For golfers who want the Pinehurst experience with the proximity to the beach and without the private course price tag, they need to look no further than the Wilmington Municipal Golf Course.
Golf Magazine recently named the “muni” the best public course in North Carolina and No. 21 of the top 30 municipal courses in the nation.
Renowned golf course designer Donald Ross designed the Wilmington Muni in 1926 to provide the public with a quality, championship 18-hole golf course. The muni’s 2014 renovation used Ross’s original plans to restore greens and bunkers.
“Since the [Golf Magazine] article came out, it has given us good exposure and people want to play here, both folks coming from out of town and people in Wilmington who are proud of the ranking,” said David Donovan, PGA general manager of the course.
Ross had written on one of the design plans for the course, “A peach of a course, much too good.” That sentiment has become a motto for the muni.
Most of the courses Ross designed were for private clubs, and golf was an elite game at the time, so his design of a public golf course was a progressive plan for that period.
“Municipal golf courses provide affordable golf for citizens of the townships and cities – that was the number one reason to grow the game of golf for the affordability,” Donovan said. “Golf was a rich man’s sport, not played by the average person. The idea behind this course was to grow the game of golf – not just for the well-to-do.”
Donovan explained how there are a high number of private courses, but not many public courses in Wilmington, which creates even more of a need for accessibility for the game. Recent closures of area courses have created a strain on tee times, and more of a demand for what the muni has to offer.
Considered the “Michelangelo of golf,” Donald Ross was the architect of famous courses like Pinehurst No. 2, so to have a municipal course designed by Ross offers an unparalleled experience of access and affordability for all golfers, officials say.
Donovan said that most who play the course are “generally surprised for the most part – the golf course conditions are better than expected.”
“We are proud of the golf course and glad the city has a public golf course like this. People expect the basics, but the muni exceeds their standards,” Donovan said. “It’s probably one of the most played courses in North Carolina. We are busy every day. We will have 60,000 rounds (of golf played) this year.”
Donovan said the course is busy seven days a week with a variety of ages often spread throughout the day.
“Mornings are mostly senior players and it gets younger and younger as the day progresses,” Donovan said.
The original idea of the municipal course was to expose people from all backgrounds to the game of golf. According to Donovan, the muni is living up to those expectations.
“It is a unique game – the only game that brings people together from all walks of life,” Donovan said. “The Muni provides a sense of comradery among the groups that you don’t get at upscale golf courses. It’s cohesiveness and sense of community via the game of golf.”
A course design that is equal parts challenge and enjoyable draws golfers into it with its walkable design and cool breezes from the Atlantic.
“Golf is really about competition. From the tee to the green. Half the players are from private clubs, but they come and they feel a sense of community in the golf course,” Donovan said. “Everyone wants to play well, but it’s all about who you are playing with – not just the game, but who you are playing with that means so much to those folks.”
Green fees can vary widely, but the muni has some of the lowest fees around, which has allowed the course to build a larger clientele while providing people the chance to save money.
“It is not all about making money. It is about making golf affordable,” Donovan said. “This is not priced to maximize revenues; this is meant to cover expenses and enable a savings account to invest in the future.”
A “vital asset to the city of Wilmington,” Donovan shared current investments in the course that include a new clubhouse and expanded parking lot, which they expect to have completed by late fall.
“The new clubhouse will set a better atmosphere immediately and will elevate the image of the muni. Golfers like to settle up the game, have a beer or two perhaps, and this will give them a nice place to do so,” Donovan said “A lounge area and expanded back porch with televisions will provide pretty good gathering space and dress it up and make it feel nicer.”
The expanded footprint of the updated facility will permit rentals for meetings and catered events. They recently expanded their golf cart fleet as well.
“People come for the golf course, but it is a nice amenity and it is a number one spot for charities. Our expanded golf cart fleet from 60 to 72 carts will keep 144 golfers on the course,” Donovan said. “Typically, the course serves 250 players a day whether there is a tournament or not.”
Donovan said they are always working on “improving the bones of the course,” including turf quality and design characterization. One future focus will be on replacing the aging irrigation system, which Donovan called, “part of the life cycle of the pipes in the ground.”
But the main focus will always be to “stay true to the Ross design” and the initial goal of the course to provide affordable golf.
“It is really a great, old-style golf course. It is very playable – can play with one golf ball usually – there aren’t houses and lakes or ponds that gobble up golf balls,” Donovan said. “And the challenge of the design with the greens and the surrounds, are very Rossy. People love Donald Ross designs, generally. If he’s not the most revered designer, he is definitely in the top five.”