I have a recurring nightmare: Pulling up to the gate at Pine Valley and the guard who rations entry into that Perfect enclave looks up from his clipboard and says, “Sorry Mr. Sabino, no mas.”
Which is why I thought about writing this article under a pseudonym to avoid being blacklisted at any more clubs. To the best of my knowledge, I’ve been banned from only two, and I would like to keep my options open for future invitations. The reason for these prohibitions? My giving away the secrets to playing at virtually any golf club in the world.
The most storied courses prefer to maintain their exclusivity rather than greet all duffers with open arms. But my suggestions will open doors even at the “SPAM” courses—Seminole, Pine Valley, Augusta National, and Merion—which explains why some in the corridors of power view me with the same enthusiasm they have for unsolicited email.
As a member of the small fraternity of golfers who have played all the top-100 ranked courses in the world, I have mastered the art of the impossible. Can’t play certain courses, you say? Not if you’re persistent and know the best ways to gain entry. And don’t believe everything you hear: I was told, repeatedly, that playing Cypress Point as an unaccompanied guest was impossible, but I did, by being relentless.
To state the obvious, the simplest way to play any private golf course in the world is to be invited by a member. But that’s easier said than done, especially if you live in Sheboygan where your chances of bumping into a Shinnecock member are slim. Although I’ve accessed courses using more than a dozen techniques—including through greenkeepers, owners, and architects—I’ve honed my recommendations down to the five best methods. I make no promises that my means are cheap, simple, or don’t require sustained effort; after all, this is golf.
Ultimately, the key is persistence, although a little luck doesn’t hurt. I just hope mine holds out and I’m not banished from any additional clubs.
#1: Become a course rater for a magazine
The golf world, like society in general, has gone mad for lists, and there is cachet to a course being highly ranked. Clubs that used to shun raters have eased up, so if you have the mettle to travel and do the work, being a rater is a credible way to play coveted courses, including some very desirable tracks which I would rather not name because they might outlaw me. Each golf magazine has its own criteria for selecting raters: factors considered are your handicap, the breadth of courses you have played, and your inclination to travel.
#2: Donate to a charity
Even the most august clubs, such as Shinnecock, Winged Foot, Fishers Island, and the Olympic Club, host charity outings, which permit the unwashed masses to play. You might have to hide the cost from your spouse, but you really wanted to play, didn’t you? And it’s all for a good cause.
#3: Leverage your club professional
Many pros have good connections and can secure you tee times on very desirable courses. This approach worked for me on both a top-25 ranked course and a very private U.S. Open venue.
#4: Join a specialized club
The Outpost Club and the Eden Club are societies for enthusiasts who want to play the great courses. Recent private events for their members have included rounds at Riviera, Oakmont, and Merion. You pay membership fees in the five-digit range and dues at a level commensurate with a private club, but then again, how much is playing your bucket list worth?
The techniques above probably won’t work at Augusta National, which is a private paradise unto itself, and even the tried-and-true method of asking a member will often yield a “no.” I know, because I tried on more than one occasion and was snubbed each time. I also tried to volunteer at the Masters without success, that rebuff coming in writing, which was just as stinging. What I’ve learned subsequently is to combine the two approaches: If you somehow connect with a member, let him know you’d love to volunteer. Volunteer recommendations from members get you to the front of the queue. I have two friends who were successful doing so and I hate them both since once you volunteer you return every year, thus they get to play every May.
If you could use these tips to get on any course in the world, which would it be? Let us know in the comments below!