My golf club, which happens to be the best golf club in the world, has many features that lesser clubs ought to copy, among them no tennis courts, no swimming pool and no restaurant.
Most golfers think of club restaurants as assets, but they’re not. As people who own real restaurants will tell you, serving food to other people is a horrible business. Diners hate to pay what feeding them actually costs, so to make money restaurant owners have to resort to tricks like playing background music loud enough to drive people away once they’ve stopped ordering booze.
Golf clubs can’t do that, so most of them charge monthly food minimums. Those minimums are seldom sufficient to cover costs, though, so the clubs end up tapping other revenues too. That means some of the money you think you’re paying to keep your greens too fast is quietly subsidizing your grillroom: a secret money pit. What’s more, your club’s restaurant, if it’s like virtually all the club restaurants I’ve ever eaten in, is the worst restaurant you patronize regularly. I used to belong to a second club, which had both a restaurant and a monthly food minimum. In 10 years, I never took my wife to eat there—not once—because she just would have laughed.
The fact that my club doesn’t serve food doesn’t mean we don’t eat. My regular Sunday-morning group—which we cleverly dubbed the Sunday Morning Group—nominally includes 60 or 70 men, of whom 20 or 30 show up on a typical summer morning. Ages range from about 18 to about 85. We make teams by drawing numbered poker chips out of someone’s hat, and we have our own scorecards, including a waterproof version that we use when it rains. Hardly anyone ever takes a cart. We’ve played the same three games for more than 20 years: team best-ball, skins, randomly selected “money hole.” We either sell or give away a limited line of branded SMG merchandise, including bumper stickers, temporary tattoos and hats. (Our first hats, which we designed back in the late ’90s, were purple and orange, a color combination we chose because we felt it would annoy a small group of women who were antagonistic toward us.) Most important of all, we take turns bringing lunch: traditionally cheeseburgers, hot dogs and two or three kinds of chips.
We cook the burgers and dogs on an outdoor grill in back of the clubhouse, and we eat on a two-level flagstone patio that has all-weather chairs, a butt-height stone wall and, under one of the pavers, about a cupful of the ashes of a guy we used to play with. When we started, we had unwritten rules prohibiting napkins, paper plates, help from wives (including shopping) and anything that could be interpreted as a “salad,” but as we’ve gotten older, we’ve become more lenient. A couple of members now host much-anticipated annual feasts, such as David W.’s October Festival of Sausages and Reese’s “burger dogs,” which he painstakingly reverse-engineered after eating some at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. Occasionally we trick a new guy into thinking that new guys are supposed to be really extravagant. Normally, though, feeding the group sets you back maybe $100 to $150; you do that once a year, and all the other Sundays you eat for free.
We don’t have a sign-up list, on the theory that sign-up lists are something organized people like our wives would have. Fairly often, the guy who brings lunch is a guy who was shamed into volunteering after winning an unseemly number of skins the week before. The worst-ever lunch was brought, way back in SMG’s early years, by me. The chips and hot dogs were OK, but the burgers—a big box of which I’d grabbed from the freezer case at the grocery store—turned out to be made only partly of meat. Grilling them for half an hour barely changed their color, and people who tried them said they tasted like greasy cardboard. I still get grief about them, including from guys who weren’t even members yet. (That lunch is like Gene Sarazen’s double eagle at the second Masters: An impossible number of people claim to have witnessed it.)
My club also doesn’t have a bar—and even that’s a good thing. We do have two kegerators, which we bought for the men’s member-guest a few years ago. Each time you draw a beer, you’re supposed to put two dollars in what some Scottish golfers I once played with called a “dishonesty box.” Keeping at least one of the kegerators functioning is usually the responsibility of one of the many guys in our group named Mike. (We have approximately as many Mikes as we have lawyers—and there is no overlap between the two. Someday, maybe, we’ll hold a tournament…)
We keep our kegerators in a storage room near the grill, on the shortest route from the patio to the men’s locker room. Actually, “locker room” is a misnomer; the room has maybe a dozen small lockers in it, but nobody uses them. Our clubhouse is more than a century old, and it isn’t heated or air-conditioned. The main room is an old boarding-school fraternity house, which a team of oxen hauled to the course in the early 1900s as part of a complicated property swap. About 10 or 15 years ago, some women at our club complained that the men’s locker room was larger than theirs, so we traded; a year or two after that, they complained that their new locker room was too dark, so we traded back. Their bathroom is nicer than ours, and the door has a lock, but the urinal in ours is right under a window that directly overlooks the grill. That means you don’t have to stop arguing about skins just because you had to run inside to take a whiz. And then, on your way back out, you can grab another beer.
David Owen is a New Yorker staff writer and the author of over a dozen books, including Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability; My Usual Game: Adventures in Golf; and Where the Water Goes: Life and Death Along the Colorado River.