Sean Merion

Private Golf Clubs: How to Play the World’s Best Golf Courses

It may have been after the third photo of Merion, or perhaps after one of my photos of the elusive San Francisco Golf Club, that I realized I was getting the exact same question over and over on Instagram and via email.

I bet you can guess what that question is, and perhaps if you read this site regularly, you’ve wondered it yourself:

How can you play so many private golf clubs?

Before I started this blog, I remember looking at some of the other early golf bloggers out there and wondering the exact same thing.

The 4th green at Merion East.

The 4th green at Merion East.

Over the last couple of years I’ve been extremely fortunate to have played some incredible golf, so I finally wanted to write the post where I reveal as much as I can about how I’m able to play so many private and highly rated golf courses.

My hope is that by the end of this post, you realize that while playing many of these golf courses can be difficult, it’s not impossible – and I’d be willing to bet if you worked on employing just one of the strategies I mention, you’ll be able to play at least a couple of your “dream rounds” of golf.

My Life Before the Private Golf Club Quest

The initial assumption most people have is that in order to play these amazing private golf courses you have to have serious connections in the golf world, have a bunch of money, or most likely: have both.

The reality is, for the most part this isn’t true at all.

You see, I didn’t grow up with a country club membership, tons of money, or any connections in the golf world.

Frankly aside from a handful of members at Eugene Country Club in my hometown, I didn’t know anyone who had a golf membership.

What’s ironic, is that I still haven’t played ECC. But I digress…

When I graduated college with my finance degree I had a moderate amount of student loans and $1700 in my bank account.

After a few years as an analyst I ended up quitting my job, moving to Thailand, and learning the ins and outs of online marketing.

I’ve worked for myself ever since.

Specifically, I built a course and community called Location Rebel teaching people how to quit their jobs and build businesses that allow them to travel.

My "office" at the Shangri-La Maldives. Home of the only golf course in the entire country.

My “office” at the Shangri-La Maldives. Home of the only golf course in the entire country.

This business hasn’t made me a millionaire by any means, but I do well for myself, and it has left me at the point where I’m able to book a plane ticket or plan a trip without having to stress too much about the costs.

I live in Portland, Oregon – but I travel about 3-4 months out of the year. In a way, all of the travel I do (golf or otherwise) is marketing for that business. It proves you really can work from anywhere.

So that answers one part of the question. Because of the work I do, I have a very flexible schedule, which allows me to play over 100 rounds a year, and take off on a moment’s notice to play a round of golf if I get extended an invitation.

The Beginning of Breaking Eighty

Breaking Eighty really began after my business had been successful for a couple years, and I wanted to apply the marketing skills I’d learned to something I was really passionate about. In this case it was golf and travel.

I played my first Top 100 Public Course, the Nicklaus Course at Pronghorn for 50 bucks on a Golf Now tee time in the off season.

The 8th hole on the Fazio Golf Course at Pronghorn outside of Bend, Oregon

A few months after playing the Nicklaus course, I got invited back to play the private Fazio Course.

I fell in love.

I like playing any new golf course, regardless of whether it’s the crappy muni down the street, or a world class, championship track.

But this round at Pronghorn was the right combination of fun, scenery, and strategy that made me fall in love with playing a really well designed golf course.

That led to me thinking, “hey I travel a lot, so why not try and play the Top 100 Public Courses in America?”

That lasted about 3 months.

Then I realized, what I really wanted to do was play the Top 100 Courses in America.

Club at Black Rock Hole 18

The first non-public Top 100 course I played: The Golf Club at Black Rock.

6 months after that I realized, well if I’m going that far, I might as well play the Top 100 in the World.

That’s a lot of lists. Especially when you consider both Golf Magazine and Golf Digest each have lists of their own.

So where does that leave me now?

Now I’m simply trying to play as many good golf courses as I can, from any of those 6 lists. Once I make significant progress on one more than the others, then I’ll get more serious about completing it.

As it stands right now I’ve played:

  • Golf Magazine Public: 32/100
  • Golf Magazine America: 33/100
  • Golf Magazine World: 24/100
  • Golf Digest Public: 36/100
  • Golf Digest America: 26/100
  • Golf Digest World: 21/100

How to Play Private Golf Clubs (Including Top 100 Courses)

Ok, so that covers why I’m traveling, and how I have the time to travel.

But we haven’t answered the most important question, and the topic of this post: How am I able to play at all of the courses that I play at.

In this section of the post I’m going to share with you 9 specific strategies for how I’ve been able to access courses. There’s a lot of different ways you can do it, and I’m going to share what’s worked for me.

Again, this isn’t theory or lip service. This is exactly how I’ve been able to go from zero connections to playing some of the world’s best golf courses in just a couple of years.

Diamante Dunes is the #1 Cabo San Lucas golf course.

Anyone can leverage strategy #7 to play the #1 course in Mexico: The Dunes Course at Diamante (which is private)

1) Start a Blog (This is BY FAR the Most Important Step You Can Take)

When I started Breaking Eighty in 2013, I had zero connections in the golf world.

Literally, none.

As I mentioned before, I didn’t grow up with a silver spoon, I didn’t play high school golf, and hardly knew anyone who had a club membership.

So I knew if I was going to be able to complete my goal of playing these courses, I’d have to do something.

Starting Breaking Eighty was essential to this.

Why?

Well, for a variety of reasons. At risk of making this article a bit confusing, I’m going to break down a few of the reasons why starting a blog has been so valuable.

But like I said, this was the most important step, so I think it makes sense.

1)  It gave people a way to find me. 

Going out and trying to find members at all of these places would be next to impossible. Let alone trying to go beyond a simple hello, to actually get them to have me out at their club.

By writing on a consistent basis, it showed people that I’m serious about my quest, and serious about my love of travel.

The only reason I was able to play Maidstone was because an invitation from a blog reader.

The only reason I was able to play Maidstone was because an invitation from a blog reader.

2) It helped people get to know me

What are the odds you’re going to make an offer to a complete stranger to come out to your club and play with you?

Probably very slim.

You have no idea if they will act respectfully and play with proper etiquette. You have no idea if they’ll actually pay you back for the round. And, frankly, you don’t know if they will be someone you enjoy being around for half a day or more.

By starting this blog and posting dozens of posts and videos, readers are able to get a sense of my personality. Pretty quickly, you can get a sense of “oh I like this guy” or “nope, we wouldn’t get along”.

Hopefully if you read this site, you’re able to get a sense of who I am as a person, and that makes people more willing to extend an invitation to help out on my quest.

3) It gave me something to offer the clubs

I’ve spent hundreds of hours writing posts and editing photos. Taking high quality photos of the courses I play, has not only made my site more interesting to read than sites that don’t do that, but it helps me show an appreciation for the courses and the architecture.

It also has provided me a way to reach out to the courses directly, which at times can help me with access or rates.

More on that later.

I've received a couple of invites, just because people stumbled upon (and liked) my photos from Hudson National.

I’ve received a couple of invites, just because people stumbled upon (and liked) my photos from Hudson National.

4) It helped me build my reputation in the golf world

Not only have I met members at clubs through the blog, it’s also helped me to meet other golf bloggers and industry professionals.

The one and only @pjkoenig and I looking clueless at Merion.

The one and only @pjkoenig and I looking clueless at Merion.

On a fairly regular basis, I’ll be paired up with someone at a course or I’ll be at the PGA Show, and meet someone new who already knows who I am.

Do you have any idea how much easier it is to build relationships or friendships when you already have a little bit of street cred?

Much, much, easier.

Figure out What You Can Provide

So with this site, I tried to take a unique angle: product and course reviews from an average golfer, who places a premium on fun more than anything else, and takes high quality photos.

If you’re serious about playing more courses and at more exclusive places, the very best thing you can do is start a golf blog, and take it seriously.

It doesn’t even have to be about courses or photography. What do you enjoy most about golf? Figure out what that is and write about it consistently and thoughtfully, and as you get to know more golfers because of it, you’ll see a lot of doors begin to open up.

Many private golf courses are very friendly towards people in the industry. Short of becoming a PGA pro, this is one the easiest ways to break into the world of golf.

2) Start Instagramming

Next to the blog, Instagram has been the most valuable way for me to meet people in the golf world.

Because of my love for the photography aspect of golfing, Instagram has been the perfect medium to share my photos.

Check out my Instagram Feed.

There’s a huge golf community on Instagram, and if you post consistently, growing a following will help lead to more connections – and once again, reputation and connections are what’s most important when it comes to playing cool golf courses.

  • It’s all about the editing. I usually edit in Photoshop or Lightroom, and then do final edits within Instagram itself. Even the most mediocre photos can be made to look great through proper editing.
  • Use hashtags. Don’t put them in your description, but rather after you post the photo put them in a comment, so that they get buried. The best one to use is Golf Digest’s #whyilovethisgame. They repost user photos on a regular basis, and if you have a golf centric Instagram account, one re-gram from them can lead to hundreds of new followers.
  • Be consistent. Try and post at least once a day.
  • Ask questions. By asking a question in your description, you’re able to generate more comments and discussion
  • Have a call to action. Give people something to do: tag a friend, leave a comment, click the link. Keep them engaged beyond just a “like”.
  • Be responsive. When people comment on your posts, respond back! This is a tool to connect, not just promote.

You can leverage similar strategies on Twitter as well. Follow relevant golf hashtags, and then chime in whenever you see a question asked or a conversation topic brought up that interests you.

This is me teeing off in front of the clubhouse on the East Course at Merion. Luckily, I striped it.

This is me teeing off in front of the clubhouse on the East Course at Merion. Luckily, I striped it.

The Rest of My Private Golf Club Strategies

I have a lot more to share about how I’ve been able to play some of the top private golf clubs in the world. But I don’t want to share everything publicly on this blog. After all, I’m still trying to work my way through the top 100 list, and don’t want to make any enemies.

But there are seven other major things I’ve done that have given me access to some pretty sweet places.

Just drop your email in the box below, and I’ll send over all the rest of my tips and secrets immediately.




There are 2 comments

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  1. Nate Carr

    Great read. I’ve been on Instagram for a couple of years now and meet some great people in the process. I am considering dipping my toes into the golf blog pool as well. Need to get a little introspective and figure out what my voice/purpose is.
    Keep up the good work.

  2. Achal Ghai

    Very Good. ! you Played Too many Golfs in too many Countries. I am avid Golfer and won over 20 tournaments including the BMW International event. I Like to play and I am closely associated with Emirates Golf Club. I Suggests you to go there If you want to Play Luxury Golf in Emirates Golf Club, Dubai.


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