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Thornewood Castle Note: Chester Thorne, the original owner/builder of Thornewood Castle was also one of the original members/founders of the Tacoma Country & Golf Club, below, whose country club property originally adjoined the Thornewood estate. (The original estate was later subdivided, so now a few homes are between Thornewood Castle and the Country Club).

Also see article about the historic Thorne Cup, and more about Chester Thorne, including photo.

DEAN J. KOEPFLER/THE NEWS TRIBUNE
With the average age of its social members topping 75, Tacoma Country & Golf Club in Lakewood decided to build a pool to attract younger members and their families. The $1.4 million pool opened July 4 and has a commanding view of American Lake.

Adding Some Blue to the Greens

DAN VOELPEL; THE NEWS TRIBUNE
Published: July 20th, 2005

Fifteen homesick Scotsmen employed at Tacoma’s Balfour Guthrie Co., a trading company, needed something – anything – to rouse their passion for their new hometown.
So their 35-year-old boss, Alexander Baillie, concocted the perfect scheme.

Baillie had graduated from his country’s oldest college, University of St. Andrews, and immigrated to the United States from there – the birthplace of golf, St. Andrews, Scotland.

(The same coastal town, coincidentally, where Tiger Woods, on Sunday won his second British Open on the St. Andrews Old Course.)

What if, Baillie thought, I could raise my boys’ spirits by immersing them in the sport of our homeland? Darned if it didn’t work.

“I love the golf,” said Ed Zittel, fresh off the 18th green on the course Baillie built, “but it’s much more about the fellowship than anything else.”

Interesting, however, that Baillie’s brainstorm and Zittel’s reflection occurred 111 years apart.

In 1894, Baillie sculpted some prairie in what we know today as South Tacoma into the United States’ first golf course west of the Mississippi.

By 1905, Baillie’s club moved to American Lake in Lakewood and became known as the Tacoma Country & Golf Club – playground of Tacoma’s rich and famous. Timber barons, shipping and railroad magnates, financiers and other business moguls with names like Thorne, Rust, Kilworth, Hosmer, Perkins, Sprague, Seymour, Opie, Rhodes, Weyerhaeuser, Eisenhower, Clapp, DeLong, Baker, Titus, Will, Gonyea, Harbottle, Milgard, Cereghino.

This fall, club members plan to vote on an expansion of the clubhouse that would accommodate a large-scale fitness and exercise facility, another attraction for the younger set.

I’ll bet if club founder Alexander Baillie had a say, he’d vote yes. He knew you had to invest to attract a crowd.

In 1894, he sent away to Scotland for thirty sets of golf clubs handmade by Forgan, the famous club maker, and 25 dozen balls made from the dried gum of the Malaysian Sapadilla tree, according to the country club’s centennial history book.

When the shipment arrived at the Port of Tacoma, puzzled customs agents who had never seen such equipment scratched their heads.

“After examining one of the clubs, (a customs agent) remarked that they looked like farm tools, and so they were entered in the records as farm equipment, which lowered the duty on them considerably – a coup for the wily Scotsmen, who were now ready to pursue the royal and ancient game in this their adopted land.”

Zittel, meanwhile, a certified public accountant who will retire next month, marks his 25th anniversary this year as a club member.

But the secluded enclave that for decades has played on its exclusivity and prestige to draw members – like many old society clubs – not long ago found itself on a course toward potential extinction.

“We woke up one day (two years ago) and figured out the average age of our social members was 76,” said Josh Bridge, the country club’s 36-year-old general manager. “And it seemed like we were doing three or four wakes here a month. It was awful.”

During its heyday in the 1980s and early 1990s, the initiation fee to become one of the 360 resident certificate owners peaked at $25,000 – with a long waiting list. By last year, you could join for $10,750, and still the waiting list disappeared. The less-exclusive social memberships dwindled to about 190 – the smallest number anyone could remember.

“We used to think we were in that category of country club that would never have to worry,” said Rick Davis, the club’s current president and 25-year member. “But we had to look at what we could do. The lower dues didn’t help. … We were in a death spiral – or close to it.”

So the club’s board sought help from McMahon Group, a St. Louis consultant that rescues old country clubs tumbling toward irrelevance.

“Fewer people these days are willing to bear the expense of club membership for the element of prestige alone,” explains Frank Vain, president of McMahon Group.

Aging members, a proliferation of quality public golf courses, a 1993 federal tax change that reduced the monetary value of company-paid country club memberships, the younger generation’s penchant for diverse leisure activities, the growth of the health club industry all have nibbled at the edges of the country club lifestyle like moths on a Scotsman’s wool kilt.

“A club that fails to attract youth is doomed,” said Bill McMahon Sr., chairman of the consultant group.

Since 1990, roughly 10 percent of private U.S. clubs – from 5,200 to 4,700 – have dissolved, according to the McMahon Group.

Today, it appears, the Tacoma Country and Golf Club won’t become another doomed statistic.

Club members bought McMahon’s pitch, and 85 percent voted in November for a $1.4 million investment in a lakeside swimming pool, hot tub and toddler pool package as the first step toward drawing younger members and their families.

The pool opened July 4.

Now, resident special club members on the waiting list for a coveted certificate of ownership has crept back up to 19. Since January, Bridge has signed up more than 100 members, roughly 70 of them social members.

Like 37-year-old Thomas Kuljam, a first-generation immigrant from Thailand who “never in my wildest dreams” thought he would join a club “for the elitists.”

“When you grow up in a military family, like I did,” Kuljam said, “you’re blue-collar. You never associate with people like this. … At a country club, you’re not a member, you’re the lawn boy.”

Getting married at the country club – where the parents of his wife, Jennifer, belong – didn’t change Kuljam’s mind.

“I just saw old people sitting around playing cards, playing golf. I don’t golf. There was nothing for me,” he said.

The swimming pool changed his mind. In May, the Kuljams joined as social members for the $600 initiation fee, $90 monthly dues and $300 annual food minimum at the clubhouse.

During last Sunday’s heat wave, they packed up the Subaru and headed to the pool with their 2-year-old son, Sid.

“I’m seeing some younger people out there. And some more diversity,” Kuljam said. “It makes me feel a little bit better.”

As a commercial loan officer for Chehalis-based Security State Bank, Kuljam works from his Lakewood home. He now sets up business meetings for the clubhouse instead of noisy local coffee shops, where some clients felt uneasy talking about sensitive financial information.

“It’s perfect,” he said.