Wilmington Municipal - A Comparable Success Story

Carolinas Global Golf Post / April 27, 2015 / By Lee Pace

Hanging on the wall above the check-in counter at Wilmington

Municipal Golf Course is a framed map of Donald Ross’s original plan for the

course, located just off Oleander Drive three miles from downtown. The date

at the bottom is 1925.

There should have been an asterisk beside it with a new date: 2014.

Eighty-nine years after the original plan was set in pen and ink, the

course was built to Ross’s plans.

“People’s mouths drop, they can’t believe what we’ve done,” says

course head pro and general manager David Donovan. “The before and

after—it’s not even close.”

Donovan came to work in 2007 at the course that opened in 1926 and

quickly realized that the map in the shop and the reality in the ground didn’t

mesh. The small round and uniform circles that served as putting greens in no

way matched the drawing or the style of greens Donovan knew from playing

other Ross courses.

Donovan read clippings in the local library and talked to old-timers and

figured out that the original construction crew built greens made of sand and

clay—a common approach in the mid-Atlantic in the early 1900s. The course

was finally irrigated in 1953 and at that point the greens were grassed. By

then, Ross had been dead for five years.

What existed for more than half a century into the 2000s were round

patches of grass averaging 2,500 square feet in size—and the architect who

drew them was never able to follow through with his original ideas.

Thus in 2010 Donovan set off on a mission to raise and allocate the

money and get the City of Wilmington’s approval to undertake a major

overhaul of the course that gets upwards of 60,000 rounds played on it a

year. John Fought, a Scottsdale-based architect who directed the Pine

Needles restoration in 2004, was hired for the job. The course closed in the

winter of 2014 and reopened in October.

The $1.4 million project includes new greens complexes, bunkers and

putting surfaces on all 18 holes, 24 new/rebuilt tees, some tree removal to

improve sunlight and air flow and the removal/repositioning of cart paths in

some areas. Most significant are the greens complexes. The bunkers were

edged with Zoysia grass to make them less maintenance intensive, the

collars planted with 419 Bermuda and the greens sprigged with MiniVerde

Bermuda.

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Green fees have been slightly increased but remain reasonable for

local residents at $35 on weekdays and $39 on weekends.

“I think this has put us on the map now,” Donovan says. “Before, if you

were looking for a nice, affordable course to play, you’d have a hard time right

here in Wilmington. You’d have to cross the bridge and drive a little. Now we

have the caliber that will draw people from out of town.

“On Mondays now when the private clubs are closed, we’re getting

players from Porter’s Neck, Landfall and Cape Fear. This meets their

standards now. That’s a big deal.”

Fought traveled to Wilmington in the fall of 2013 before making a

proposal to the Wilmington City Council. He knew after touring a half dozen

holes that, while the routing was reasonably faithful to Ross’s design, the

green complexes were not.

“We used Ross’s map and we had the individual hole drawings from

the Tufts Archives in Pinehurst,” Fought says. “With that and the knowledge I

have from playing lots of Ross golf over the years, we tried to create some

classically designed greens, greens in the motif Ross would have built. There

was nothing there before, just tiny greens someone had grassed over many,

many years ago.”

The sandy ground was dredged in spots to build the new greens

several feet above ground level. Bunkers were replaced at the proper angles

to provide strategic aiming and shot-placement challenges. Significant time

and money were allocated to proper drainage and irrigation. Donovan will

continue the process in 2015 by laying sod in spots that were slow to fill in

over the winter.

Heralding the results of the project are new tee signs that read at the

bottom, “A Donald Ross Tradition.”

“Now, that fits,” Donovan says. “What we have now I think is true to

what Donald Ross envisioned at the beginning.”

One more change coming soon is replacing the rickety wooden bridges

across the creek on the second and 12th holes with granite structures in the

style of the bridges across the Swilcan Burn at St. Andrews, Scotland. It’s an

appropriate tie-in, given that course benefactor Hugh MacRae in the mid-

1920s talked town fathers into contributing money to build the course by citing

St. Andrews and its populist golf environment.

MacRae, whose family traces its roots to the Isle of Skye in Scotland,

had a quick rebuttal for the mayor, who said golf was a game for the rich.

“No, Mr. Mayor, it’s not,” MacRae answered. “I’ve seen golf in

Scotland. Almost every course there is a city-owned course. Everyone in the

town of St. Andrews plays golf.”

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That in itself is reason aplenty to applaud what’s happened at

Wilmington Municipal.

Bert AtkinsonComment