Where the best players in the nation play
Geoff Ogilvy may be a former U.S. Open champion, but that doesn’t count for beans at Whisper Rock Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz., where Ogilvy has failed in several attempts to win the club championship.
Gary McCord, another Whisper Rock member, barked out a challenge after the annual Tavistock Cup, contested in Orlando, Fla., between teams from Lake Nona Golf & Country Club and Isleworth Golf & Country Club.
“We’d kill them,” McCord bragged. “Of course, they’re afraid of us, so they won’t let us in.”
This is the kind of boastful language, somewhat embellished, that often accompanies the battle for bragging rights among clubs with large numbers of skilled players.
They are called players clubs.
Two persistent questions continue to be debated among golfers at these golf clubs: Which club has the most single digit handicappers? And which has the lowest average handicap index?
Is it Whisper Rock, with dual courses designed by Phil Mickelson and Tom Fazio?
“I’ve played the club championship three or four times and never won it,” Ogilvy said. “There aren’t too many guys who play on Tour and live in Scottsdale who aren’t members. There are several amateurs who can beat the Tour guys. During the winter, the games are fantastic.”
Whisper Rock, buoyed by this Ogilvy anecdote, is a prominent example of a modern players club, but it is not the answer to either of our two questions.
San Francisco’s Olympic Club, with two courses, is the king of single-digit handicaps. It has more than 600 members with single-digit home course handicaps. Of course, it has a generous pool of some 5,500 members to pick from.
Right behind are Champions Golf Club in Houston and Secession Golf Club in Beaufort, S.C., each with more than 500 single-digit members. Champions has two golf courses and 800 members. Secession is a one-course facility, but it possesses a “national member” classification that drives the membership count to 750.
Identifying the club with lowest average index is more difficult. Looking at a two-year window that included 2008 and 2009, Secession managed to push its average index to 6.9, although the winner at 6.8 appears to be the Nassau Players Club, headquartered at 2002 and 2009 U.S. Open host Bethpage Black on New York’s Long Island.
There are no absolutes in the complex and ever-changing world of handicaps. Roughly half the clubs in the United States use the U.S. Golf Association’s GHIN handicap system, but half do not.
Generally handicaps in the U.S. are maintained separately for men and women. The Nassau Players Club, named for Nassau County, N.Y., does include one female member. On the other hand, The Palms Golf Club in La Quinta, Calif., seems clearly to possess the lowest combined handicap index among clubs in the U.S. with substantial numbers of men and women.
Computing the handicaps of about 350 men and 70 women, the average index at The Palms dipped to 7.2.
Several factors make it difficult, and often unfair, to compare handicaps at various clubs. At The Palms, for example, memberships are available only to individuals, not families. Thus the women who join The Palms tend to be very serious golfers.
In our informal survey, “clubs without real estate” were ruled out because they are not representative of a single facility. Several gifted young players from the David Leadbetter Golf Academy in Bradenton, Fla., formed their own club and posted an average index of 0.3 at one point during the past two years.
Several clubs attract touring pros, teaching pros and club pros as dues-paying members -- The Palms is one, with 51 professionals as members -- and no attempt was made to omit them from this handicap survey.
The subject of players clubs is a favorite of Jackie Burke, former Masters and PGA champion and co-founder of Champions in Houston. “Hell, there are only 25 or 30 real golf clubs in the United States,” Burke said. “I’m talking about clubs where golf is everything, where people really play the game instead of just talking about it.”
These clubs are all about golf. Often there is no tennis, no swimming, no distractions for golfers.
“We’re talking about golfers who don’t need valet parking,” said Mike Harmon, head pro at Secession and a kindred spirit with Burke. “They don’t need saunas and marble floors. They like old wooden floors with spike marks in them. They have an appreciation for the simplicity of great old courses and for the grand history of the game.”
Secession and Champions fit this definition. The Olympic Club, on the other hand, includes thousands of golfers who attained golf privileges because they first became members of the Olympic Club’s downtown athletic facility.
Players clubs tend to be private, but the Nassau Players Club is perhaps the best example of a players club at a public facility.
Ken Eichele, a longtime member of the Nassau Players Club, was a New York City fireman for 30 years, retiring two years after the 9-11 disaster.
On September 11, 2001, Eichele, 50 at the time, was playing in a qualifier for the U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship. After the assault on the World Trade Center, the qualifier was canceled in the middle of the day. Eichele left the golf club and headed toward Ground Zero.
He finally got there just as building No. 7 collapsed. “It was even worse than I imagined,” Eichele said. “It was horrible. It wasn’t two two buildings; it was seven buildings. No. 7 was a 47-story building.”
Eichele ultimately became something of a reluctant hero. The U.S. Golf Association offered him an exemption for the 2001 U.S. Mid-Am, but he declined because of extended recovery and cleanup responsibilities at the attack site. When the USGA offered again the next year, he accepted and played in the championship.
Women usually don’t seek memberships to players clubs, but The Palms has emerged as the most prominent exception to this rule.
“We are a golf club, and that’s all we do,” said founder J.D. Ebersberger, a PGA professional who was director of golf at Mauna Kea Golf Course on Hawaii’s Big Island before moving back to the mainland. “The members here love golf, and everything we do is designed around that passion.”
The Palms may be the fastest play golf course in the country. Rounds average about three and a half hours on a 10-year-old layout designed for speedy play. Fast play is written into the club bylaws, and even assistant pros have the authority to warn groups that are playing too slowly.
Ebersberger acknowledges that a few members have quit because they felt pressured to play too quickly, and he understands. “I never said the club was for everybody,” he stressed. “We don’t have any social functions at the club, and that seems wrong to some people.”
At Champions, Burke has a unique policy: Prospective members must have a handicap of 14 or lower to get their foot in the door. The limit is 14, by god, and not even the Almighty himself could get in with a higher handicap.
A prominent oilman with a 22 handicap wanted to join. He had lots of important friends, and they pleaded for an exemption. Burke was unrelenting.
“Isn’t there anything I can do?” the oilman asked.
“Yes, there is,” Burke told him. “We have a school here. We have four instructors. You can sign up.”
The oilman enrolled in the school. In one year, he lowered his handicap from 22 to 12. He was in.
Whisper Rock is similar in concept to The Palms. Both clubs sought and attracted golf professionals as dues-paying members from the very beginning. Secession is a walking-only club and thus attracts a younger group of skilled amateurs.
Said Whisper Rock founder Gregg Tryhus, “We all love golf here, with the emphasis on we. Nobody at Whisper Rock has any special status or privileges, and that includes me.”
The concept of no special status or privileges is familiar to all public-course golfers, yet the Nassau Players Club and a few other clubs have managed to form groups of excellent players.
White Pines Golf Club, a public facility, has claimed the lowest average handicap index of all the clubs under the banner of the Chicago District Golf Association, beating out exclusive and historic Chicago Golf Club.
White Pines could be called the everyman club. It has always been a bargain to play at White Pines, with two courses located 10 minutes from O’Hare International Airport. The courses opened in 1928 and 1929 and were purchased by the City of Bensenville in 1967.
“It is probably the noisiest place you will ever play,” said trick shot artist Peter Longo, who learned to play golf at White Pines in the early 1960s. “There is a huge train yard and switching yard across the street. The planes from O’Hare are over our golf course five seconds after they take off.”
More than 20 years ago, Longo wrote a screenplay about golf at White Pines.
“When I was a boy, the course was open all year long, regardless of the weather,” he said. “The greens were open, frozen or not. The White Pines regulars played as much in winter as they did in the summer. We could walk directly over the frozen lakes instead of around them. We could make up new holes. It was our place.
“We had special rules when the pins would freeze in the cup and ice was up to the edge of the lip. If a putt hit the ice or pin and stayed within the length of the grip, it was considered holed. If not, putt again -- there were a lot of fights over that one.”
In Portland, Ore., the Rose City Golf Course was built in the 1920s on the site of an old motorcycle race track. It is owned by the City of Portland. For decades, Thursday and Saturday games have attracted many of the best pros and amateurs from around the Pacific Northwest.
But it was the cross-country games that made Rose City really famous. Jeff Iverson was there for the glory days of the 1970s and 1980s, when players would tee off on the 14th tee and create their own Oregon Trail to the 2nd green, some 1,500 yards away.
“There were some pretty big bets,” said Iverson. “There were a bunch of obstacles -- a lake to deal with, the road, lots of trees.”
That’s where the Tim Myers legend was born. A swaggering golfer, Myers loved the action and once completed the formidable cross-country hole in 10 shots.
“Finally Tim chased the money away,” Iverson said. “He was just too good.”
Reflected head professional, Hank Childs, “You might see doctors or construction workers, all united by their love for good golf. It’s unusual for a city golf course to have this kind of reputation, but Rose City is a special place.”
Hey, it’s a players club, where the golfers play and then they play some more.
Here are some of the top players clubs in the United States:
PRIVATE COURSES (in alphabetical order)
CHAMPIONS GOLF CLUB, Houston, Texas
The Skinny: private, 800 members, two courses
Initiation Fee: $25,000
Average Handicap Index: (men): 7.9
Noteworthy Competition: Club championship; medal qualifying, then match play; often takes par or better to make championship flight.
OLYMPIC CLUB, San Francisco, Calif.
The Skinny: private, 5,500 members, two courses
Initiation Fee: $40,000
Average Handicap Index (men): 11.2
Noteworthy Competition: President’s Cup (club championship); medal qualifying, then match play about the low 16; how about 16 spots among more than 5,000 golfers?
SECESSION GOLF CLUB, Beaufort, S.C.
The Skinny: private, 750 members, one course
Initiation Fee: $45,000
Average Handicap Index (men): 6.9
Noteworthy Competition: Blue-Gray Tournament, with a North vs. South team competition; Ryder Cup format.
THE PALMS GOLF CLUB, La Quinta, Calif.
The Skinny: private, 430 members, one course
Initiation Fee: $20,000
Average Handicap Index (men and women): 7.2
Noteworthy Competition: “The Game” played every day, starting at 10:30 a.m.; four-person teams; best two balls of four, net, except all four scores count on 9 and 18; a random draw is used for teams, so occasionally a team will end up with four plus-handicappers.
WHISPER ROCK GOLF CLUB, Scottsdale, Ariz.
The Skinny: private, 480 members, two courses
Initiation Fee: $130,000
Average Handicap Index (men): 7.7
Noteworthy Competition: Best to the Next, a two-on-two game that goes to the second ball if the low ball is tied; “You can hide in best-ball, but you can’t hide in this game,” said membership director Jim Strickland. “Usually there aren’t more than two or three holes a nine that are tied.”
PUBLIC COURSES (in alphabetical order)
NASSAU PLAYERS CLUB, Bethpage State Park, Farmingdale, N.Y.
The Skinny: public, 160 members, competition on one course, Bethpage’s Black Course (summer)
Greens Fee: $50 weekdays, $60 weekends (residents)
Average Index (men, one woman): 6.8
Noteworthy Competition: The Winter Tour, in which members of the Nassau Players Club go on the road (the Black Course is closed in the winter) to various public courses on Long Island; cumulative Stableford competition (points) for the entire Tour.
ROSE CITY MEN’S CLUB, Rose City Golf Course, Portland, Ore.
The Skinny: public, 150 members, one course
Greens Fee: $25 Monday through Thursday, $27 Friday through Sunday
Average Handicap Index (men): 8.1
Noteworthy Competition: Captains Pick, with four-player teams, no handicaps, best one-ball and two-ball gross payouts.
WHITE PINES MEN’S CLUB, White Pines Golf Club, Bensenville, Ill.
The Skinny: public, 120 members, two courses
Greens Fee: $35 weekdays, $40 weekends
Average Index (men): 7.8
Noteworthy Competition: White Pines originated a game called Night Fighting, a gangsome skins game played in the late afternoon or early evening.
Proud of your own players club? Contact Jim Achenbach at email@example.com.