Where is the golf course of the workers?

Aug. 26, 1963
Aug. 26, 1963

Table of Contents
Aug. 26, 1963

Jim Clark

Where is the golf course of the workers?

All over the place, now that smart executives have discovered that good fun can be good business

By Gwilym S. Brown

Du Pont de Nemours, on a grand and glorious scale, does it. Strait-laced IBM, at least in the East, does it. Springs Cotton Mills does not care to discuss it, but does it. Bethlehem Steel almost pretends it does not, but does it. Texaco, with a minimum of frills, does it. And Firestone Tire & Rubber is so proud of having done it that it shows it on network television twice a year.

This is an article from the Aug. 26, 1963 issue Original Layout

These companies—and 100 other large and small industrial firms like them—have contributed something of great value to this country's recreational revolution: they all support country clubs for their employees. By charging insignificant dues, these corporate golf courses have proved to be an antidote to the poisonous squeeze caused by the prodigious waits encountered at public courses and the staggering costs at private ones.

A tidy, efficient and certainly one of the most patrician of the corporate do-gooders is Firestone, proprietor of the Firestone Country Club in Akron. Tough enough to thwart the field in the 1960 PGA Championship—none of the players could shoot par for 72 holes—Firestone's course annually hosts both the $50,000 American Golf Classic, being played this week, and the $75,000 World Series of Golf, which will be played next month. Televiewers, noting the fine fairways, the large and magnificently trapped greens, the profusion of maple, oak and elm trees, the Robert Trent Jones design and the $350,000 clubhouse, might easily judge Firestone to be a plush playground for the very rich.

A look at the parking lot on a typical summer afternoon, however, puts everything into proper focus. It is filled not with Cadillacs or Thunderbirds, but with Chevies, Fords and Plymouths, almost all of which bear the sure signs of long and faithful service. Most of the members change into their golf shoes in the car and go straight to the first tee, pulling their clubs behind them on portable golf carts. The men's locker room in the clubhouse contains 400 six-foot-high lockers, but the fee is $15 a year, so only half of them are rented.

The golf course, however, is used and used. Some 70,000 rounds of golf were played on it last year. And no wonder. There is no initiation fee, and a family membership costs a modest $144 per year. Since any Firestone employee working in Akron (there are 10,000) is eligible to join, the club has a problem holding to its limit of 600 members, and those it does get are avid about taking advantage of this remarkable facility.

"When vacation comes up," says one member, "my wife and I just stay right here in Akron. We come out every day to play our course. For a golfer, that's a pretty good holiday."

Such zeal would bring joy to the late Harvey Firestone, who founded the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company in 1900. His answer to the depression in 1929 was to build one public golf course and make it available to Akron and soon after to open another for his company.

"It is healthful, invigorating exercise, and everyone should play it," he explained, when asked why he was carving up South Akron for golf at a time when a lot of the country could not afford one lost ball. He had the membership fee at his Firestone course set at $35 a year per family, and went about proving his contention that golf was not just "a rich man's game." He was one of the first to feel this way, and how right he was.

"My father thought various types of recreation should be made available to the company's employees," says Harvey's son, Raymond Firestone, an ardent horseman and onetime golfer who gets to his desk frequently enough to serve as the company's president. His attitude expresses a basic business position: what is good for a company's employees is good for the company.

In following this contention, Firestone runs a sort of sports supermarket across the street from its main plant in Akron. This contains a full-sized gymnasium, an eight-lane bowling alley, swimming pool, barber shop, dining room and cafeteria. The company also provides a pistol and rifle range, a skeet and trap shooting range and an 8,000-seat baseball and Softball stadium.

But the country club, located on a hilltop within sight of Firestone's main plant, is the shiniest apple in this recreational orchard. Of its 600 members, about 125 are "clock-work" employees from the company's six Akron plants. The rest are white-collar workers, ranking from clerks to President Firestone. But when the pressure for memberships became heavy, it was the executives who moved out to ease the crush. Most of them joined Akron's Portage Country Club (initiation fee $3,150, monthly dues $48) or Fairlawn ($2,160 and $43). Neither of these clubs has a golf course to match Firestone's.

Just like landlord and tenant

The relationship between parent company and country club is similar to that of landlord and tenant, except in this case the landlord takes a loss. Firestone pays all taxes, insurance, renovation costs and expansion expenses. The club itself is responsible for the day-to-day costs of service and maintenance. Because membership dues are low, and because the members spend very little money in the bar or dining room—usually a country club's chief source of income—the club runs pretty deeply in the red. To cut into this deficit, its manager, Hugh Laughlin, books group luncheons, dinners, dances and golf outings that bring in up to 5,000 people a month, many of them Firestone employees who are not club members. There are, accordingly, an astounding number of rounds of golf played each year, a fact which sometimes proves a source of vexation to members who are forced off the course on such days. It is not vexatious to the Firestone company, however, because it helps to underwrite the club's deficit.

"The club does the best it can to break even," says Bill Marshall, head of Firestone's employee services division.

Has the club ever made it?

"I would rather not divulge that," says Marshall.

Because some of your stuffier stockholders might object to the lavishing of such large sums on what they would claim is frivolity? he was asked.

"I would rather not divulge that either," he says.

Cash deficits aside, the company seems to get quite a bit for its sporting investment. "Only about 50 members could afford to join another club," reports the course's ex officio president George Jackson, who is employed in Firestone's tire distribution department. "I can name, just offhand, several cases where employees came to me when they were about to switch to another company, but stayed with Firestone when I told them they'd lose their membership at the club."

Firestone personnel's Sam Filer is in a position to see another of the club's major advantages. He visits some 20 to 25 colleges each year, trying to recruit for Firestone always hard-to-hire technical personnel. "Most potential employees will ask about the club," he says, "but if they don't I make it a point to tell them."

Not surprisingly, the Firestone Country Club, through the major golf tournaments it hosts, has benefited the entire community of Akron, a manufacturing city that could hardly be called a garden spot.

"I'll tell you one thing," says husky George Brittain, the Akron Chamber of Commerce's very emphatic vice-president. "In trying to bring new industry and new people into this city, we work hard on selling our plusses. The Golf Classic and the World Series of Golf are two very important ones. Having a golf course as good as Firestone's has made those two events possible."

If Firestone is vocally proud of its country club success, other firms are far more reticent, presumably because they have not made their courses pay off with such obvious dividends.

"Our courses are only in the East," says a spokesman for IBM, which owns country clubs in Long Island, Poughkeepsie and Johnson City, N.Y. and Toronto. "I'm sure our West Coast employees don't want to hear about the eastern clubs."

Bethlehem Steel is even more modest about its company course, offering a brisk "no comment." Nor does Springs Cotton Mills care to publicize its four courses in South Carolina, the cotton business being what it is these days.

Chemicals are bullish, however, so Du Pont—which probably operates the most lavish country club setup of all—discusses its facilities with pride. The Du Pont Country Club is in Rockland, Del., some four miles from company head-quarters in Wilmington. It offers two 18-hole courses, one nine-hole course, 16 quick-drying tennis courts, six alleys for lawn bowling, indoor and outdoor shuffleboard courts and a $2,720,000, pale-rose, Georgian clubhouse. This impressive structure contains, among other things, three restaurants, a ballroom big enough to handle 900 waltzing Du Pont employees and locker rooms designed to accommodate 2,176 men and 544 women. Du Pont's investment in this club and another smaller one in nearby Newark, Del. is $4,250,000. The clubs' annual budget is in excess of $1,000,000.

If these figures are staggering, so is the size of the membership. The total is just under 10,000, of whom 4,500 are signed up for the full, all-privileges membership. The cost to each member for being able to revel in this sporting paradise is $10.40 a month for men, $6.50 for women and $2.60 for children.

"We like to keep Rockland lighted up like Madison Square Garden," says club president Bob Weaver, an office manager in Du Pont's textile fibers department. "With a lot of dances and dinners we can come close to breaking even. Last year we cleared $1,400."

"The fact that the club has such a large membership," says a Du Pont company official, "indicates clearly that it fills a need that is not met by municipal or county facilities."

Not many of the corporate clubs can fill the need on such a large and luxurious scale. As maintenance costs have risen, several such courses, like the Texaco Country Club in Houston, have gone on a semipublic basis, in which non-members can play the course simply by paying a modest greens fee.

Still, from the Olin Mathieson Chemical Corporation, with its 4-hole Pisgah Forest, N.C., course, to the Surprenant Manufacturing Company in Bolton, Mass., which operates an 8,000-yard monster, the companies with golf courses are keeping them, and others are building them fast. Things have come a long way from 1919, when Social Crusader Sarah Cleghorn wrote:

The golf links lie so near the mill
That almost every day
The laboring children can look out
And see the men at play.

Now the children are on the golf course, and so are their parents and so is the owner of the mill.

PHOTOCART-PULLING WORKERS head for superb fairways at Firestone's corporate golf course.