Defining the Private Course in Golf

What is a private course, or private golf course? If you said, "it's the opposite of a public course," you are right. Private golf courses are those golf courses that are (mostly) inaccessible to the general public and are played (mostly) only by those who have paid money for membership and access privileges.

Golf took hold first in Scotland when golfers began playing on public spaces near the seashore called "linksland." Private clubs eventually sprang up for golfers to join in Scotland and England, but virtually all of the golf courses remained public spaces for much of the early history of golf there.

In the United States, it was a different story. Private golf clubs, open only to members, also sprang up in the early history of golf in America. But here, those clubs built their own golf courses, and the courses themselves were private. So many of the earlier golf courses in the U.S. were not available for play to the general public.

Roughly speaking, that dynamic still holds. In Britain, private golf clubs play mostly at golf courses that are, at least partially, open to the public (what in the U.S. would be termed "semi-private" courses). In the United States, if a golf course is termed private, it is closed to the general public, with a few exceptions.

"Country clubs" is another term applied to private golf clubs and courses in America. Golfers pay an initiation fee to join and, in some cases, an additional monthly fee for golf privileges. Non-members are typically allowed to play the golf course only if they are there as guests of a member (or on some special occasion such as a charity golf tournament open to the public).

How much does it cost to join a private golf course? That varies wildly. It can be relatively inexpensive, but it can also be exorbitant. That most exclusive private golf courses in America can cost upwards of $100,000 to join. Some ultra-luxurious clubs don't even charge up-front fees: Instead, they tally up expenses at the end of year, divide by the number of members, and send out the bills.

Many of the most famous golf courses in America, including most of those used for U.S.-based major championships, are private courses. All of the founding clubs of the USGA were private courses.

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