Golf trail opens private courses

The chance to get away once in awhile to see and play some golf in other regions often leads to hearing more stories about golf and the people involved in the sport.

A trip earlier this year to North Carolina gave me the chance to play some private country clubs that are being opened to the general public on a limited basis. The accessibility of these clubs isn’t right off the street. They are being packaged with accommodations and a few other amenities thrown in.

What was intriguing was the man behind the idea. Businessman John McConnell has decided to spend millions buying these clubs, some that were financial trouble, and then giving the public the opportunity to play them. Given that golf growth is rather stagnant across North America, the man must like his golf.

A number of the private club members I spoke with were very much in favour of the idea and why wouldn’t they be. Their clubs needed help and McConnell had the cash.  

McConnell, who made is multi-millions in the technology world, has invested in six private clubs and has created the McConnell Golf Trail. These exclusive playgrounds are complete with swimming pools and tennis courts and give serious golfers with a few bucks to spend, a chance to sample demanding golf in a southern country club environment.

Depending on the time of the year and a minimum three night-stay, prices start around $2,100 (US) which includes ground transportation, golf, some meals and hotel accommodations. 

McConnell says the idea to make these courses more accessible came from his travels to Scotland and Ireland.

“We played the top courses on those trips of which most were private clubs but allowed limited public play.  By offering this non-member play option, our greens fees helped with funding those clubs’ operational budgets,” he said. “And perhaps best of all, this provided a very good option for these clubs to give back to their communities and country by bringing tourism and its associated spending to these local businesses.” 

McConnell is of the opinion “great golf venues should be enjoyed for the good of the game and we want others to experience what our members get to enjoy on a daily basis.” 

There are four courses in North Carolina – Treyburn Country Club (Tom Fazio); Old North State Club (Tom Fazio) at Badin Lake; Cardinal Golf and Country Club (Pete Dye), Greensboro; Raleigh Country Club, (Donald Ross) Raleigh: and two in South Carolina, Musgrove Mill Golf Club (Arnold Palmer), Clinton; The Reserve Golf Club (Greg Norman), Pawleys Island.

Raleigh Country Club was the first course McConnell bought and did so simply as a mission to give back to the community.

“I felt that with my financial resources I could save this beautiful golf course for both current and future members to enjoy as I did not want to see Donald Ross’s last course become another (residential) subdivision,” he said.

“Once I was involved with this club on a routine basis, I felt that multiple courses made more sense for increased efficiency if an investor was going to generate a return on capital deployed.  Therefore, I decided to look for top rated golf courses in the Carolinas that were designed by the best know architects and offer a shared membership plan in all of them. Certainly the sport is not an a growth mode but it will always be desirable for people looking for a great game to play for a lifetime,” he said.

The six-course trail is expected to grow.

“We will certainly want to expand our course ownership position and we have some great ones that we are in discussions with today,” he said. “We do anticipate that the McConnell Golf Trail will become one of the most desirable golf experiences in the U.S.  when our network of highly rated private golf courses is completed.”

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Tom Peters

Tom Peters is a freelance writer based in Lower Sackville, Nova Scotia, a suburb of Halifax. In December 2009 he retired after 41 years with The Halifax Chronicle Herald. He covered competitive golf regionally for the paper in his early days as reporter and over the years has freelanced golf travel articles to a number of major golf and business publications. He is a member and a director of the Golf Journalists Association of Canada.

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