In baseball vernacular John McConnell would be a combination of star relievers Mariano Rivera, Goose Gossage and Dennis Eckersley. The Raleigh golf executive has been fast and aggressive — seemingly coming out of the left field bullpen at times – to compile an impressive portfolio of private golf course “saves” across North Carolina and South Carolina since rescuing historic Raleigh Country Club from bulldozers in 2003.
His latest “saves” during golf’s offseason ranged from the Blue Ridge Mountains all the way to Eastern North Carolina with the acquisitions of The Country Club of Asheville and Brook Valley Country Club in Greenville, bringing his stable to 10 — making McConnell Golf the largest owner of private clubs in the Carolinas.
“This definitely wasn’t the vision when we bought Raleigh Country Club,” McConnell said. “It has evolved into a pretty big operation now with over 600 employees and a lot of revenue coming in, so it’s a pretty big, challenging business, to say the least.
“We are obviously one of a few local companies that have been buying golf courses so we get a lot of calls … and a vast majority of them are turnaround situations. I think two major things are important. 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 course’s boards make in the past and decisions we can make now that can make a difference. Also having some financial capital to invest into the properties, to bring them up to more current status and add some other amenities has been very important as well.”
Brian Kittler, McConnell’s director of golf, has been along for the entire ride, joining Raleigh County Club after a stint as an assistant pro at Old North State Club, a course McConnell also now owns.
“I’ve got 10 of the greatest properties in the Southeast to choose from, so if I get tired of Raleigh Country Club one day I can drive over and play Sedgefield or drive down to the beach and play The Reserve, which was just voted the 2014 club of the year in South Carolina,” Kittler said. “I have all of these great courses at my fingertips. That’s one of the best things about the job.”
Ditto for the McConnell Golf membership, who are able to select a “home club” and then branch off to various other exquisite golfing experiences.
“The one thing John is proud of is the fact with our collection now we have more courses than Pinehurst Resort, and we think we have better quality than Pinehurst,” Kittler said.
A former high-tech executive in the Triangle, the 64-year-old McConnell might be best described as part golf traditionalist and part business perfectionist. His reputation for investing money into his purchases is impressive – immediately winning over club members who are often on edge when their course changes hands.
“As one of my tech partners once said to me, ‘John, the problem you have is you always want everything in perfect, pristine condition. You can’t accept average. I think he nailed it,” McConnell said.
When asked how much he has invested in his golf courses McConnell quickly shot back: “More than anyone in North Carolina other than Pinehurst.”
McConnell once again hired Greensboro-based architect Kris Spence, who specializes in Donald Ross restorations, to retool the Ellis Maples-designed Brook Valley course, which is scheduled for a mid-March reopening. Spence has worked on six of McConnell’s 10 courses in some form or fashion, and is also in the running to land more work at The Country Club of Asheville.
Spence said McConnell immediately asks a few questions when deciding how to tackle capital improvements to his courses.
“John splits it a couple of ways, asking, ‘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, and then what would you do architecturally to make this golf course the best it can be?’’’ Spence said.
“And John is very much into top-shelf practice facilities. Every golf course we’ve gone to that has been a big component for him. We’ve shown him some concepts on practice areas with really well-defined targets, where we’re trying to replicate very realistic shot values on the range and he really likes that.”
One of McConnell Golf’s signatures is also a small “warm-up” practice green adjacent to the first tee.
“If a player is waiting to tee off or waiting for the fairway to clear they can roll a few balls,” Spence said. “It’s a cool little thing to have.”
McConnell went to college at Virginia Tech, but said the state of Virginia is not really a target market. A few areas missing from his stable of courses in North Carolina are Charlotte and the Sandhills. Triangle-area courses include Raleigh Country Club, TPC at Wakefield Plantation and Treyburn in northern Durham, while Greensboro is covered with the two Sedgefield properties. Old North State is about 45 minutes from Charlotte.
“We’re getting to that point (of having enough courses) because the properties aren’t as easy to find that meet our current portfolio, and anything that is outside of a drive for me is something I’m not interested in,” McConnell said. “We’re concentrating on courses within a four hour’s drive of the Raleigh market.”
What has been McConnell’s most pleasant surprise so far? Well, that is TPC at Wakefield Plantation.
“When I first played that golf course it didn’t really jump out at me because I think I was more focused on the housing and different types of homes that had been built there,” he said. “So, I really didn’t have an appreciation for the golf course until I started playing it more and focusing on the holes and strategy. I have a much better appreciation for the golf course today than I had before I bought it.”
McConnell is busier than ever, but still manages to log about 75 rounds of golf a year, playing to an 8 handicap.
“And that depends on my health,” he joked. “As you get older you wake up in the morning and you don’t always know what parts may or may not be working.”
What seems to be working is McConnell’s passion to push his private golfing empire to new heights. The latest installment of the Founding Members program at Brook Valley was a monumental success by all accounts.
“I buy into what John always says,” according to Kittler. “He says, ‘get good people in there and get the hell out of the way.’ With my guys I am the same way. The fun part has seen one idea grow into 10 properties, and being surrounded by the professional staff that I have and the members seeing it grow.”
“The most enjoyable thing is seeing people come in off the golf courses and rave about what a great day they had and what pristine condition the golf courses were in,” added McConnell. “The feedback you get from members is really what it’s all about.”