2005: Club Life - A corporate approach

If you want a shining example of how not to run a country, consider the African land of Zimbabwe, which is setting new standards for civic ineptitude.

And if you are looking for instances of how not to manage a small business, check out your local golf or country club. That’s because many of these retreats are so hopelessly inept when it comes to proper administration that it’s a shock more don’t go belly-up each year.

Now, I do not want to dump unvaryingly on the people who fill the boards and committees at such spots, for they generally are concerned folks who take their roles seriously. But they often are hamstrung by the ineffectual ways most clubs are organized, making them almost impossible to manage.

One major problem is the length of time a president serves at most places. It’s usually a two-year term, which hardly seems enough time to set forth and then implement a sound agenda. Nor does it allow the person to project any sense of power or longevity, and anyone who wants to seriously buck his initiatives need only stonewall for a spell before someone else comes along.

Clubs also suffer the same fate as government when it comes to attracting the best and the brightest. Those who serve frequently have to face the most offensive bickering and second-guessing from self-avowed know-it-alls who have nothing better to do than deride fellow members from the cheap seats. The result is that the most talented people say, “No thanks,” when asked to fill a spot, meaning the important positions are often left to second and third choices who only can be regarded as deep-seated masochists with no sense of self-preservation.

How else would I have been chosen to help at my place?

There are exceptions, of course, and some clubs have figured out how to run themselves properly. Most are places such as Seminole and Pine Valley, which are led by benevolent dictators with much longer terms of service and much more power endowed in their positions. It’s a model that generally leads to better long-term strategic and financial planning as well as more consistent and sensible day-to-day management.

You would think such structures would be emulated throughout the golf world. But the vast majority of clubs in this country seem to assiduously avoid taking steps in that direction. As does the nation’s premier organization for the game, the U.S. Golf Association.

The USGA is a business operation, with approximately $225 million in assets and an annual operating budget of roughly $120 million. Yet it is run much more like a ragtag club than the corporation it should be.

Once again, the biggest problem is the management structure. At the head of the USGA is a president who serves two one-year terms. An Executive Committee assembled in mysterious and seemingly arbitrary fashion assists him, as does a shadowy cadre of past USGA presidents who quietly wield considerable influence.

One of the great ironies here is that most of the men in charge at the USGA are members of spots like Seminole who no doubt understand the reasons why a club like that is so well-run. Yet they do not seem the least bit inclined to use those management models for the USGA. Instead, they appear content to follow an exemplar that has made many clubs seem as if they were led by the Marx Brothers.

That’s more than a little surprising, especially given the obvious talents of the people at the USGA. Perhaps no one has made that point better than Jack Vardaman, the association’s former general counsel and one-time Executive Committee member, who told The Washington Post this summer: “The USGA Executive Committee and the past presidents have a lot of very smart and successful people, but there is not a single one of them who would run their businesses the way they run the USGA.”

Vardaman went on to suggest that the USGA develop a more corporate management structure in an effort to operate like an efficient and prosperous business rather than a club.

That would be a sage thing to do. And golf and country clubs would be wise to follow suit.

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