When John McConnell walks through the door of the golf shop at Old North State Club, he wears a knowing grin, the kind of smile that suggests he knows something you don't.
Perhaps he does. Even as the number of country clubs declines and fewer people play golf on a regular basis, McConnell jumps in, scooping up distressed courses in the Carolinas and Tennessee, paying cash then injecting millions more to resuscitate them.
It's a bold strategy that has captured the attention of a large section of the golf world. On this morning, McConnell doesn't command the room like he owns the place though, in this case, he does. Of the 12 courses he has acquired since 2003, 10 had negative operating income. Now, nine are profitable. That includes Old North State on the banks of Badin Lake in the Uwharrie Mountains, where McConnell is going to measure his 8-handicap golf game against one of the state's top courses.
He wastes no time. His 10-minute warm-up is brisk but efficient and after a couple of minutes hitting a few putts, he's ready to go. But right out of the gate, he runs into problems. His opening tee shot comes to rest in the grassy face of a fairway bunker on the par-5 hole, and it's a delicate balancing act just to take a stance. His second shot moves the ball a considerable distance down the fairway, given where it was lying. His third shot finishes nearly hole high about 40 feet from the hole. He chips his fourth to within 3 feet.
But he misses the short putt for par and a loud "Arrgghhh" escapes. Although McConnell is not playing for anything other than a good impression, his score still matters.
McConnell, 66, is fit and can move the ball a fair distance with his driver. But admittedly, he doesn't hit a lot of greens and has to rely on a sporty short game, which is certain to drive his regular group crazy. He says he gets in one round a week at Raleigh Country Club, where you have to be good around the greens on the complex Donald Ross design.
It was at the central Raleigh club where McConnell first dipped a toe in the waters of owning his own course. The club sought bankruptcy in 2003, facing $7 million in debt it couldn't pay. McConnell could--he made more than $60 million when he sold his Medic Computer Systems software company for $923 million in 1997. He then became CEO of A4 Health Systems, which fetched $272 million when it was sold in 2006.
Though McConnell played often at Raleigh Country Club, he wasn't a member until buying the...