A trio of golfing enthusiasts — all idea guys with considerable pedigree in the game — banded together a decade ago on a project they just knew would be an obvious success
A trio of golfing enthusiasts — all idea guys with considerable pedigree in the game — banded together a decade ago on a project they just knew would be an obvious success.
“We wanted to build a course in the Nebraska prairie five hours by car from Denver,” said Colin Sheehan, who has been the Yale University men’s golf coach since 2008 after a successful stint as editor of The Golfer magazine. “It had the most incredible land, with elevation, undulation, all wrapped around a lake. We wanted to have 1,000 members at $6,000 each. We were going to attract golfers in their 20s and 30s and have family-style meals and dormitory-style lodging, with a minimum spend of $1,200 a year in dues. I thought it was a great get, and we put together a 25-page proposal. It was the spring of 2009 when we were doing this and people were saying to me: ‘Are you out of your mind?’”
Sheehan had reached out about the Nebraska idea to Quentin Lutz, the former president of Arthur Hills / Steve Forrest and Associates [now known as Hills, Forrest, Smith Golf Course Architects], whom he had met a few years back on a media trip to Primland Resort in Meadows of Dan, Va., along with former Yale buddy Will Smith, who at the time was working on shaping The Prairie Club for Tom Lehman. Lutz had left Arthur Hills at the time and started a venture-capital firm, so he was all ears.
“I said, ‘Sure, let’s figure out a time to all get out there,”’ Lutz said. “It was a big piece of property, basically a ‘Field of Dreams’ golf story. We all fell in love with the land and came up with a plan to raise some capital to build the thing. It ended up being the worst possible time.”
In case anyone’s memory is short, a major recession was hitting the United States, and the luxury sport of golf was in the proverbial crosshairs. Golfers across the country were fleeing private-club memberships by the thousands and few, if any in the business were entertaining thoughts of building new courses.
“I remember we sort of left New York with our tail between our legs,” said Lutz of the initial fundraising efforts.
From left, Colin Sheehan, Quentin Lutz and Will Smith originally planned to build a course in Nebraska, but that changed due to the Great Recession. [Photo: The Outpost Club]
The trio soon regrouped in the South Carolina Lowcountry at Chechessee Creek Club, pivoted 180 degrees, and came up with a concept for a British-like golfing society here in the United States. It was to be called The Outpost Club, or as they passionately call it, The OC.
And what Lutz described as a golf market at its worst since World War II suddenly became an ally to the three dreamers.
“We were doing something across the grain, so our timing was actually pretty good,” Smith said.
“We definitely were opportunistic with the golfing climate being what it was in 2009 and 2010 when we started,” Sheehan added. “Golf needed a reckoning. [Former USGA executive director] David Fay was one of our biggest champions, saying American golf needed to be more British. We felt that way, too. We felt there was nothing wrong with another company or group playing with inventory that was rotting on the vine otherwise.”
So with the golfing-society concept in place and the trio having its share of contacts across the country, they set out on sort of a two-year recruiting process for members and architecturally significant layouts to tee it up.
“We had a number of relationships that provided an entrée into clubs such as Oakmont and others that gave us an audience in front of member boards,” Lutz said.
However, even though the golfing environment was ripe for the golfing-society concept, there was pushback from some private clubs that were ultra protective of their membership, playing privileges, and were unfamiliar with how the new idea could possibly benefit them.
Saucon Valley Country Club in Bethlehem, Pa., for one, required six meetings in front of the membership board before approval for an OC event was granted, Lutz recalled.
“We spent a lot of time explaining our product, explaining how we were going to invite our members and how they were going to be vetted, but they were still very concerned,” Lutz said of the Saucon Valley board. “The biggest fear that any club has is really not knowing who is on their golf course. That was our big hurdle in the beginning, but we all had pretty good names in the golf industry, and the golf industry is pretty small.”
“It got caddies work, we spent money in the pro shop, on food and beverage, leaving tips with the locker-room guy,” Sheehan added. “In America, we’ve always had an issue with ‘Who is it?’ Too many clubs are uptight about having people come out and play. British clubs aren’t. We were able to mediate that aspect of the process by sort of vouching for our members as sophisticated golfers, people that don’t have to be told to take their hat off in the clubhouse or don’t balk at taking a caddie. They all understand the code — they all understand how to behave at a private club because they are members. Clubs were smart. We started having our events everywhere, and we spent a fortunate at these places. It became a beautiful market for everybody involved.”
Golfing societies, akin to a traveling road show for golf nuts, were prevalent in the United States in the early 1900s and paved the way for the modern private-club concept.
That private-club model in the United States worked relatively well for close to a century, until the recession hit and hefty initiation fees and high monthly dues began to shrink significantly.
“We saw all this sort of inventory, this contraction of golf, and all that supply and we were like, there needs to be a way for a British model of unaccompanied play to take off in America,” Sheehan said. “All we’ve ever done with The OC is apply aspects of British golf culture. There are hundreds of golfing societies in the U.K. and Ireland; America should have 1,000. These societies come together for events and there is a camaraderie there, and that’s what we wanted. I don’t even know how to explain it. Some people say, ‘So, you’re like a country club without a home. I thought you were smarter than that.’ That’s not how to describe it. It’s a golf society. Every club in the U.K. and Ireland has a captain. How many clubs in America have a captain? You can probably count them on one hand. Our OC members have a ton of respect for the history and tradition of the game.”
It costs $12,000 to join The Outpost Club, with an annual fee of $1,300 per year thereafter to play some of the world’s best golf layouts.
Despite never advertising, the invitation-only OC, has less than a 2-percent attrition rate per year, and its membership cap of 800 is always close to being full.
“We can’t get any of them to quit,” Sheehan said jokingly about the membership, of which 99.5 percent is composed of golfers who already belong to at least one private club. “It is because the common denominator is they all love the game. It is a really cool thing we do, and it really struck a nerve with people who appreciate golf-course architecture. They love to travel, and they understand that variety is the spice of life, that there are 800 courses on this planet that you must play in your lifetime, and if you are lucky enough to get close enough to play them all, then start over and play them again. To play great golf courses all over the world is a never-ending joy. We encourage people to treat themselves to special-occasion golf. I consider that a worthwhile endeavor.”
The OC started with a modest eight events in its early years, but now stages more than 70 tournaments for its members all over the world.
Jerome Malinay has been a member since day one. The 57-year-old works in commercial real estate and splits his living quarters between Virginia and South Carolina. He attends about 15-20 OC tournaments a year.
“When Will first floated the idea to me, I thought it was interesting, but I didn’t know whether he could get enough people to keep it ongoing. That’s always the question with any startup business — can you get enough customers to keep it afloat? But it has been a tremendous success,” said Malinay, who has played 84 of the world’s top 100 courses, as ranked by Golf Magazine, thanks to The OC, logging rounds on every continent that has a golf course.
“What’s great about The Outpost Club is it fosters the history and the traditions of the game and is patterned after the old golf societies in the U.K. that are 200 years old,” he said. “I always found it interesting with the amount of time I spent in the U.K. that the golf clubs there seem a bit more open and inviting and wanting to share their customs and traditions with everyone. In the United States, we seem to be a little bit more closed where private golf clubs are concerned. Hopefully with The Outpost Club it has caught on to make people realize that it’s a great thing to share something wonderful that you have.”
Co-founder Will Smith says his favorite OC experience came while playing Cruit Island Golf Club in northwest Ireland. [Photo: Cruit Island Golf Club]
Smith estimates he has traveled close to 1 million miles staging OC events, while Sheehan has played golf in Australia, South Africa and Japan multiple times. However, it’s not the most exclusive or pristine course that Sheehan covets as his “best ever” experience with The OC. It’s a remote nine-hole course in northwest Ireland by the name of Cruit Island Golf Club that the locals just call Crick.
“I remember it was kind of dicey to play this nine-hole course, and our driver had never been there or even heard of it, and it was kind of a risk,” Sheehan said. “It was so cold and windy. Just one guy was working there, and he opened up the place for us and he poured us beers. We gave him like 12 euros (less than $14 U.S. dollars) each, and we went out and played this nine-hole course that was just sensational. That right there is the spirit of adventure of The Outpost Club.”
“It has transitioned from golfers wanting access to play great private clubs to having a great events calendar and a bond that members form with the other guys that are in the society,” Lutz said. “These guys are now getting invited to each other’s member-guest or they are going on golf trips together. My wife calls it a fraternity for old guys.”
David Droschak was an award-winning writer with The Associated Press for 20 years. He was honored with the Sports Writer of the Year award in North Carolina in 2003. He lives in Apex, N.C.