Can Yoga Save the Golf Club?

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Private country clubs, facing aging memberships and fewer people playing golf, are making a push to attract women, a group some used to ignore.

But golf isn’t at the heart of their pitch. Instead they’re spending millions on new or expanded fitness facilities. The idea is to make members think of the club as their go-to, year-round gym.

Golf club fitness centers, which had been glorified closets in the basement, are getting prime space and adding classes, trying to win over people who love boutique studio workouts or luxury health clubs.

Consulting firm Global Golf Advisors recently asked managers from 145 top private U.S. clubs to rank the biggest trends in the industry. Topping the list: Rounds of golf played a year at their clubs are either flat or down. Programming for women was number three on their list, behind product technology.

Some clubs are growing desperate to keep their membership levels up. The number of U.S. country clubs is down 14% in the past nine years.

Private golf clubs expanded their fitness and spa areas by 22% to an average of nearly 15,000 square feet from 2013 to 2015, according to a report for the Club Spa and Fitness Association.

Men use gyms, too. But many facilities and programs golf clubs are adding historically attract women. They make up large majorities of the people in exercise classes such as yoga and Pilates, for instance.

The $6 million fitness center at Frenchman's Creek Beach & Country Club in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., is 34,000 square feet, larger than the average Planet Fitness gym. Most of its design details and classes were determined by focus groups made up mostly of female members, says Linda Rosenson, chairwoman of the fitness committee when the center opened in 2010.

"To this day, it's probably the No. 1 positive selling point here at Frenchman's," says the 73-year-old retiree, who plays tennis and works out with a personal trainer in addition to golfing. About 40% of the club's 1,200 members don't golf at all, says business development manager Pamela Rudd.

One-quarter of America's 24 million golfers are women, according to the National Golf Foundation, but half of health-club members are.

"Golf is an anchor," Frenchman's Creek chief operating officer Achal Goswami says. "But fitness and spa is the future."

The Boulder (Colo.) Country Club launched an interval-training class in 2015 that uses heart-rate monitors, modeled after the fast-growing Orangetheory fitness boutique chain. The club calls it Orange Fury and charges $69 a month for unlimited visits to the class. Some classes are held on a 3,500-square-foot artificial-turf field equipped with agility ladders and battle ropes no putters allowed.

"Boutiques right now are a private club's largest competition," says director of wellness Nicole Mains, who is also vice president of the Club Spa and Fitness Association.

"If I say I need $100,000 for equipment, they listen," she says of Boulder Country Club. Some other clubs "are resistant to that kind of change because they feel it's going to take away from maintaining the golf course."

Henry DeLozier, a partner at Global Golf Advisors, says a minority of members at some clubs have scoffed at all the new non-golf spending. "I've seen people says, "This place was founded as a golf club. What the heck are we doing here?'" he says.

Some of the oldest and most prestigious of the nation's 3,800 country clubs used to have male-only memberships. Other clubs routinely banned women from playing golf on weekend mornings or voting on club decisions.

This is not ancient history. As of 2012, 40% of clubs had no female board members, according to a 280-club survey by the National Club Association.

Terra Waldron, chief operating officer of the Desert Highland Association in Scottsdale, Ariz., says three fo the club's nine board members are female, up from one when she started there 2- years ago. And two years ago the club elected its first female president.

"Clubs are changing," she says. "It's not that good old boys network any longer. They respect women and put them in positions of power."

Some clubs have added child care to appeal to younger families. Clubs also are adding resort-style pools with waterslides and cabanas, and spas with massage rooms and blow-dry and manicure services - a far cry from the cigar-smoke-clouded card rooms of the classic country club.

Debra Berney, 61, and her husband, Jeff, first rented a home at The Club at Ibis in West Palm Beach, Fla., instead of buying there. She wasn't sure there was enough to do there for non-golfers like her. In 2010 the couple did decide to buy a home in the gated community. Ms. Berney has since become co-chair of a committee that organizes activities including knitting, beading, photography and educational lectures.

The club was previously called Ibis Golf and Country Club but removed the word "Golf" from its name amid a massive renovation in 2014 that included expanded fitness and spa facilities. Ms. Berney nonetheless did take up golf, thanks largely to a program for female beginners to learn the game together.

Stonebriar Country Club in Frisco, Texas, quadrupled the size of its fitness center to about 3,000 square feet in 2013. In the following months, more than 100 people joined the club as social/fitness members who pay less than full golf members, says a spokeswoman for ClubCorp, which owns Stonebriar. ClubCorp has expanded 26 fitness centers in the 161 clubs it owns or operates in the past five years.

"The more you use a club, you have a higher propensity to stay a member," says Mark Burnett, ClubCorp president and chief operating officer. "And the more classes you provide, generally the higher the usage."

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