Caves Valley Golf Club was founded around the same time as Camden Yards was built and has had three sitting presidents play the course. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun video)
There are no tennis courts or swimming pools at Caves Valley Golf Club, no shrieks of children racing through the clubhouse.
It's an estate-like place of stone, hushed tones, commanding views and dark-wood paneling where top executives of major companies and sports franchises congregate, where three sitting U.S. presidents have played golf, where members don't boast about the club's stature or celebrity guests because if you're overly impressed, then you probably don't belong.
One year removed from its 25th birthday, member-owned Caves Valley — which hosts the Constellation Senior Players Championship beginning Thursday — is a survivor.
Created with a goal of enhancing Baltimore's prestige and ability to attract businesses to the region, it has weathered waves of national corporate consolidations and relocations that thinned the pool of prospective members. Many of the companies whose leaders were instrumental in the club's 1991 opening — such as insurance company USF&G, investment bank Alex. Brown & Sons and Maryland National Bank — were acquired by others.
Interest in golf has waned owing partly to the time needed to play the game in what's become a faster-moving business world. And no longer is it customary for large companies to pay golf or country club dues for senior executives. A local Caves Valley member pays $20,000 in dues after a $100,000 initiation. Members living far away from the club off Park Heights Avenue pay less.
But Caves Valley has endured by relying on the principle that, even in the age of texting and emails, face-to-face relationships still matter in business.
The club's members include Ravens owner and staffing company mogul Steve Bisciotti, Under Armour founder Kevin Plank, Orioles Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. and a long list of national figures such as basketball's Michael Jordan, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, journalist and author Thomas Friedman, and former U.S. Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge.
"Fifty years from now, 100 years from now, 200 years from now, people will need to do business and they're going to do business with people they know," said club board member David G. Bannister, a former Alex. Brown executive. "And part of how you do all that is through relationship-building and entertaining."
More than half of Caves Valley's 540 members live outside the Baltimore area, and the club offers 48 rooms to accommodate overnight stays. Entertaining out-of-town guests — they might be clients or business leaders considering relocating to the area — is central to the club's mission.
"The psychology and mentality that economic development is only tax breaks and giveaways has always been flawed," said Leslie B. Disharoon, the former chairman of Monumental Life Insurance Co., who helped start the club. "Economic development for a city has to do with quality of life."
It's important to remember what was happening in Baltimore at the time the club was conceived in the 1980s, Disharoon said.
The Colts had fled Baltimore for Indianapolis in the dead of night in 1984 and there were concerns the Orioles could leave as well.
"The outlook for the future of Baltimore in spite of the Inner Harbor was not great," Disharoon said.
A national golf club, he said, "would bring people from all over the world to Baltimore."
But the corporate world was changing already. Disharoon's company was absorbed by the Dutch insurer Aegon in 1989 and eventually consolidated with Transamerica, which retains executive offices in Baltimore but has a far smaller presence that Monumental once did.
Still, for all the businesses that left, Disharoon said, "in reality Steve Bisciotti and Kevin Plank have moved in and replaced people in terms of employment and leadership."
The Caves Valley clubhouse has no massive dining room or ballrooms. Until recently, it didn't even have a bar.
Rather, it offers intimate spaces such as a library the size of a family's living room. The library's dark wood walls, with intricate designs and crown molding, were purchased from Sotheby's auction house. There is a fireplace, golfing memorabilia, portraits of past board chairmen and worn books on the shelves.
"We have boards that come in and they'll do a board dinner meeting for 15," said Nancy Palmer, the club's general manager. "We had a member who called and said, 'I've got these really important people and we're having a dinner and we need it to be private.' There was some deal being discussed. We put them in the library."
A 1992 golfing foursome was comprised of former president George H.W. Bush, golfing icon Arnold Palmer, former U.S. Attorney General Griffin Bell and Reg Murphy, former publisher of The Baltimore Sun.
"What a foursome in golf represents is what the private texts of today are trying to accomplish," said George P. Stamas, a board member and seniors' tournament chairman.
"I can remember (former president) Bill Clinton standing on the first hole holding a driver that had a solid, bright-red shaft," said Stamas, a senior partner at the Kirkland & Ellis international law firm. "I think it was Arnold Palmer that said, 'What is that red shaft all about?' Clinton said, 'This is metal from a recovered Russian satellite that was a gift to me.' "
From its inception, Caves Valley offered a twist on the old club model of exclusivity.
"If you were Jewish you didn't join Baltimore Country Club. If you were Catholic you didn't join Woodholme," Bannister said. "If you were African-American you didn't join anywhere."
Corporate leaders such as Disharoon wanted a new approach. "We were going to build a national club without regard to race, religion, sex and color," Disharoon said.
It was a different world in the days when the club was conceived.
"There were two levels of relationships," Disharoon said. "There was the level that went towards corporate boards, fundraising and culture, and then you had the level of your social life. And the two generally didn't mix. We'd be working together in the daytime to raise money for the symphony, then we'd go to our clubs for dinner. The separation was classic and not only in Baltimore."
As recently as 2011, the membership of Georgia's Augusta National, home of the Masters, was all-male.
Caves Valley now has at least eight African-American members and about a dozen women, according to Palmer.
"We're trying," she said. "We've never turned a woman away. We pride ourselves on being a club with no segregated areas or tee times."
Palmer said the relative lack of women members speaks less to the business world than to golf.
"The women I know that play golf work at the home, not outside the home," she said. "Women in the business world have to make that choice. If they have five hours on a weekend, they have to decide how to spend it."
Members say the club's inclusive policies helped it survive when banks and other entities were disappearing in the wave of consolidations.
Maryland National Bank, Palmer said, once bought 10 memberships and Equitable Bank five.
"Those 15 are now owned by Bank of America if you follow the chain of all these mergers. But those memberships aren't all being used now," she said. "Corporate America has changed dramatically and that has made it harder for us, but we've survived. We have more individual memberships."
Caves Valley has hosted a number of tournaments, including NCAA championships, the U.S. Senior Open, the Chesapeake Cup and the Palmer Cup, which is the college equivalent of the Ryder Cup pitting teams from the United States and Europe. Two-time Masters champion Bernhard Langer will be trying to win the Senior Players Championship for the fourth straight year.
The tournament sponsor, Constellation, grew out of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., whose executives also were involved in founding Caves Valley. Constellation Energy Group was acquired by Chicago-based energy giant Exelon in 2012, but the name remained on a Baltimore-based subsidiary that supplies energy to 2.5 million residential and business customers across the country.
The Senior Players Championship is one of Constellation's largest corporate sponsorships and the company routinely donates to local charities wherever the tournament is held. This year, it said it has pledged $500,000 to eight charities in the Baltimore area. The club also has a charitable mission, with many members contributing to a foundation that provides scholarships and supports youth programs through golf.
After the seniors' tournament is over, Caves Valley members will return to conducting business in their private setting. Their view of hills and trees from the clubhouse is protected from development because the club owns hundreds of acres around the course.
"Think about how deals are made," said Anirban Basu, an economist and CEO of the Baltimore-based Sage Policy Group. "Often it's important for business people to be with each other in casual settings and realize they have an alignment of interests.
"On a golf course, they're laughing and talking. It's important to build trust."