2006: Saving Donald Ross

By Brad King

Steven Jackson fell in love with Raleigh Country Club the first time he saw it. •

His inaugural visit to the golf course, the last of Donald Ross’ 413 designs, came in May 1998. Jackson was there to watch the Nike Tour’s Carolina Classic, and found himself struck by the course’s similarities with Idlehour Country Club in Lexington, Ky., and Roaring Gap Golf Club in the North Carolina mountains – classic Ross tracks Jackson had grown up playing. He felt an instant affinity for Raleigh’s rolling fairways framed by tall pine trees; its small, yet stern, turtleback greens; and the ease of its walkability.

“I felt like it had been my home course my entire life,” Jackson says.

Just weeks after that first visit, Jackson cobbled together a $2,500 down payment on an $8,000 initiation fee and agreed to pay another $6,000 toward a four-phase, $3 million restoration begun in 1994. “It was like I had found this little diamond in the rough,” Jackson says.

Jackson never imagined that less than four years later, Raleigh CC – and Ross’ legacy – would be on the verge of extinction.

News of a Raleigh CC takeover reached John McConnell in late 2003, when he returned to North Carolina’s capital city from a four-day trip to Oakmont CC. A friend informed McConnell about rumors that investors who had purchased Raleigh CC’s bank note when the club filed for bankruptcy in February 2003 were planning to bulldoze the clubhouse and golf course, and build condominiums.

An avid 6-handicapper, McConnell was not about to watch Ross’ final legacy turn into a housing subdivision.

“I feel like I had one of those divine interventions,” McConnell says. “It said, ‘Hey, you need to get involved with this club, because the last thing the city needs is to see this place become something other than a golf club.’ ”

A denizen of the Triangle’s technology community, McConnell possessed the means to block the investor group from plowing under Raleigh CC. In the early 1980s, McConnell co-founded Medic Computer Systems Inc., a Raleigh-based healthcare information management systems firm he ran for 16 years

and sold in 1997 for $992.8 million. McConnell’s take: $61 million. (In January, McConnell sold a second company, A4 Health Systems, which in 1999 was valued at $12 million, for $272 million, according to Triangle Business Journal.)

In Raleigh CC, McConnell, 54, saw the opportunity to preserve an important piece of golf history.

“I knew it was a special deal,” he says. “It was just one of those things, with the legacy of Donald Ross and all the club’s history – from a marketing standpoint alone it had a special value in regard to remaking the club’s image.”

In August 2003, McConnell offered Raleigh CC members a deal. He would purchase the club, and they could stay for the following five years with no change in dues other than cost-of-living increases. The members eagerly accepted and McConnell bought Raleigh CC in December 2003, becoming a member, sole owner, president and benevolent dictator in one fell swoop.

McConnell was born and raised on a 100-acre farm in Abingdon, Va., the youngest of three brothers who were intensely competitive in everything they did. When it came to golf, like the Scottish shepherds who invented the game centuries earlier, McConnell and his brothers turned thick sticks into clubs and beat rounded rocks toward distant targets, always with some sort of side action to keep their contests interesting.

It bred a competitive streak that would propel McConnell to lofty heights in business and continues to fuel his golf game. At Raleigh CC, McConnell runs in a tight-knit group of six to eight friends with whom he plays two or three times a week, typically 36 holes a pop. McConnell’s group plays 18-hole matches, with no presses allowed until a player has been closed out on the bet.

Standing on Raleigh CC’s 15th green recently, 3 down, McConnell turned to his opponent, who was facing a slick, downhill 8-footer to win the hole and told him, “Pick it up, that’s good.”

“Why’d you do that?” asked his opponent.

“I get a shot on 16 and I was gonna lose this bet anyway,” McConnell told him. “I let you close me out here, so we can start the next bet on the hole where I have a shot.”

His playing companions describe McConnell as a deadeye putter and a dogged scrambler. “He’s in the woods and you think you’ve got the hole, but he digs it out. Next thing you know, he’s back on the green one-putting,” says Bill Baker, a Raleigh CC member. “He likes to battle. You see his competitiveness on the golf course, and I’m sure he’s like that in business.”

His game travels well. McConnell shot 82 at Augusta National weeks before this year’s Masters, parring his way around Amen Corner in the process. Yet he is not one of those people who collects club memberships. “I like to collect friends who have memberships,” McConnell says.

“He wants to see other courses and see what they’ve done, so he can be competitive with his golf course,” says Baker. “He makes it real clear: Golf is first. Raleigh Country Club is going to be as good as it can possibly be, and he backs it up. If anything, he’s misunderstood. He doesn’t want it to be about him, he wants it to be done right. It’s all about Raleigh Country Club, not about John McConnell.”

In his first three years of ownership, McConnell pumped more than $3 million into capital improvements at Raleigh CC. He hired Pinehurst’s Richard Mandell, one of six architects endorsed by the Donald Ross Society, to renovate the course. Mandell arrived armed with Ross’ original drawings and an additional bit of history on his side: When Ross died in 1948 during construction at Raleigh CC, Ellis Maples, who

was working for Ross at the time, completed the job. Early in his career, Mandell apprenticed with Maples’ son, Dan.

Employing aerial photography from 1954 and laying current aerial photography over top, Mandell was able to recreate Ross’ original ideas for the course – with some tweaking to accommodate the era. He added nearly 400 yards in length, rebuilt 54 bunkers and 17 grass hollows, and squared the tee boxes, moving several back to their original locations.

In addition, McConnell purchased 11 acres of land adjacent to the club on which he built a practice facility that ranks as one of the best in the state.

McConnell is an autocrat with an eye for the smallest details. When workers were preparing to change the awnings on the back of the clubhouse from green to blue to match the club’s logo, McConnell noticed that there was a small caddie box on the first tee with a Raleigh CC logo no more than 4 inches in diameter, in the color green. “Make sure we get that logo painted blue before we put up the awnings,” McConnell told a staffer.

McConnell’s desire is that Raleigh CC be known as a club for golfers. He has added a caddie program and capped membership at 350 – even decreeing that all new members must have a 15 handicap or better. Raleigh CC will showcase its renovations, first in May, at a regional championship McConnell dreamed up pitting 32 Triangle club champions against one another, and then in June, when the club plays host to the RBC Centura North Carolina Open.

When competitors first drive onto the club grounds, they are presented with an envelope, the front of which says, “Welcome to history.” Stepping to the first tee, they have at their backs a new “Wall of Champions” that recognizes every champion in the club’s existence.

“Every time someone turns through those gates we want them to feel special,” says McConnell. “We want to welcome them to the last Donald Ross ever, and let them get a taste of what that’s all about and the history behind that.”

For members who endured the club’s decadelong, roller-coaster ride, it has been a dream come true.

“John McConnell was truly our white knight,” Jackson says. “We found somebody who was passionate about golf and cared about the club.

All of a sudden, almost overnight, the club became a place you’d be proud to bring people to, not

only to enjoy the golf course, but to enjoy the experience.”

Brad King is a freelance writer from Hilton Head Island, S.C.

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