McConnell Golf takes over operations of Raleigh Golf Association

A round of footgolf gets underway Aug. 30, 2015, at the Raleigh Golf Association on Tryon Road. McConnell Golf has signed a 10-year lease to operate the 27-hole course.
A round of footgolf gets underway Aug. 30, 2015, at the Raleigh Golf Association on Tryon Road. McConnell Golf has signed a 10-year lease to operate the 27-hole course.

McConnell Golf has expanded into public golf courses by signing a 10-year lease to operate the 27-hole Raleigh Golf Association course on Tryon Road.

John McConnell, the founder and owner of the Raleigh-based company that owns a dozen private courses, said he’s long been fond of RGA.

“I used to play it when I first moved to town,” he said. “I thought it was a pretty fun golf course.”

Many of the newer courses are so difficult that it’s hard for a beginner to enjoy themselves, said McConnell. But RGA “is one of those courses that, quite honestly, the average high-handicap golfer can play and feel good about his or her game.”

McConnell added that RGA fills a need by offering a round of golf at an affordable price. Prices currently start at $15 for nine holes after 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, if you’re willing to walk the course rather than use a golf cart.

RGA is owned by more than 200 shareholders who decided, by a vote of 163-8, to turn the operations over to McConnell Golf.

“To be honest, managing a golf course and particularly managing a profitable golf course is incredibly difficult” in the current environment, said Wayne Ackley, a member of RGA’s board of directors and its operations chairperson. Nevertheless, he said the course was profitable last year.

RGA opened in 1929 and is the second-oldest course in the Raleigh area. Golfing great Arnold Palmer played the course often when he was a student at Wake Forest College in the 1950s, and Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen played an exhibition match there in 1937.

RGA has received interest from developers who were interested in converting the property for other purposes, Ackley said, but the board of directors and shareholders decided they wanted to preserve the fairways and greens for the public.

“We thought it was in the best interest of area golfers, the patrons of RGA, as well as the shareholders,” he said of the lease deal. “It guarantees there will be golf played at RGA for a number of years.”

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for John McConnell and his management team,” Ackley added. “I think great things are going to happen with RGA.”

Most of RGA’s small staff will be retained by McConnell Golf, McConnell said.

McConnell hopes to add “a practice facility” at RGA that will include a driving range and an area for golfers to practice their short game.

“When you look around town,” he said, “driving ranges have been sold for car dealerships.”

In addition, plans call for RGA to be the site for the first McConnell Golf Training Center.

“We want to offer lessons at a very reasonable price to people wanting to learn the game,” McConnell said.

McConnell added that he never had lessons when he started out and ended up picking up bad habits that still impact his game. He described his handicap as “single digit but headed toward double digits.”

McConnell, who made a fortune heading healthcare technology companies, transformed his golfing hobby into a business when he bought the Raleigh Country Club in 2003 after it went bankrupt.

In February McConnell Golf expanded into the Charlotte market by purchasing the Providence Country Club, the company’s 12th acquisition. In addition to operating RGA, the company owns three Triangle courses: Raleigh Country Club, TPC at Wakefield Plantation and Treyburn Country Club.

McConnell didn’t rule out deals with other public courses. Harkening back to his days in technology, he said that the RGA deal is a beta test.

“We’ll see how this works,” he said.

David Ranii: 919-829-4877, @dranii