Above Par

by Jun 3, 2019North Brunswick

Thanks to changes at Cape Fear National, Magnolia Greens and Compass Pointe, brighter days are here for North Brunswick golfers.

 Golf demands cooperation from the elements, and 2018 was anything but ideal in that regard in southeastern North Carolina. It was a year that began with snow and record cold, ended with historical rainfall totals and in between offered a chilly spring, extreme heat and a late-summer drought. And let us not forget the devastating impacts of Hurricane Florence, which toppled trees, destroyed bunkers and dumped 3 feet of rain on already saturated turf when it made landfall in September.

Yet the three golf courses in North Brunswick County — Cape Fear National, Compass Pointe and Magnolia Greens — survived these trying conditions, bounding ahead with relentless optimism stemming from renewed growth and progressive leadership. Billy Casper Golf, a Virginia-based management group with 150 courses in its portfolio, assumed operation of Cape Fear National, the Tim Cate–designed course in Brunswick Forest, on January 1, 2018. Renaissance Golf purchased Compass Pointe and Magnolia Greens from developer Bobby Harrelson in May of 2018.

Billy Casper Golf installed Kris Reinert as the general manager at Cape Fear National, which it sees as a high-end public premium course striking the balance between memberships available to Brunswick Forest property owners and walk-up greens-fee play.

Since Billy Casper assumed management of Cape Fear National, membership has increased.

“Any golf club is only as good as the manager on site,” Billy Casper Regional Manager Steve Brown says. “A lot of credit goes to Kris for getting everyone up to speed for how best to work with a management company. Getting him in there was the big domino to fall. Reactions from the guests and members have significantly improved. We’ve seen and heard a lot of positive response from the course.”

Increasing memberships are a bucking of the national golf trend. It’s an interesting time for the game of golf in the United States as over the last decade the number of recreational golfers has neither grown nor shrunk. Golf courses, however, grew at an unprecedented rate in the 1980s and ’90s, fueled by the real estate sold around them. As time and cost constraints deterred a new generation of prospective golfers, supply of courses now exceeds the demand of golfers.

In 2017 more than 200 courses across the United States closed, while only 15 opened, according to the National Golf Foundation, a golf market research provider. Locally, within the last 18 months the Echo Farms and Masonboro courses in New Hanover County shuttered their pro shops.

The newest trend in golf is to offer other golf-related options for those wanting to swing the clubs while also seeking seek an enhanced social experience, a relaxed environment and less demands on their time. This explains the popularity of entertainment-driven options such as indoor golf simulators (three opened or are scheduled to open soon in the region) and TopGolf, which bills itself as a place for golf, drinking, dining and sports viewing. Places like these attract a younger crowd, which is often more interested in hanging out than posting a scorecard.

Along those lines, Cape Fear National offers fun programs such as Margaritaville Bunkerville, in which a golf pro teaches participants how to hit bunker shots while a bartender shows them how to make the aforementioned cocktail.

“Golf has become more social,” Reinert says. “That’s been our main focus in driving our golf experience.”

“We’re all competing for the same golfers,” Brown says. “If you don’t deliver that experience that Kris has put in place there, that when you show up it’s a social experience, where every time you come you’re greeted by a smile and the customer service level is raised to the expectation, people will go elsewhere because they have so many choices.” 

Renaissance Golf is also bucking the trends with its success at Magnolia Greens and Compass Pointe, which opened in June of 2016, making it the newest course on North Carolina.

Jay Biggs is the president and chief operating officer of Renaissance Golf. A PGA member, Biggs came to the coast after a successful tenure at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club. Renaissance also owns The Beaufort Club and Ironwood in Greenville, North Carolina

Compass Pointe, a Rick Robbins design, survived the wrath of Florence better than any course in the area, reopening for play days soon after the storm thanks to its sandy soil and undulating property with excellent drainage. Similar to Cape Fear National, the course at Compass Pointe is located inside a booming residential development. There are 900 homes built and room for another 1,400, meaning the course will transition to a fully private course at some point in 2019.

“We have to leave enough golf space for current and future residents,” Biggs says, expecting a waiting list to be in place in the coming months. “Before the acquisition, 40 percent of the residents were members and now we’re over 75 percent. I always tell everybody, if you want to be part of it, right now is the time to do it because it will be full in the near future at the rate we’re going. We’re trying to avoid a situation where the course becomes compacted and members can’t get on the course.”

BLUR Workshops, an architectural firm out of Atlanta, is designing a new clubhouse at Compass Pointe, and Biggs hopes to present those plans to the club’s advisory board in February.  

Magnolia Greens, a 27-hole facility off U.S. 17 in Leland, caters to the area by offering a public driving range and short game practice area. Biggs envisions expanding Magnolia Greens’ offerings soon, with preliminary plans to move the driving range tee 30 or 40 yards and add a three-hole short course or putting course.

“On the corner of the driving range you could do an outdoor stone rectangular bar area, have music by the driving range, make that area a great golf hangout, give it a great atmosphere in the evenings to generate some family golf and provide a golf experience different from what anybody around can offer,” Biggs says.

A former president of the First Tee Sandhills, Biggs also wants to continue cultivating the junior program at Magnolia Greens.

In addition to being neighbors, Cape Fear National and Magnolia Greens both are addressing bunker problems in 2019. Incessant downpours from Hurricane Florence washed the sand out of the faces and exposed drainage issues. Under the direction of contracted maintenance company 19th Green, Cape Fear National began a major renovation in early January with hopes of completing the project by mid-April.

“The recovery process is ongoing,” Reinert says. “The golf course tees, fairways and greens are all in great shape right now. We really had to look at our bunkers and are focused on returning the golf course to its original condition, which our residents and guests have come to enjoy. We’re really excited about the direction of the golf course. The residents are happy to see the progress we’re making.”

Compass Pointe architect (and resident) Robbins, a former president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, has devised a bunker restoration plan for the 27 holes at Magnolia Greens. Biggs says that project will begin in the spring with crews working on nine holes at a time so golfers always have access to 18 holes. Those crews will also address various drainage problems scattered across the property, after a year in which 115 inches of rain fell at Magnolia Greens.

“It’s been fun to be around both courses and get a really good feel of the culture and what you can do at each place,” Biggs says. “They’re both great and both are little different. I see a lot of growth potential in both.”

Assuming that Mother Nature possesses a gentler touch in 2019, we can expect the sun to shine on the 63 fairways and greens in North Brunswick County and anticipate a path of golfing progress in the days ahead.