes regularly for Valley View.

Robert Steinbeck sipped a beer after playing 18 holes of golf at the Braemar Country Club in Tarzana. Last month, he paid $18,000 for the club's most expensive membership.

"I had the money and it was either golf or a Porsche, so I decided to invest it in golf," said Steinbeck, who owns a construction business. "I'm 29, so I've got a lot of golf in front of me."

Officials at San Fernando Valley-area country clubs say there are a lot of people like Steinbeck. Interest in golf is booming, and many clubs report full or near-full memberships. Several are spending large sums to improve their golf courses and clubhouses, and at least four developers plan to build country clubs in the area.

Members cite a variety of reasons for joining a country club. These include avoiding weekend "gridlock" on public courses, golf's reputation as a business networking tool, and a sense of safety and unity that come with a club's exclusivity.

"I have three sons and they all play golf here," Polly Rulon said during a break on the putting green at North Ranch Country Club in Westlake Village. "I know where they are and they're safe."

'It's Like a Family'

"You get to know everyone at your club," said Bob Coyle, a member of Porter Valley Country Club in Northridge. "It's like a family. It's where you spend your weekends. My kids took advantage of it growing up, and my wife plays. Or she gets out there, put it that way."

In the eyes of the die-hard golfer, a country club can be quite satisfactory with only a golf course and a clubhouse with lockers, a restaurant and a bar. However, many clubs have such additional facilities as tennis courts, a swimming pool and banquet rooms where members entertain business associates, hold wedding receptions and the like.

Most clubs sell an array of memberships--some unlimited, others good for golf only on weekdays or for tennis only. A "social" membership allows use of the club's restaurant and banquet rooms.

Robert Steinbeck's lifetime membership at Braemar accords him use of all the club's facilities without payment of monthly dues. The same privileges can be had for a $6,000 membership that includes monthly dues of $170. Country club members do not pay greens fees. However, most clubs impose a food and beverage minimum, insisting that members spend anywhere from $100 to $300 per quarter in the club's restaurant and bar.

For the golf devotee, however, the cost of a club is money well spent. Braemar member Dave Hamilton, 24, said that some days he plays as many as 54 holes. When traveling, he may play without charge at any of the 190 clubs owned nationwide by Braemar's parent company, Dallas-based Club Corp. of America. The company also owns Porter Valley Country Club in Northridge.

Gamble on Outcome

Polly Rulon said most of the 170 women in the Ladies Club at North Ranch get their money's worth, playing golf four times a week. Like many club members, she and her friends gamble on the outcome of games.

"With us, it's just nickels and dimes," she said. "The most we'll lose is $2. But the men play for hundreds, literally."

Insurance agent Peter Crecion said he joined Porter Valley three years ago for the betting opportunities.

"I gave up tennis for golf because no one gambles at tennis," he said. "I've played public courses and they bet for nickels. At clubs, they bet for dollars."

Crecion is not alone in his recent conversion to golf. Whatever the reason--gambling, recreation, family togetherness, business opportunity--people are taking up the game in record numbers.

'Average Age 48'

"The baby-boomers are starting to play," said Bobby Heath, director of golf at Wood Ranch Golf Club in Simi Valley, site of the GTE Seniors Classic and one of the area's most challenging courses. "Our average age is about 48 years old, which is really young."

"Most of our newer members are in their early to mid-40s, younger than what the club experienced in the past," said David Wardlow, general manager of sold-out Porter Valley. "They're high-income people, people aggressive in their jobs and careers. Our members do more business entertaining here than in the past."

Country clubs have dress codes. Most forbid bare feet and the wearing of shirts without collars or unhemmed shorts. At many clubs, a woman's shorts may no higher than 4 inches above the knee.

Annette Nickell, director of membership at Braemar, said the rules surprise some people.

"There's a new generation coming through, but I think they're looking for a more traditional thing," she said. "Some of them might question the dress code at first, but then they see it helps create an atmosphere. They like the structure. They want the camaraderie and friendships they find here."

Charli Cusolito has been a North Ranch member for 3 1/2 years. She said she once had a poor opinion of country clubs, a view fostered by dress codes and the image of a moneyed, elitist membership.

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