The PGA Tour goes to the beach

By Lee Pace

It was a cold February day in 1997, give or take a year as memories fade, and five men were sloshing through the woods and sandy waste of a parcel of land about 8 miles north of Wilmington. Four were men of considerable wealth and high golf IQs, the fifth considered golf’s top architect of the modern era. Together Billy Armfield, Bobby Long, John Ellison, John Mack and Tom Fazio were trying to determine if this tract just across the road from Porter’s Neck Country Club and across the Intracoastal Waterway from Figure Eight Island had potential for a new golf course.

Long smiles and shakes his head remembering the day.

“I thought that Tom Fazio, if he did not have such a great reputation, needed some serious psychiatric care,” Long says. “Trees are down everywhere, it’s raining, it’s 45 degrees, it’s miserable, it is a mess. But Tom is pointing here and there and saying here’s where the first tee’s going to be, where the 18th green’s going to be, where the clubhouse will be. He’s saying, ‘Man, this is great.’ I’m thinking, ‘You’re certifiably nuts.’ Tom saw something none of us did.”

Fazio merely shrugs.

“It’s just what I do,” he says. “Bobby Long can look at a balance sheet and it makes sense, and it’s Greek to me. I look at a piece of land and it makes sense.”

In time that vision would prove prophetic and crystal clear as the 230 acres became Eagle Point Golf Club, which has become one of North Carolina’s top golf environs and in May will be the site of the 2017 Wells Fargo Championship on the PGA Tour. The Wells (originally the Wachovia Championship when conceived in 2003) has been held annually at Quail Hollow Golf Club in Charlotte, but Quail’s 2017 position as host of the PGA Championship necessitated a one-year transplant.

Given that Quail Hollow President Johnny Harris is a member at Eagle Point and that Long, now the Eagle Point president, has been the guiding force in the resurrection of Greensboro’s spot on the PGA Tour the last decade in the form of the Wyndham Championship, there were plenty of synergies to do a one-off at Eagle Point.

“We thought it was a good opportunity to showcase the golf course, and we want to be a good citizen with Wilmington,” says Ellison, one of the four founding members of the club. “We thought this was a way to be a good citizen and help the economy. We like being a great private golf club, but also like being a good citizen. The two don’t have to be exclusive. We like the idea the restaurants and hotels and Wilmington will be seen in a way they haven’t since the Azalea Open left all those years ago.”

“Wilmington has some nice tradition with the Azalea at Cape Fear Country Club, and we thought it would be fun to kind of link back to that,” says club General Manager and Director of Golf Billy Anderson. “They looked at some other sites around the country for one year, but Johnny Harris and Bobby Long were afraid if it left the state, it would never come back.”

The Azalea Open was held at Cape Fear from 1949-72 as part of the annual Azalea Festival, and now the Wells Fargo at Eagle Point will be one peg in a considerable schedule of big-time golf in North Carolina this year. In addition to the Wells Fargo in Wilmington May 4-7, the PGA in Charlotte August 10-13 and the Wyndham in Greensboro August 17-20, Pinehurst gets in on the action with the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball on the No. 2 course May 27-31.

“Who would have thought a major would be coming to North Carolina and be somewhere other than Pinehurst?” Fazio muses, referencing the Quail Hollow layout on which he’s done considerable redesign work over two decades. “It’s more proof of the quality of golf in this state. You could take the 18 courses we’ve done in North Carolina, and that’s a pretty good career.”

Fazio was approached in the mid-1900s by Armfield, a Greensboro businessman who owned a beach house on Figure Eight Island and thought the Wilmington area was ripe for a unique public-private golf facility — a private course here, a public layout next door, common maintenance staff, equipment and infrastructure, and perhaps homes mixed in as well. They looked at a variety of sites and never found anything that worked. Eventually Fazio told Armfield he knew of a site near Porter’s Neck, which he designed in the early 1990s, that might be for sale. But it was big enough for one golf course only — no real estate.

“On that piece of property, you could only have golf,” Fazio says. “What they wanted was a purist golf environment, no compromises.”

The course opened in May 2000 and has grown to having nearly 500 members. It was run for its first decade by Armfield in the “benevolent dictator” manner of clubs like Pine Valley and Seminole, where he was also a member. When Armfield moved from Greensboro to Richmond, he passed the baton to Long. Sadly, Armfield won’t be able to see the PGA Tour come to Wilmington, as he died in July 2016 after a short bout with cancer.

But his vision is still intact — a golf-centric club, a full caddie staff, walkable layout and a few bedrooms for members from out-of-town. Some 11,000 to 13,000 rounds are played a year, and only on a few summer holidays does the course get jammed. Fazio built a nine-hole practice course as well, and that venue is the site of a regular Sunday night mixed scramble — you play with someone other than your own wife or girlfriend, and then repair to the clubhouse for dinner afterward.

“We wanted to play fast and play with caddies,” Long says. “Looking back, we might have had more money than sense. We did not have a clue what we were doing, and all of a sudden you’re into it pretty heavily and can’t let it fail.”

Fazio built a half-dozen lakes and a couple of streams that run through the course, and the property is dotted with a few massive, draping oak trees so prevalent on the coast. He then planted hundreds of pine trees that started at 6 to 10 feet and are now 35 feet. Fazio and his team moved 2 million cubic yards of dirt, and the highest point in New Hanover County at 52 feet elevation is the 18th tee.

“We took the highs and made them higher and the lows made them lower; that’s why it feels like it’s fairly rolling,” Fazio says. “Construction capabilities what they are today, you cannot tell where we moved earth and did not move it.”

Like most Fazio courses, Eagle Point is gorgeous to the eye and not too difficult from the forward tees. The farther back you go, the more inaccessible pins become and the tougher the angles. The three par-4s in the finishing stretch measure at least 430 yards — and two play uphill into the greens — the par-3 15th is 222 yards, and the home hole is a par 5 at nearly 600 yards with a lake to the right.

“The first three holes are a nice way to start a round of golf. Then as you get further into it, the volume keeps going up,” says John Townsend, who joined in 2000. “No. 4 is a difficult par-5, and six a difficult par-5, seven a gorgeous hole but a little bit of a breather. You step on the eighth tee, you’d better strap on your seat belt. If you don’t get it the first seven holes, it’s tough to shoot a good score. The closing stretch from 14 home is about the best five finishing holes in golf.”

Adds Long, “Three times I’ve been 2-under going to 14 and not broken 80.”

Long, Anderson and the Wells Fargo staff have worked with Marsh Benson, the recently retired senior director of golf course and grounds at Augusta National, on a number of aesthetic tweaks to the course over the last year. Benson made one key suggestion of moving the originally planned entrance to the tournament from the north side of the property to the eastern edge, where spectators will access the course through the par 3-course.

“The sight views are stunning. Marsh is truly an artist,” Long says. “He’s enhanced what we had here. I think the golfers and the spectators who’ve heard of Eagle Point and never actually been will be glad they came.”

And that is a vision that only Tom Fazio could see on a blustery winter day two decades ago.  PS

Chapel Hill-based golf writer Lee Pace, who appears monthly in PineStraw, wrote about the Azalea Open for Salt in the spring of 2014.

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