A New Era for Marin’s Private Clubs

Marin Country Club’s ninth hole and clubhouse, courtesy of Aiden Bradley

MARIN HAS MANY activity clubs. Golf clubs, yacht clubs and myriad others that encompass almost every type of physical exertion, even uncommon outliers like paddle tennis at the Lagunitas Country Club, which severely restricts membership. All these clubs — from those that appear more like community hangouts to the seemingly exclusive — have been forced to evolve to fit into a changing, burgeoning scene. The halcyon days of private, men’s only, golf only clubs are over.

According to polls conducted by the National Club Association, a Washington, D.C.–based group that advances the interests of private, social and recreational clubs, members are looking for family-centered opportunities. The numbers over the past 10 years reflect these preference shifts. More than 400,000 people left the game of golf in 2013, a figure that accounts for roughly a fifth of players in the country, and the industry is trimming down, with only 14 new golf courses (public and private) built that same year, while 158 closed. In the past, the course served as the cornerstone amenity at country clubs, but challenges of time, cost and difficulty of the game have eaten into its popularity as a primary attraction. Also, families are demanding activities that please diverse age groups.

Golf is still an important offering for many clubs, but it’s only one piece of the membership puzzle. With very few exceptions, modern-day private clubs determined to prosper have had to adapt to interests and expectations of a broader demographic who will, ultimately, decide if the establishment remains viable.

For decades after Marin Country Club opened in 1957, its image was clouded by a perception among nonmembers that it was a good-old-boys’ place reserved for an elite clientele. Originally, the club was conceived with the intent of creating a residential neighborhood surrounding a championship golf course, a plan that succeeded for similar organizations during the past half-century as grazing land was converted for recreational uses. But that part of the plan was never carried out. Meanwhile, outmoded aspects like handpicked exclusivity to secure a wealthy, staid, typically male membership fell by the wayside, opening the door to a more varied and family-friendly clientele. With amenities that include an 18-hole championship golf course, tennis courts, swimming pools, fitness area, kids’ camps, and eclectic cuisine, Marin Country Club (MCC) has developed into a notably inclusive place that couples and multigenerational families can enjoy in a sunny pocket of Ignacio Valley.

Thanks to ongoing facilities modernization (including a renovated golf course) and events like family barbecues, wine tastings, and cooking classes, spending time at the club feels more like a “staycation,” so no longer is boasting about one’s golf handicap the primary path to membership. That’s a welcome development for Novato resident Paul Moseley, who joined along with his wife, Sara, and two young children two years ago. “First and foremost, we joined for our kids, after visiting several times and seeing the whole scene with the pool and camps,” says Paul, who’s caught the golf bug but only has time to play a few rounds a year. “We used to turn our kids loose in our neighborhood, but the activities at the club and the opportunity it offers to be social and socialize with other kids, like when I was a kid in Alabama, were at the end of the day the biggest factor.”

Tennis at the Club at Harbor Point

Another place catering to the needs of families is the Club at Harbor Point. Built 50 years ago by brothers Ray and Marty Kaliski, Harbor Point developed a reputation for its party scene back in the ’60s and ’70s, with a jet-set crowd of pilots and stewardesses making their mark. Many of those people stayed on, and in the ’90s the club gained a different reputation.

“We became known as the place with a bunch of old people,” says Patrick Kaliski, who currently operates the club. So in 2011, he set out to revitalize the business. Kaliski knew that in order to broaden its populace the facility would need to update in a number of ways. Internally, club management software was purchased and marketing was adjusted and geared to a younger crowd. A two-story fitness center was built and filled with brand-new workout equipment, and personal trainers and tennis pros were hired. “For the first time ever we also began offering group fitness classes like Gyrotonic and yoga,” Kaliski adds. Towel service and free electric-car-charging stations were also added to entice new members. The club’s name and logo have undergone several different iterations over the years as well.

If golf clubs are considered stuffy, yacht clubs up that ante by a few notches. Marin Yacht Club, however, known as “the friendliest harbor on the bay,” has been in business since 1937, and its accepting policies may explain the longevity. “About eight years ago we changed our membership from single to spousal, where partners can have equal standing in the club,” says Staff Commodore Kathleen Barr.

Admittedly, with its tennis courts, bocce ball, pool, kayaks, and stand-up paddleboards, the club is hardly just a “yacht” club. The facilities, along with an extremely pet- and kid-friendly environment, were selling points for Mike Okoniewski and his wife, Sarah, two years ago when they were looking for a club. “It was close by, and everyone was so accommodating and nice,” he says. “With our three-year-old twin boys running around, it can be off-putting to some. But here we had built-in parents and grandparents.” Since he works from home in Fairfax, he also likes the convenience: “I can go down at lunch for a quick paddle.”

Change is even afoot at Marin County’s only other private golf enclave, the Meadow Club, which has both a waiting list and an exclusive Alister MacKenzie course dating back to 1927. “We’re happy to be a healthy club that is evolving over time as we become more family-friendly than in the day when it was a men’s club,” says head golf professional Jim O’Neal. “We have a lot more junior clinics, host high school golf teams and even have a family campout on the driving range every year.”

Clubs like these have been able to reverse the downward membership trend by adapting to new realities with new kinds of clients. And by lowering their fences, they’re allowing more people to witness the transformations.

Kasia Pawlowska

Kasia Pawlowska loves words. A native of Poland, Kasia moved to the States when she was seven. The San Francisco State University creative writing graduate went on to write for publications like the San Francisco Bay Guardian and KQED Arts among others prior to joining the Marin Magazine staff. Topics Kasia has covered include travel, trends, mushroom hunting, an award-winning series on social media addiction and loads of other random things. When she’s not busy blogging or researching and writing articles, she’s either at home writing postcards and reading or going to shows. Recently, Kasia has been trying to branch out and diversify, ie: use different emojis. Her quest for the perfect chip is never-ending.