Since this story has appeared in the local papers I no longer feel bound by any sense of confidentiality. And since this is my blog I can say whatever I want on the topic. So here goes.
In a nutshell, here’s the story: A local developer submitted a letter to my club, Lake Merced Golf Club, offering to purchase an option to buy the whole parcel for a massive real estate development. The indicated sales price would have meant pre-tax proceeds to each proprietary member of something in the neighborhood of a million dollars. Soon after, a few members approached the developer asking her to withdraw the offer and she did so. Well, by that point the genie was out of the bottle. With the offer now retracted, a significant percentage of the membership had seen their chance to cash out get snatched away from them, and they were not happy about this. So now, although there is no offer on the table, the club is engaged in the lengthy and not inexpensive process of determining what the property is worth and what the process of selling the place would entail.
(Note: for those of you unfamiliar with the golf geography of the Bay Area, LMGC sits just west of the merger of Route 1/19th Avenue and I-280 in Daly City. When you’re driving north on 280 towards San Francisco it’s behind that line of cypress trees to your left. Truth be told, it has some of the worst weather in the area. But it is only a short walk to a BART station and, traffic permitting, just minutes from downtown SF. Location, location, location.)
But back to the story. To paraphrase John Paul Jones, we have only just begun to fight.
When I first learned about the idea of selling the club, my reaction was immediate and visceral. I didn’t like it. I love the course and I didn’t want to lose the experience of playing there. Sure, the money would be nice but it wasn’t enough to get me to cross the line. At the same time I felt that this was a very private decision for each member. Each one of us would be factoring in our own individual circumstances, and how could somebody on one side of the vote question the criteria of someone on the other? Viewed from a distance the question posed was a fascinating one: we all have expressed an opinion as to how much we’d be willing to pay for certain golf experiences–“Those green fees are a ripoff” or “That driver isn’t worth it”– but how often have we had to put a price on NOT being able to play somewhere?
But as the debate builds and festers, I find myself less disposed to remaining dispassionate. I’m not happy about this turn of events. I wish this had never come up. But if we are going to debate it, let’s be accurate in how we define our terms. So first off, let’s stop referring to proprietary interests in the club as investments. It’s a membership, not an investment. Have you been able to use it as collateral for a loan? Does it pay dividends? Have you traded it on the secondary market? No, of course not. The answer is “no” to all three questions. It’s not an investment.
The only way you can execute the arbitrage of converting that membership into its underlying economic value is to destroy the entity that sold it to you in the first place. Which is why I would also prefer a more accurate description of the proposal before the club. While it may be true that the transaction in question is a sale, I think it would be better, if instead of saying that you were in favor of selling the club, that people were required to say they were in favor of destroying it. It’s the end result, right? The sale is only the precedent to the real outcome. Nobody is willing to pay you that kind of money and keep the course there. So let’s be honest about what we’re talking about. If you want to destroy the club, you have to say so.
One of the arguments used to justify the sale is to ask, “Well, what about the older members?” Well, what about them? Folks, this is hardly the first time in the history of golf, or in the history of this club for that matter, that people have become too old to play. Can you imagine what the world of golf would look like if it were standard operating procedure for clubs to self-destruct whenever a significant percentage of members got too old? How many great courses would no longer exist if the prevailing attitude had been, “Hey, screw it. I’m done. Bulldoze the sucker and mail me a check”? Over the history of the game millions of members of private clubs have missed their last putt, picked up their ball, and walked off into the sunset, leaving behind the course that had welcomed them so many years earlier.
Lake Merced was founded in 1922 and has survived the Great Depression, World War II and all the social upheavals of the ensuing decades. Once surrounded by farmland, it is circled now by freeways, shopping malls and housing. Those of us who are members now were invited in and accepted as fellow members of the community by men and women who in turn were brought in by the members who preceded them. For decades members have moved on to whatever awaits us on the other side of this life, but each one of those generations left the course for others to enjoy as they had. By what right do any of us feel entitled to break this chain?
One response to that question could be that a sale is simply the members’ prerogative as owners of the club. But what does is it mean to be an owner of something like a golf club? Maybe I’m just dense, but I always assumed that the implied contract was as follows: In exchange for a membership fee and my payment of monthly dues and whatever assessments were deemed necessary, I purchased a right to unlimited golf and the option of engaging in the social life of the club. At some point down the road I would relinquish that membership, but in the interim I had a responsibility to care for the club. The club was bequeathed to me and my contemporaries, and we in turn would pass it on to others. What I bought, and therefore what I own, is a combination of privilege and responsibility, two things that are often linked in this world. Although that right certainly exists on paper, I never assumed that I had purchased the right to destroy something I love.
And what I love is not just the remarkable golf course, but what the club represents. Lake Merced was founded by Jews who were barred from other clubs at the time, and in turn and in time, the club has opened its doors to people from every part of this world. As such it exists as a rebuke to bias and prejudice. I don’t want to see a community based on inclusion go under, while clubs based on exclusion survive. We have a remarkably diverse membership, but we have something in common other than just a love of golf. Be we Irish, Jewish, Italian, Chinese, Japanese or Korean, our families’ arrival and ultimate success in this country was accomplished despite facing prejudice and mistrust. Is this how we honor those who came before us, by destroying our own community?
Finally, some proponents for the destruction of the club have justified their position by arguing that the club has changed or is dying. Well, what hasn’t changed in the past few decades? Golf clubs will never again be the center of members’ social lives that they were in previous decades. We’re all too busy or too mobile for that. But that hardly makes a case for euthanizing the club. Great institutions survive by sticking to their core principles while adapting to changes in their environment. There is no evidence that Lake Merced can’t continue to innovate and attract new members. The same regional economic revival that induces a real estate developer to offer a huge price for our land is also creating a staggering amount of wealth all around us. And you know what they say: where’s there money, there’s bound to be golf. You want to sell something? Sell memberships in a great course right on the outskirts of arguably the best city in the United States.