From Historical Roots, a Modern-Day Club Emerges

by Mike Purkey

 Mar 22, 2019 at 7:30 PM

As McConnell Golf celebrates its anniversary, we reflect on the Ross course that started it all

In the beginning, it was a rescue mission. Raleigh Country Club, the home of Donald Ross’ last design, was facing bankruptcy and likely extinction. John McConnell, not even an RCC member at the time, had the wherewithal but most importantly, a sense of duty to save the club from being plowed under and becoming a housing development.

McConnell also noted that he wanted to do something for the community. In 2003, he bought RCC to preserve history. No one knew at the time that 15 years later he would be one of the most successful private-club owners in the country.

The company’s achievements are rooted in the pledge McConnell made to RCC members when he purchased the club. He invested in improvements in the golf course and facilities to make the club a viable concern and an attractive place to be a member. It’s a formula the company has used in every one of its subsequent purchases, and members have noticed.

Looking Back

Jerry Mangum is RCC’s longest continuous member. His parents joined the club in 1952 and lived in a house off the course’s 18th hole. He has been a regular member since 1965.

Mangum, 76, was a scratch player in his younger years, having played golf for Raleigh’s Broughton High School and then at N.C. State University. A former RCC president, Mangum was junior club champion, the club champion in 1973, and has won several senior and super senior club championships.

RCC was formed in 1948 by a group of about 20 members at nearby Carolina Country Club.

"The good players at Carolina wanted a better place to play,” says Mangum. “Most of the best golfers in Raleigh played at RCC in the 1950s and ‘60s. Arnold Palmer played a lot at RCC when he was at Wake Forest.”

Another RCC heyday highlight? The LPGA Tour played the American Defender Championship from 1967 – 1972 at RCC.

But the most important milestone in RCC’s history is that the original members hired the great Donald Ross to design the course, the last design of his legendary career. Through three renovations, it has remained a true Ross course.

Building Community 

It was this Donald Ross legacy that helped member Bob Wayland decide to join the club in 1989.

“Having played golf most of my life, the Ross connection was significant to me,” he says. Wayland had been a public course golfer and was getting the nudge from some fellow church members that RCC needed younger people to join, and that it would be a good place for him and his new family.

“We were expecting our first child at the time, so we were looking for a place that would have some things to offer all of us,” he recalls.

It didn’t take long for Wayland to settle in at RCC.

“It was really the people and the course that made things comfortable in the beginning. When I first joined, the camaraderie and collegiality made it easy to find a regular group. Within a month, I found a group to play on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. And some of the original members of those groups...we’re still playing together. Some have passed away, and some moved on, and we’ve welcomed new people. Now, we’re old enough that some of us have kids who have joined the groups.”

Uncertain Future 

In 1993, as an effort to attract younger families, membership took on a renovation of the course and clubhouse, and built a new swimming pool – and they decided to do it all at once.

“We took on a lot of debt,” Wayland says. “After the dot-com bubble burst in 1995, a lot of young families and couples who came into the club couldn’t stay. It became a monthly struggle to make ends meet. I can’t remember a board meeting where the red numbers weren’t there. We were always robbing Peter to pay Paul I was very worried.”

By 2003, the club was looking squarely at bankruptcy.

“We were more concerned that some investors who were interesting in buying the club might turn it into a residential area,” says Mangum.

Becca McKinney, who has been a member since 1995 and has won 11 women’s club championships, says: “We liked RCC because it was very unpretentious and a nice community of people. It was one of the best courses in Raleigh. But as it neared bankruptcy, people started getting scared and leaving. It became harder to find people to play with.”

A Vibrant, Active Place to Be 

Enter John McConnell. When he bought the club in 2003, things started to change almost immediately.

“Then we had a country club,” says Wayland. “We had a full dining program, kids’ programs, seasonal programs, holiday events. All the tournaments had a waiting list. John has assembled an incredible management team that makes McConnell Golf second to none. We had a driving range that you couldn’t hit more than a 5-iron. John bought the land adjacent to the first fairway, turned the range around and now you can hit 250-yard shots. He took the old driving range and turned it into a short-game facility. When I joined in 1989, there were probably a dozen kids, it was an older club. Now, when you go the practice facility, kids are everywhere, boys and girls, learning the game. The energy and enthusiasm McConnell injected into RCC has been just as important. We went from an old, dying club to a vibrant, active, attractive place to be.”

Other long-time RCC members echo this sentiment.

“Even John McConnell didn’t know what McConnell Golf would eventually turn into,” says Mangum. “He bought it and always had good staff. It’s well managed and a first-class operation.”

McKinney, who grew up in South Boston, VA, learned to play at a nine-hole course.

“When I was growing up, my dad called our golf course his second home,” she says. “And for me, RCC is my second home. That’s where I am on the weekends and a couple of days during the week. It’s fun to have a place you can go. We eat dinner at the club almost every Friday night. We know the wait staff and the chefs. They expect us there and save a table for us. There aren’t many places you can go and get that kind of treatment.”

From the mountains to the coast, members throughout McConnell Golf’s properties enjoy this same first-class service. And as we celebrate 15 years in business, we look forward to what the next decade will bring.

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The Chef's Corner

by Jamie Waggoner

 Jan 17, 2019 at 6:03 PM

Five Questions for Dennis Freeland, Certified Executive Chef at Raleigh Country Club

Finding five minutes to ask Chef five questions is no easy task. With nearly four decades under his belt – the last 11 years at Raleigh Country Club – he is quite content with the hustle and bustle the job demands. He says of his occupation, “I truly enjoy what I do.”

Jamie Waggoner: When did you first start cooking professionally?

Dennis Freeland: I first started cooking after high school at a restaurant called McCarthy’s in Chapel Hill. One day the omelet cook didn't come in, so I came to the rescue. I'd never made an omelet in my life, but I said "yes.” In a couple weeks I had moved to lead line cook.  

JW: Take me through the different work environments you’ve experienced and how they benefited your career.

DF: I worked under some really great chefs at Washington Duke Club and Carolina Club in Chapel Hill. After, I attended the Culinary Institute of America, graduating in 1996. Being able to have real-world experience before culinary school was very beneficial. I got a lot out of my education because I understood why we were learning the things we were learning.

JW: How have you seen the industry change during your tenure?

DF: While I was in school there was a big change of thinking. Working in the kitchen used to be closely tied to traditional methods. In the 90s there was a “changing of the guard” where new ideas and methods became welcome. It was nice to be in the middle; I have respect for the old methods and appreciate the new.

JW: What is your favorite thing about working at RCC?

DF: I enjoy the member atmosphere, and seeing familiar faces. I’ve always felt that you need to be a servant at heart to thrive in this business. We have an awesome team of chefs at McConnell Golf, and the comradery is great. We love coming together for the “blood, sweat and tears” of putting on the Wyndham Championship and having a team of chefs to help each other out with special events throughout the year. and new ideas is an awesome resource.

JW: What is your favorite dish to prepare?

DF: A new one! One of the joys of the private club business is that I don't get tied into one type of cuisine. I like being able to choose and invent. I grew up a Southern boy so of course local, fresh Carolina cuisine is close to my heart.  

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January Cookie of the Month

by Jamie Waggoner

 Jan 01, 2019 at 5:32 PM

Oatmeal Cranberry Apple Cookies
By Cedric Hendricks, Line Cook, Raleigh Country Club

These cookies remind me of my travels to Atlanta, Georgia. At a hotel where I stayed, these tasty treats were offered as free samples to the guests. I loved them so much I wanted to recreate the recipe and spread the same delight to others. Sometimes it’s the little things we remember the most. I hope that this recipe will make some special memories for you and your family as they have done mine.

Fun Facts About Cedric: 

  • Length of Service at RCC: Three years
  • Hometown: Henderson, NC
  • Favorite Menu Item: Crispy softshell crab on toasted brioche bun with arugula, pancetta, sliced tomato and tarragon caper remoulade
  • One thing someone might not know about me: I like Japanese anime
  • One thing I love about my job: The ability to be creative

      
Recipe 


INGREDIENTS
1 ½ cups All-Purpose Flour
2 large Eggs
1 teaspoon Salt
1 teaspoon Vanilla
1 teaspoon Baking Soda
3 cups Quick Oats
¼ teaspoon Nutmeg
1 ½ cups dried Cranberries
1 cup Butter, softened
1 ½ cups small, diced Apples
1 cup Brown Sugar
1 cup Pecans, toasted
½ cup Sugar

DIRECTIONS: Preheat oven to 350°. Mix all dry ingredients. Cream the butter and sugars together. Gradually, add eggs and vanilla until smooth. Stir in flour mixture until incorporated. Fold in oats, cranberries, apples, and pecans. If mixture appears too thick, add 1 tablespoon of water. Form 1-inch balls on a cookie sheet one inch apart. Bake for 10 minutes.

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Plug It In

by Martha-Page Althaus

 Mar 14, 2018 at 8:21 PM

McConnell Golf’s latest eco-friendly venture 

If you’ve pulled into the parking lot at Raleigh Country Club recently, you may have noticed something new. The club is now outfitted with a ChargePoint Level 2 commercial charging station for electric plug-in vehicles.

Nearby TPC Wakefield Plantation will have two charging stations later this summer, with the possibility of adding more should demand rise. These stations serve all electric vehicles and are free for member use.

We have several members who are already using the charging station,” says Christian Anastasiadis, McConnell Golf COO. “It’s our way of giving back, helping the environment, and making it better. It’s a great thing for our members.”

The benefits of owning an electric car are immense — there’s much more to it than a lack of tailpipe pollutants. For starters, it’s a smooth, quiet ride with stronger acceleration.

Energy efficiency is often touted as the top reason to make the switch from a traditional gas-guzzling car to electric. Electric vehicles convert between 59 and 62 percent of electrical energy from the grid to power at the wheels, while conventional gas vehicles only convert about 17 to 21 percent of energy stored in gasoline.

Plug-in electric vehicles make a big impact on the nation’s energy security. In 2017, the US imported about 19 percent of the petroleum used. Energy- efficient cars are powered solely by electricity, a domestic energy source.

If you’re thinking about making the switch to a plug-in electric vehicle, rest assured you’ve got two guaranteed places to recharge, with the possibility of more to come. The impact is substantial.

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High-Tech Turf

by Casey Griffith

 Dec 19, 2017 at 4:23 PM

To the casual observer, the greens and fairways of Raleigh Country Club appear to be a utopian landscape expertly sculpted by knowing hands. One imagines every corner of the course is generously and thoroughly fussed over for hours on end, and that it no doubt guzzles unspeakable resources and costs a fortune to maintain.

Often overlooked, however, is the whirr of spinning discs atop the birdhouse on the No. 18 fairway and the tiny sets of holes on each green. It’s easy to glance past a nearby sprinkler head that covers an exact radius for exactly five and a half minutes — one that will administer no water at all tomorrow. The reality is that taming this demanding 200-acre course requires a sophisticated approach, precise applications, and next-level data analysis that McConnell Golf is helping to pioneer.

TECHNICALLY SPEAKING

During RCC Superintendent Billy Cole’s 30 years in the industry, he’s watched technology touch nearly every aspect of his work. “From equipment to communication, technology has made every job a little bit easier,” he says.

Until recently however, these technologies have lived in separate systems. Soil contents and moisture levels are recorded with a device called a Pogo stick — it probes the green and transmits data to a mobile app. Another device drops a golf-ball size sphere onto the green to record firmness, while green speeds are measured by hand with a stimpmeter. Hidden in plain sight, a solar-powered weather station on No. 18 transmits info to the office, where all data points are manually recorded alongside records for equipment repair, maintenance, and labor costs. Through these tools, Cole can track, assess, and manage a healthy course. 

“The challenge is to balance what’s good for the golfers and what’s good for the course,” he says. “They both rely on each other and they both want very different things. The turf needs to rest and recover while our members want to play as often as possible.”

Enter OnLink. This cloud-based platform collects data from Cole’s instruments to provide analytics across all sources. Beyond time savings, OnLink measures different variables against each other and predicts outcomes with more accuracy.

“I’ve been doing this long enough that I could tell you how the weather will impact the course pretty well,” Cole explains. “But this gives me the ability to precisely understand why we’re seeing certain things. We’ve had more consistent green speeds, for example, since using OnLink because we can monitor if a particular green needs to be rolled twice in order to play consistently with others.”

The predictive nature of the platform doesn’t only prompt reactive efforts – it’s also a means for conservation. As Cole reports, “Now I can see where we’ve over-corrected in the past. Identifying thresholds for ideal outcomes and eliminating excess has been just as valuable to us as the ability to understand trends.” 

SUSTAINABLE PRACTICES

The platform has environmental implications as well. “OnLink provides the tools to incorporate metrics that evaluate sustainability across our courses ... fewer chemicals, less water, less intensive maintenance, and lower costs,” explains McConnell Golf COO Christian Anastasiadis. “The ability to efficiently measure and monitor benchmarks has been missing in the golf industry for a long time.”

RCC has been piloting the OnLink platform for six months, and it will be rolled out to all properties by the end of the year. These practices will be just as valuable at sister properties, especially when it comes to accommodating the unique ecological thumbprint and microclimate of each course.

“Our purpose for this program is consistency of course conditions and management of materials and labor across McConnell properties,” says VP of Agronomy Michael Shoun. “OnLink helps us be better managers of our resources.”

Earlier this year, John McConnell posed a question in his often playful manner: “Who has the most important job at McConnell Golf?” The audience made some guesses but couldn’t quite nail it down. “The mechanic,” he finally explained. “Without mowers and rollers, you can’t provide a superior golf course. And that’s where it all starts.”

While operational efficiency may not be glamorous, it offers members a thriving world of private golf. A world where the phrase “It’s a McConnell course” carries the same meaning from Knoxville to Myrtle Beach.

 

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Growing the Game

by Brad King

 Aug 22, 2017 at 3:30 PM

Junior Golf thrives at Raleigh Country Club

Jim Barnes has been around the junior golf program at Raleigh Country Club since 1973, when he was four-years-old and playing golf with his father. Today his own sons, Avery and Camden, are active in the RCC junior golf program, and Barnes says things have changed quite a bit since he was a kid.

“When I was growing up, there were only about three junior golfers,” he recalls. “I played golf with more retired members during the weekdays than young people. Nowadays at the parent-child tournaments, you’ll have 60 teams.”

Involvement in RCC’s junior golf program, led by Assistant Golf Pro Thomas Walker, has skyrocketed. Walker and his staff host a variety of events during the year, including fall and spring after-school clinics and summer camps, and they’ve fielded numerous successful PGA Junior League teams in the past few years.

LAYING THE GROUNDWORK

Growing the junior golf program was a top priority for McConnell Golf after taking ownership of RCC in 2003. McConnell wanted to emulate the vibrant programs at nearby clubs in Raleigh. A key hire at RCC was Josh Points, who came from Florida, where he was teaching with famed instructor Jim McLean.

“We wanted to follow a pyramid model — growing a big base with beginners, then moving them to intermediate and advanced, then on to high school and college,” says Brian Kittler, RCC’s director of golf operations. “We knew we had the facilities and the instruction to do so.”

Mission accomplished: RCC’s junior golf program is now regularly churning out college golfers, starting a few years back with Cyrus Stewart, who went on to play at Wake Forest and is now pursuing professional golf. Stephen Franken is at NC State now, earning All-ACC honors this past season. Preston Ball (Loyola), Gray Matthews (Sewanee), and Sam Stephenson (UNC Pembroke) have all played collegiate golf, while Parker Gillam is headed to Wake Forest this fall.

“That progress has been really cool to see,” says Kittler. “We’ve grown quite a pipeline. Every graduating class now sends kids to Division I golfing programs. I think we’ve created a culture. Plus, they’re all really great kids.”

FUNDAMENTALS AND MORE

Eleven-year-old Kinsley Smith, a fifth grader at Lacy Elementary, has participated in just about everything offered at RCC at every level during the past few years.

“I remember Kinsley not being able to get the ball airborne two years ago,” says Walker. “Now, she’s one of the best on our Junior League team. She whooped all the boys a few nights ago.”

“She’s really improved. It’s been exciting to see,” says Marcus Smith, Kinsley’s father. “More than anything, it’s the opportunities. They’ve really expanded the program. They’ve added a Saturday series, the summer camps, which have been really good, and they’ve added fall events like they’ve done in the spring. The more you’re out there playing and practicing, the better you’re going to get. It’s fun for her. Golf is an individual game, but the team-based atmosphere, the camaraderie at the camps, and the spring and fall drills ... it makes it fun for the kids.”

Kinsley has now started playing tournaments, including U.S. Kids Golf and she recently started playing in Peggy Kirk Bell Girls Tour events around North Carolina. She’s tried other sports too — dance, gymnastics, and tennis, plus other activities — but according to her father: “She keeps coming back to golf. Now it’s just part of our after-school routine.”

Smith says the RCC staff, along with its world-class facilities, has been key to Kinsley’s rapid improvement.

“Raleigh Country Club has got to have one of the best practice facilities anywhere,” he says. “If you can learn to chip and putt at Raleigh, that game will travel. When you see 30 kids on the putting green, to me that’s awesome. It’s a game of a lifetime. It’s a good gift to give a kid.”

Barnes adds that the lessons taught by Walker and the rest of the RCC team impact young people in ways far more important than just golf.

“They’re focusing on the fundamentals, but they’re also focusing on what we want all young people to learn — to be good teammates, to pull for each other, to be good stewards of the game,” he says. “Winning is secondary. They’re good golfers, but they’re good young people first and foremost. Not all of them are going to be professional golfers, but they’re all going to be adults one day.”

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A Worthy Cause

by Lynn Hart

 Jan 01, 2017 at 6:21 PM

When McConnell Golf and Raleigh Country Club pastry chef Lynn Hart was diagnosed with breast cancer last December, she turned to her club family for support. They rallied to the cause by joining her Cardinal Solutions Group Team in the 20th annual Komen Triangle Race for the Cure in June. Altogether, members donated $2,500 to Hart’s team, and much of the Raleigh Country Club staff participated in the race. McConnell Golf matched the member donations to raise a total of $5,000 on Hart’s behalf for breast cancer research. 

A Note From Lynn...

Going in for a routine appointment and learning that you have a very aggressive form of breast cancer was one of the worst moments of my life. I would have five months of chemo, surgery and then six weeks of radiation. Dennis Freeland was the first person I told at work; we would see how things went and take it one day at a time.

My first chemo was once a week for twelve weeks. I woke up every morning with a splitting headache but found that if I ate a light breakfast and had some coffee that it would go away in about twenty minutes. Though it did not change the recommended treatment plan, the chemo drugs worked and the tumor was gone.

My second chemo would last for eight weeks and my nausea was as wicked as they said it would be. For two and a half months, I would become deathly ill for three hours each morning before the pills would kick in. I pressed on believing that God would give me the strength to get through it and he did. This eight and a half weeks was my hardest stretch in which Dennis took an active role.

When my blood sugar dropped, I would get very light headed and experience chest pains. Even if we were quite busy, if Dennis noticed that I was looking puny, he would park a salad or sandwich in front of me. He is not only a good boss but also a good friend. Without his support, I would not have been able to make it through.

A week after I completed chemo, I did a 5k walk/run to benefit the Komen Foundation. My husband’s company, Cardinal Solutions, custom designed a shirt logo with my name on it for the race. JP, the executive chef from Greensboro drove all the way to Raleigh with his daughter Harriet to support me and John McConnell generously matched funds contributed from our company. Between our employers, friends and family $5,000 was raised in my name.

The moral support I received from McConnell Golf does not end there. A talented pastry chef named Jennifer from Country Club of Asheville was brought in to help me during the Wyndham Championship so my shifts would be shorter than last year. I was able to keep my recommended radiation schedule and still have a quality event for the VIP guests. I was very touched to receive the special Wyndham chef coat and be photographed with all the McConnell Golf chefs overlooking the 18th green.

To everyone reading this who knows me personally, thanks for your prayers. I had a great outcome for the most difficult season of my life and I am grateful to work for such a caring company.

Lynn Hart

 

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