John McConnell and Darrell Craft, the two newest owners of three of the lake’s four golf courses, have spent the past few days meeting with staff and looking to the future following a recent blockbuster deal that ended decades of ownership by The Willard Companies.
McConnell Golf, based out of North Carolina, purchased The Westlake and The Water’s Edge in the sale. Roanoke resident Craft, a Roanoke lawyer and avid golfer, purchased The Waterfront.
McConnell, president and CEO of McConnell Golf, said it finally made sense to purchase the properties after contemplating it for several years. “It seemed like the right time for us,” he said.
One major reason the sale was more enticing, McConnell said, was due to the growing interest in golf in recent months due to the pandemic. He said interest in the sport has grown substantially.
“The golfing industry is benefitting from a bad situation,” McConnell said.
With the purchase of the two courses, McConnell Golf now owns 15 clubs and operates 17 courses in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. While most courses are located in North Carolina, McConnell is no stranger to Smith Mountain Lake.
McConnell has owned property at SML since 1994 and said he visits frequently. His company has also owned and operated Crazy Horse Marina—one of only three marinas operated by the company—since 2012.
“We are excited to be part of the community and expand our presence there,” McConnell said.
McConnell Golf also operates a marina in New London, North Carolina and in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
While McConnell admitted it was too early to have any specific plans for each of the newly acquired golf courses, he said his courses are at the top echelon for play and enjoyment for its members and he plans to continue that with The Westlake and The Water’s Edge.
“We have high expectations of where we can take that golf course and the club in general,” McConnell said of The Water’s Edge.
One significant change after the purchase, according to McConnell, is that all club members at The Water’s Edge will have access to all of the McConnell Golf courses at no charge if paying the club’s full dues. “It’s an awesome benefit,” he said.
Craft, who now owns The Waterfront, said he also has high hopes for his golf course. He said that owning and operating a golf course has been a longtime dream for him.
Craft said he had made efforts in recent years to purchase golf courses in Florida, South Carolina and even the Ashely Plantation in Botetourt County, but those attempts fell through for various reasons.
Craft’s interested was renewed this past year during the annual Roanoke Valley Golf Hall of Fame tournament at The Westlake. He said he knew the course was for sale and spoke with Ron Willard about possibly purchasing it. At that time Craft was told that a group was interested in buying all three of the lake’s courses, making the purchase impossible at the time.
A few weeks later, Craft said he got a text message from Ron Willard II asking him to come by The Waterfront to see his interest in that course. After some discussions with Willard, Craft said he decided to make an offer on The Waterfront.
Craft closed on The Waterfront on Dec. 31. “To be honest, I couldn’t be more excited,” he said of the purchase.
In the days since the purchase was finalized, Craft said he has visited The Waterfront several times to speak with staff. He said he was already familiar with the course as an avid golfer in the area, but wanted to get to know more aspects of the club.
While he is still working out plans for the golf course, Craft said he has no intention to significantly change what the Willards have done at the course for the past 40 years. He said he intends to continue the traditions of the Willards before him.
As for the Willards, their company will not own or operate a golf club at Smith Mountain Lake for the first time in more than 40 years. It will also be the first time in more than 20 years The Willard Companies have not owned all three courses.
“It is somewhat bittersweet,” Ron Willard II said of the transition. He said the company plans to now focus more on its commercial properties around the lake. He said that The Willard Companies longtime logo of a person playing golf would likely be changing soon.
As for the two new owners of the lake’s three golf courses, Willard said McConnell and Craft are perfect for the courses. He said they were not going to sell the courses to just anyone who showed interest and wanted to make sure they were the right people to continue on.
“I think it was the perfect transition for us,” Willard said.