WILMINGTON, N.C. — John Fought should have been wearing the signature fedora that Indiana Jones adorned during his famous movies. Or at least the oversized Newsboy-style lid that Donald Ross usually placed on his bald head.
Either hat would have suited the occasion for the course project that Fought – U.S. Amateur and PGA Tour winner turned sleuth and course architect – stumbled upon when making a late 2013 site visit to the southeastern North Carolina coastal town of Wilmington.
The city was courting course architects to revive its raggedy, Ross-designed 1926 Wilmington Municipal Course and Fought, 63, is a longtime Ross fanatic. On his first walk-around, Fought quickly noticed the greens were … boring and mysterious. So he traveled to the historic Tufts Archives in Pinehurst and dug into the treasure trove of Ross letters and drawings, the same place where he studied before renovating nearby Pine Needles a decade earlier.
Fought came away with a true rarity – Ross plans that had never been put to practice. Rolling green complexes were drawn up in the 1920s with notes in the margins. But due to The Great Depression and an ongoing lack of funds, the greens were originally developed as sand greens and were extremely scaled-down small circles.
“I would stake my reputation on the fact that the greens were never built. That was so easy to see,” Fought said. “This project was so much fun, discovering the original intentions and finding remnants of the sand greens. I got to interpret Ross’ plans, use a little artistic license – and it was a delightful experience.”
What transpired is an inspirational confluence of public golf and a city finding a financial way to improve a local institution. Fought’s rebuild and doubling in size of the greens and surrounds in 2014 cost $1.49 million, which the city funded through the longtime use of a unique Enterprise Fund that separates the course’s business from the remainder of Wilmington’s governmental activities.
“The Muni” is a throwback with approximately 45,000 rounds annually and green fees less than $30 to walk (tee boxes are mere steps from greens). A round can easily be consumed in four hours or less.
Even though the scorecards and course sign bear a “A Donald Ross Tradition” logo, locals have always called the course simply “The Muni” – not the most endearing term in golf vernacular. But the term resonates here among locals pulling carts, driving disabled-accessible carts with blue flags, devoted amateurs and juniors. Even the most popular hat for sale in the low-slung, one-story clubhouse simply states “The Muni.”
Bisected by a two-lane road and halfway between downtown and Wrightsville Beach, the par-71 course maxes out at 6,800 yards on mildly rolling terrain. The four par 3s vary from the 146-yard eighth to the brutish 268-yard 16th. Two of the three par 5s, the second and 12th, flow side by side as dogleg rights with a creek to navigate en route to elevated greens.
The First Tee of Greater Wilmington’s brand new three-hole facility, also designed by Fought, sits right of the ninth fairway, protected by a large net and funded largely by the one-time visit of the PGA Tour’s Wells Fargo Championship to nearby, exclusively private Eagle Point Golf Club in May.
“The majority of my work is on high-end private clubs,” Fought said. “But I grew up on a municipal course in Portland, Oregon. The real game of golf is played at municipal golf courses. It’s like the auto industry – most people don’t drive luxury cars. Hopefully, this will be a sign that you can make a fine public course with a little hard work.”
Ward Clayton has been involved with golf communications for 30-plus years, including the Augusta Chronicle and PGA Tour and currently with Signature Group and Clayton Communications. He lives in St. Johns, Fla.