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030810 golf
His first day out on the green this season, Alan Tronson, left, spends a sunny Sunday afternoon at the Ranch Club driving range. “The sun comes out, and so do the clubs,” says Tronson. Photo by LINDA THOMPSON/Missoulian

John and Colleen Powers bought the Ranch Club, the semi-private golf community west of Missoula on Mullan Road, in 2007, with their finger on the trigger of multimillion-dollar expansion plans.

The next year, the American economy went into a meltdown.

"These were the cards we were dealt," said John Powers, sipping a water in the clubhouse restaurant last week.

But instead of folding, Powers doubled down.

Bullying his way through the recession, Powers built four swimming pools, a special-event barn, a state-of-the-art fitness facility, an outdoor barbecue and other expensive improvements, including an expanded restaurant.

And all this, at a time when golf-club memberships are suffering acutely. In California, for example, membership at private golf communities and clubs are down by as much as 40 percent from their peak, according to the National Golf Foundation.

In 2008, the foundation reported, a full 15 percent of the nation's 4,400 private golf clubs were in financial peril. Nearly 100 have closed, and for those still standing, membership is down 30 percent since the recession started. Memberships that once cost $75,000 have lost 80 percent of their value.

Montana isn't recession-proof, but it is recession-resistant. While there has been some distress at Montana golf clubs, it is not nearly to the extent felt nationally.

Think of this way: We've merely driven it into the rough, setting up a challenging second shot.


At the Missoula Country Club, membership has dropped over the last few years, but the club has battled back by first lowering its $5,000 initiation fee to $1,500 last year, and waiving it altogether this year for members who sign up by March 31 and commit to staying for two years.

"My experience is that you advertise in the good times and the bad times," said general manager Ron Svien.

The waiver for the initiation fee at the Missoula Country Club is only for a limited time because the MCC is an "equity" club - one in which memberships can be sold and are subject to the pressures of supply and demand. During the fee-waiver period, then, the existing memberships are essentially worth zero.

The strategy is working. In the last three weeks, the MCC has attracted 16 new members, with three weeks to go. There are 405 current members, which Svien expects to balloon to a seasonal peak of 435, give or take a few duffers.

The Ranch Club, on the other hand, is a non-equity club. The usual initiation fee is $5,000, which is returned in full if a member quits after fulfilling his or her obligation.

But like the MCC, the Ranch Club has waived its membership fee for the current season.

With the waiver, members commit to paying $275 a month for one year.

Powers said he and his wife Colleen are so new to the business that it's difficult to gauge how much effect, if any, the recession has had.

And that's a big reason why they moved forward with the club's improvements, even as the economic ticker kept spitting out bad news.

"We probably just didn't know any better," he said. "So we continued to build. We never stopped building."


At the Meadowlark Country Club in Great Falls, membership was also dipping last year before the club discarded its initiation fee for three months.

Club manager Bob Peske said it worked.

"It was very successful," he said, saying the strategy attracted 44 new members.

Peske said Meadowlark tries to keep its membership right around 400. The recession has been a mild challenge, but in Great Falls, there are other forces at play.

"It used to be that this club was the only game in town" before others opened up in the area.

Still, the competition has been healthy - to a T.

"It's kind of like the grocery store mentality around here," he said. "The more grocery stores you've got, the more shoppers there are."

Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at


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