On a recent Saturday morning, golf carts raced through the green hills of Ridglea Country Club, a 300-acre course where ancient trees stretch their arms overhead.
A worker folded blue-striped towels near two crystal-clear swimming pools as families made their way to the patio. “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” by Stevie Wonder pumped through a speaker.
At this Fort Worth country club and many others across the United States, times are good. Despite all the worrying economic news, the demand for membership is high and the waiting lists are long.
One of the reasons: the COVID pandemic.
Today, more and more people have flexible hybrid or work-from-anywhere schedules. Many country clubs were able to pivot faster than traditional restaurants or social clubs with takeout and outdoor activities during the height of COVID. And the growing popularity of outdoor sports like golf and tennis continues to drive demand.
Here at Ridglea, they try to emulate what they call “Cheers!” effect, said general manager Adrian Morris, a hulking Irishman with bright blue eyes and a whispering accent. Everyone knows each other.
For the club’s 1,600 members, Ridglea offers a buffet of opportunities. Members can swim, golf, work out remotely in a second-floor card room, and work out in the newly reopened fitness center.
And many Fort Worth residents want in.
Ridglea’s waiting list is at 150, which club officials say could take two years.
West of Fort Worth, Shady Oaks Country Club has stopped adding names to a waiting list that has existed since 2007 and currently has 20 people. And north of Westlake, the Vaquero Club’s waiting list is the longest in years at around 35 – and calls are coming in every day from others hoping to join.
What happens in Tarrant County follows the rest of the country. A Club Benchmarking study estimated that 25% of country clubs nationwide had full membership before the pandemic, a number that has since jumped to 50% and continues to grow, according to Golf Digest.
From “Caddyshack” to family focus
Jeff Morgan, CEO of the Club Management Association of America in Arlington, Va., said that before the pandemic, 10% of private country clubs nationwide had waiting lists.
Now, the number of clubs with waitlists hovers between 40% and 50%, with average membership prices approaching $8,000 nationwide.
“What we think is that with people on hybrid work schedules, they can now enjoy their club more, which is why we see trends continuing in the sense that the positivity around clubs continues,” Morgan said.
In Texas, 79% of clubs reporting to Club Benchmarking said they saw membership growth between 2020 and 2021, and 48% reported an increase this year, said Chris Davis, director of the company that provides business intelligence services to clubs.
The pandemic has impacted the restaurant and tourism industry: 90% of Texas restaurateurs surveyed by the University of Houston said their sales fell at the start of the pandemic in 2020, and 41% had to permanently or temporarily close establishments.
In some parts of the country, tourism is not expected to fully rebound to 2019 levels until 2023, according to the International Monetary Fund.
But clubs have shifted to take-out and alfresco dining so members can still get the resort experience with their meals. As travel restrictions took their toll on typical vacation plans, some people found themselves staying home and joining their country clubs instead to get the same amenities as a vacation, Morgan said.
On the fairways, clubs changed to single-driver golf carts or carts with splitters. They have also raised hygiene standards.
“I think we all have, whether it’s good or bad, a mindset that if we’re around people, we know we feel safer, whether it’s family members or you know. , whatever,” Morgan said. “And so that was carried over to the clubs, and people felt safer in the clubs, and we really tried to do everything we could to show up to be safe.”
There was also the lure of tradition at a time when the country was facing chaos. Local and national clubs have moved to a more family-oriented approach.
“There was a day when it was like ‘Caddyshack’ where, you know, it was more male-oriented,” Morgan said. “It’s not. So we really focus on being a resort in your hometown.
A second home
Part of the reason Morris thinks Ridglea and other North Texas clubs are doing so well is because of the influx of people moving to the area. Allison Vaughn, membership director for the Vaquero Club, agrees.
Morris has worked at clubs across the country for as long as he can remember. He started in the locker room of a country club in Ireland at age 12. He moved to Fort Worth in May 2020 to take up the position at Ridglea, just as the club was set to close for a few weeks.
“It was a tough time, because, you know, nobody knew what was going on, what was coming next,” Morris said.
The club switched to using a single cart on the course, gave people more space in restaurants, avoided buffet-style meals and re-examined how they cleaned their facilities. And Ridglea got away with it on the other side.
“I think the clubs in the area, especially the Fort Worth area, have done a really great job during the pandemic to protect their members, making sure they put all the appropriate precautions in place,” said Morris.
The waiting list at Ridglea began in 2021. The club has since capped its membership.
The newest demographic seeking club memberships over the past 10 years are young families. They will come to Ridglea to swim in the pool and join the junior swim, golf and tennis teams.
Ridglea even has a state-licensed daycare center where parents can drop off their kids and go shopping or hang out for them at the club.
Over the past four or five years, Morris said, the club has invested between $12 million and $14 million in improvements, the most recent being renovations to the fitness center. The club has no intention of stopping.
Next year, Morris plans to add three pickleball courts, citing the sport’s growing popularity.
What keeps people coming back, Morris thinks, is the culture – Ridglea is a place that has stuck with some families for generations and has become a second home for many.
“It’s a great place to grow up,” Morris said.