Back in the day, when money grew on trees and course tee sheets were full, private country clubs could survive in their own world. You either had enough money to join or you played daily fee courses like the rest of the average schmoes.
But the money trees have shriveled up. The tee sheets aren't as full. Membership at some private clubs is down. In the past few years, these clubs have (gasp!) opened their doors to more golfers in the form of summer memberships.
Beginning in May, and in most cases running through September, some area courses are offering membership deals for $125-$200 per month. That includes unlimited golf (although there is a cart fee) and in some cases use of the tennis and swimming facilities.
Isla Del Sol Yacht and Country Club near Tierra Verde is one. According to membership director Leah Brydges, opening the club to summer members helps replace members who head north and keeps other areas of the club open.
"It's huge. We're a resort town. We're right next to the beach, so a lot of our members will head back in the beginning of April," Brydges said. "That's why we offer the summer membership. We want to keep the food and beverage operation running. If we shut down in the summer, we'd lose our tenured employees.''
Isla Del Sol is one of three clubs in the south St. Petersburg area looking for summer golfers. St. Petersburg Country Club and Pasadena Yacht and Tennis Club also have summer plans.
According to St. Petersburg membership director Christy Dollins, the club anticipates 200 summer members this year with the hope that about 30 percent will upgrade to full membership. The club, however, will have temporary greens in May and June while it resurfaces the primary ones.
This is the second year Pasadena, a gated community between Gulfport and St. Pete Beach, has offered a summer membership.
"We do have a lot of seasonal members, so this is a good marketing tool for us,'' said Sarah Harvey, Pasadena's director of member services.
"We've found that once people join, there is a good chance they will stay on.''
At Isla Del Sol, there were 95 summer members last year and nine converted to full memberships. Brydges said she expects about 150 summer members in the fifth year of the program.
While she said summer memberships are becoming a necessity at some private clubs, she isn't sure how many will convert to full members.
"Clubs are getting smart,'' Brydges said. "But then it breeds the whole philosophy of why buy the cow when the milk's free?
"Some of these (summer) members we've had for five years, they own banks. They pull up in a Mercedes. There's that mentality of it being such a good deal. They think, 'Why would I ever pony up and pay for a conversion?' But you'll find cheapskates in any class of life.''
The Bayou Club in Largo is offering summer memberships for the first time. Membership director Erika Rothkegel said she hopes to get 60.
"We have to keep up with the competition,'' Rothkegel said. "Because of attrition of some of our members due to this economy, we felt we needed to offer the summer membership so we wouldn't have to raise the dues of our current members.''
Other area clubs that have recently added summer memberships include Cheval in Tampa and Crescent Oaks in Tarpon Springs. But some remain proudly private. Feather Sound, Belleair, Avila and the fiercely private Old Memorial, among others, have not opened their doors to summer members.
But summer is still a good time to be a golfer in Tampa Bay. Courses are looking for players. Rates go down. Summer golf cards are available. And now some of the area's private courses are within reason.
"We think it's a good deal,'' Dollins said.
"And the hope is that people will like your club and decide to stay there year-round.''
Rodney Page can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com and (727) 893-8810.