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.
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.”
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.