The club ties that bind

Golf Digest

Of the 4,300 private golf clubs in the U.S., about 1,600 of them openly welcome reciprocal play, says Pete Baumann, who runs a Palm Springs company called Reciprocal Golf. For $350 a year, Baumann will act as a matchmaker between you and those courses. "We do the same thing a member's head pro does," Baumann explains. "We call the course you want to play and set it all up for you. The difference is that we're there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so the pros don't spend all day on phone tag while you wonder whether you'll be able to play."

Steven Polevoy, a retired bed-frame manufacturer from New Jersey, has used Reciprocal Golf several times during the past year. He hoped to play Seminole Golf Club--ranked 14th on Golf Digest's list of America's 100 Greatest Courses--but Reciprocal Golf couldn't arrange it. Still, it recently got him on the Mayacoo Lakes Country Club in West Palm Beach and the TPC at Eagle Trace in Coral Springs, Fla. "It wouldn't have dawned on me that I could play these courses," Polevoy says.

Even if the club you want to visit has no formal arrangement with your club, the pro at your place often will have connections. Working these relationships is how Moreno ended up at Oakland Hills. Don't count out your club's general manager or its superintendent, either. Yes, the superintendent. Just like teaching pros, supers belong to a small and tightknit community; they'll often do just about anything to help each other out, including doing favors for members.

Most agree that the more status your home club has, the better chance you'll have of getting on the most exclusive courses. Another plus: having a pro who's known and well-regarded within the industry. "If your pro is high up in your [PGA of America] section or even if he's known as a really good player, that can have some halo effect for you," says Mike Hughes, executive director of the National Golf Course Owners Association.

The thing is, it's worth asking--no matter what club you belong to. "It's like anything else: Your success rate depends on the quality level of the course [you're trying to play] and its exclusivity," says Steve Neuliep, superintendent at the Country Club of Asheville, N.C. He helps members get onto other private courses several times a year. "At the very elite level, like Cypress Point, it may not work so easily. But when you go beyond the top 10 courses in the U.S., I would say you'll have close to a 75 percent success rate at getting on as a guest."

He's right about the top 10 courses. When we asked a local pro to make a few calls for us, clubs such as Cypress Point and Pine Valley turned us down. We had to lower our sights a bit--the Denver Country Club, for example--to find success.