All of John McConnell’s previous private club purchases across the Carolinas came as “financial saves,” but Brook Valley Country Club in Greenville added a different twist to that equation.
The late Carlton Taylor was an original Brook Valley investor who McConnell knew from working together at Burroughs Corp. Taylor (who died in 2010) bought the club and merged it with Greenville Country Club. However, in 2014, Greenville Country Club returned the property to the Taylor family to eliminate debt obligations. At that point, Brook Valley, which was designed in 1966 by Donald Ross pupil Ellis Maples, faced a potential shutdown.
This was right up McConnell’s proverbial alley, except for one exception – Brook Valley in essence had no members.
“I’ve never been a zero before,” the CEO of McConnell Golf joked prior to the ribbon cutting of the “new” Brook Valley. “We’ve always purchased clubs with members in place. It really is a brand new business. Even though the golf course was here and the facility was here we’ve had to do things like order china and get the entire interior of the club done. It’s really a start-up.”
Since the late October purchase until the mid March re-opening, more than 275 members have joined Brook Valley and Raleigh-based McConnell Golf estimates that number could reach 400 by the summer.
“The first vision we had was to maintain it as a private country club,” he said. “The other option was development … and certainly it looks better to me as a golf course. I’m sure the neighborhood seconds that comment. We’re going to bring something special to Greenville.”
Like other private clubs he’s purchased, McConnell immediately pumped some serious cash into the course, bringing in Greensboro architect Kris Spence – a Ross restoration expert – to give the layout a facelift and add the his signature upgraded practice facilities.
McConnell has now used Spence on a half dozen or so of his projects in one form or fashion.
“Kris has an eye for detail and he is also the contractor so he can manage those crews as well as being the architect,” McConnell said. “That has been a benefit at times. Golf courses are kind of like clubhouses, I look at them and see where I want to go as a vision and then try to select the team that can get us there. I don’t think every architect or every designer is perfect for every property.”
“John splits golf courses in a couple of ways,” Spence said. “He will ask: ‘What do we need and have to do structurally to make the golf course sound, and then what do we need to do agronomically as it applies to greens and bunkers to make each golf course the best it can be?’ And it’s pretty obvious to me that he’s very interested in preserving the architecture when he can and respecting the original architect’s work.”
Using original Maples drawings, Spence’s work at Brook Valley included bunkering and one green modification (No. 2), along with significant tree removal, a pond dredging and the relocation of a number of cart paths. Spence called Brook Valley an “out of the box” design for Maples, mostly due to its intricate cross bunkering.
“We brought the Ellis Maples bunkering back, as well as adding a few bunkers to modernize the golf course,” Spence said. “Brook Valley is a very nice mix of golf holes with a lot of variety. The par-5s in particular are some of the best three-shooters I’ve seen.”
“The routing of the holes and the bunkering is now like it was back in the 1960s,” added Brian Kittler, the firm’s director of golf. “It has great character. It’s once again going to be one of the best golf courses East of I-95.”
It’s fair to say that golf in North Carolina east of Interstate 95 (with the exception of coastal designs) has a reputation as being “underwhelming” compared to the rest of the state, which includes the Sandhills (Pinehurst), Charlotte and the Blue Ridge Mountains. However, McConnell believes Greenville (the state’s 10th largest city) has untapped potential for the private club experience he plans to offer at Brook Valley.
“I think two major things are important when purchasing a club; one is how many potential members or rooftops are in a 10-15 minute drive of the property. That is huge. Secondly, what decisions did the boards make in the past that may have not been a good forecast or decisions we can make now that can make a difference? Having some financial capital to invest into the properties, to bring them up to more current status and add some other amenities has also been very important as well.”
Spence has added a small putting green near the first tee (a signature of McConnell courses) as well as some new cart paths.
“John doesn’t like standing on a tee and looking straight up a cart path,” Spence said. “And there was a tee shot on No. 16 that I joked was so narrow that after hitting your tee shot you had to walk sideways to get to the fairway. We have cleared about 60-70 trees there and moved the cart path to the right. Brook Valley is a really solid golf course. I have always liked it. They rebuilt their green some years back and built them a little bit higher than they should have, and we’ve tried to repair some of that, too.”
McConnell Golf has the Triangle and Triad areas covered with three courses there each, but missing from the portfolio is a Charlotte layout or one in the Sandhills.
For now … things are quite on the McConnell Golf front … with plenty of projects to button up and memberships to sell at Brook Valley in the coming months.
“With Brook Valley, we’ve maintained our vision of purchasing clubs whose golf course was designed by a famous architect,” McConnell said.