CLINTON, SOUTH CAROLINA | It was not a
matter of if, but when Musgrove Mill Golf
Club would close its doors and put a lock
on the gate. And to walk away would have
been one of the great golf tragedies, particularly in this part of the world.
Musgrove Mill is a rare find, a near
masterpiece unlike anything you’ve ever
seen or experienced. It pitches and rolls,
meanders, rises and falls and, unlike others who claim this, it really and truly tests
every part of your game and each club in
your bag. You can leave the 18th green
at Musgrove Mill having your hind parts
severely kicked for four hours and ask the
staff if there’s a time on the tee sheet for
later that afternoon.
And it was about to die.
The club is owned by McConnell Golf,
founded by John McConnell, who bought
Raleigh Country Club – which was on the
doorstep of bankruptcy – in 2003. McConnell was founder and CEO of Medic Computer, which sold in 1997 for $923 million,
personally netting McConnell a reported
$60 million. He invested in and became
CEO of A4 Health Systems, which was sold
for $272 million in 2006, according to The
News and Observer of Raleigh, N.C.
McConnell now owns eight private clubs
in North and South Carolina and the roster
is regionally impressive. The idea was to
build a portfolio of high-rent properties
that were financially challenged, make
them operationally lean and mean, and give
a full member of one club membership
rights to all eight.
And when Musgrove Mill came into
McConnell’s sights in 2007, it was going to
be one of the jewels in the crown. But just
as the ink was drying on the contract, the
economic catastrophe of 2008 hit marginally profitable private clubs especially hard
and Musgrove Mill took a full blow.
At its peak, Musgrove Mill had about 320
members and did 15,000 rounds annually.
Last year, the club was down to 170 members – only about half locally – and rounds
were down about a third. The club lost
$650,000 in 2010 and about that much in
2011. McConnell had enough and told the
staff last October that the club was going to
He still had some hope, however, as he
was prepared to spend $200,000 annually
to keep the course in condition so that if
the economy improved substantially, the
club could reopen without having to perform drastic maintenance measures.
Musgrove Mill opened in 1988, an
Arnold Palmer design that wasn’t even
close to anything that Palmer had ever
done. According to Golf Club Atlas, Tom
Fazio did some of the routing and Ken Tom-
linson – of Tidewater Golf Club near Myrtle
Beach – contributed some changes. But
Palmer gets the design credit.
some late nights, a new membership classification was developed. The staff is marketing 100 memberships to people already
belonging to a private club in the Carolinas
for $1,200 a year. And it is also trying to sell
150 memberships to private club members
outside the Carolinas for $600 a year.
Fully subscribed, those memberships
will only generate $210,000 a year. The rest
of the shortfall is anticipated to be made up
by cart fees, guest fees and other forms of
revenue. New members are asked to bring
three guests per quarter. As of Feb. 1, the
club had sold 73 of the new memberships.
The problem Musgrove Mill faces is
similar to many private clubs across the
nation. The days of the initiation fee are
all but gone to all but the most exclusive
clubs. Most of the mid-level clubs are practically giving away memberships just to
get people in the doors to pay the monthly
dues, which are the lifeblood of the private
club. And many private clubs are starting to
allow limited public play, simply in an effort
to generate revenue.
Still, the biggest thing we sell in golf is
hope, and everyone associated with Musgrove Mill has high hopes.
“Mr. McConnell is a hero down here,”
Tallman said. “Those people who stuck
with Musgrove Mill, they are heroes, too.
They understand that we’d rather be open
and people use the facility as opposed to
closing the doors.”
And, at the end of the reality-stricken
day, the bottom line is, unfortunately, the
bottom line. l