Even in the best of times, acquiring a portfolio of eight private golf clubs over a decade would rocket John McConnell to the top of the list of the game’s power brokers. But in reality, he couldn’t have picked a more challenging time to make his mark in the golf industry – and succeed.
He began in 2003 by rescuing Raleigh Country Club from certain extinction and hasn’t stopped pouring millions into additional reclamation projects across the Carolinas, doing so while plowing through the Great Recession with his head down and foot on the gas.
McConnell’s passion and investment to improve each facility has touched more than 3,000 private club members and is truly impressive in these times of club contractions — but maybe nowhere more than the Triad area, where the membership base has been energized at Sedgefield Country Club’s Donald Ross design while also propelling the Wyndham Championship back into the consciousness of the PGA Tour’s top players.
McConnell Golf has now turned its attention cross town to the Sedgefield Dye Course, formerly known as The Cardinal. The original plan in 1926 was for 36 holes at Sedgefield, but the Great Depression squashed that idea. With the purchase of the Dye Course eight years ago and the Ross Course in 2011, McConnell has been able to revisit that original idea and offer Triad golfers sister courses of unparallel architectural design within a 15-minute drive.
But despite the great Pete Dye himself coming back to renovate his stellar layout, golf memberships have lagged behind at the Sedgefield Dye Course, a direct result of the housing collapse and several other factors.
So, McConnell pulled his team together recently and plotted an aggressive membership approach he and others feel will help jump start activity at the Dye Course, which across North Carolina is regarded as one of the best and most challenging layouts.
The new Sedgefield Dye Course membership has an initiation fee of $2,000 with monthly dues at $325. That gets golfers unlimited weekday play, weekend and holiday golf after 1 p.m., and unlimited access to the range. Golfers purchasing the new membership can play with a member prior to 1 p.m. on weekend and holidays by paying the accompanying guest fee.
“There are no minimums, no other hidden fees,” said Chad Flowers, Triad Membership Director for McConnell Golf. “At the end of the day most see the value in McConnell Golf; they see everything we’ve done at the Ross Course, they see the things we’re doing at the Dye Course. I’ve even heard people say ‘I want to get in before this initiation fee doubles.’ We’re still a young company and still investing. When the economy does eventually turn and people are investing in golf club memberships our fees are going to go up, it’s only natural. Eventually things will get back to where they were in the golfing heyday.”
In addition to the upgrades to the Dye Course, Flowers said McConnell has earmarked an additional $250,000 for clubhouse and pool upgrades.
“As an employee it’s great to see Mr. McConnell putting money into the club,” Flowers said. “He has confidence in us to do our job, to make this what we know it can be. It is so much easier for us to do our job when he supports us like that.
“I would like to add at least 100 golfing members over the next two years,” Flowers added. “Again, with more new members we will continue to reinvest in the properties. Over the last 10 years, Mr. McConnell has a track record of making improvements, and it is our job to get the new members here. He will continue to invest in our properties, and we definitely have a stellar reputation that we want to uphold.”
One of McConnell’s strategies in building his private club empire was to acquire courses designed by some of the world’s greatest architects, and he has accomplished it. Old North State Club along Badin Lake and Treyburn outside of Durham, were created by Tom Fazio, while Ross designs at Raleigh CC and the Sedgefield Ross Course are wonderful tests. Meanwhile, Musgrove Mill and The Reserve in South Carolina boast Palmer and Norman layouts.
So, it was quite a coup to get Dye, a true legend in the design business, to return to the Sedgefield Dye Course in 2006 to spin more magic.
“I think Pete Dye is the best golf course architect since Donald Ross and he has built some memorable courses,” McConnell said. “When he came back at age 82 to modernize the Dye course that he built in the mid 70’s he was very proud of his original work. The changes that he made to that impressive layout are some of the best holes in our state. Without a doubt, this golf course will test your skills and strategic thinking. Many members feel that the Dye course is our most challenging golf course within McConnell Golf, but it is a very fair layout and fun to play.”
It’s no secret that the Sedgefield Dye Course is difficult. Most of the McConnell interclub tournaments are won by Dye Course members as 16 of 18 holes touch water on a course that also touches upon the area’s storied golfing tradition. The Cardinal Am remains a top stop for up-and-coming stars and has a list of former winners that include PGA and Champions Tour players John Inman, Mike Goodes, Allen Doyle and Tim Clark.
“What is really neat about it is the members have so much pride in the golf course because you always hear it’s so hard,” said Sedgefield Director of Golf Rocky Brooks. “Yes, you absolutely have to hit it well to play well there. It is really hard to get the ball up-and-down if you miss the green. But it’s not tricky, it’s straightforward.”
“The willow trees out there, the bridges, the Pete Dye planks really give the course a lot of character,” Flowers said. “From a perspective member standpoint they usually want to play both courses (Ross and Dye) before making a decision because they are really joining both courses. Most of the golfers that are the single digit handicappers prefer the Dye Course to the Ross Course. It just has a lot of unique aspects to it.”
The first and second holes have significant elevation drops and lead golfers down to a valley where Brush Creek and a series of lakes knife through some of the meat of the course.
“Donald Ross used to do the same thing; usually the first hole is kind of a handshake to welcome you to the golf course and then it gets a little harder as you get into the golf course,” Brooks said. “The water is an intimidation factor. It’s OK to see the water and think about it but you don’t want that to be your last thought when you’re hitting a golf shot here. The water is left of No. 6 and 60 yards from the center of the fairway, and really shouldn’t come into play but you know it’s over there and believe it or not does come into play.”
The Dye-abolical Dye couldn’t have worked on the Sedgefield Dye Course without leaving his trademark railroad ties – this time 520 of them — along the banks of the tee boxes leading to the 12th green – a 220-yard par-3 that most always plays into the wind and a hole Dye proclaims is the hardest par-3 he’s ever designed.
And that’s saying something.
“Personally, I believe that the 12th hole from the back tees is the toughest hole that I have played anywhere in the world,” said McConnell. “According to Mr. Dye, who is very famous for creating challenging Par 3’s, this is the one at the top of his difficulty ratings. And that impressive list includes the 17th at Sawgrass, The Ocean Course and Whistling Straits.”
“It’s relatively easy as long as you can hit the ball 200 yards dead straight,” chuckled Brooks. “The 12th hole has water left, bunkers right and a small undulating green. I haven’t played more that are more difficult. If you make 4 there pick up your ball and keep walking.”
The back nine measures 3,609 from the tips as a par 35, and boasts the course’s top six handicap holes – virtually unheard of in golfing circles.
The Sedgefield Dye Course couldn’t have a better advocate than 93-year-old Woody Pearce, who has been a member of the Sedgefield Dye Course since 1982 and still logs nine holes on most days.
“I just think it is the best golf course in the area,” Pearce said. “I just want to make sure I get exercise and I’m still fascinated by golf; still think I’m going to figure it out, which I’m not. And the Dye Course always gives me something to think about.”