Course Guides for Wilmington and Brunswick County

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

WILMINGTON, N.C. – Wilmington doesn't pretend to be anything close to the "Golf Capital of the World." Myrtle Beach, which lays claim to that title, sits just an hour south along with it's one hundred plus golf courses.

But this river city of just over 100,000 doesn't have to pretend to be one of the most historic, picturesque and enjoyable vacation destinations in the southeastern U.S. – it already is.

The city's vibrant downtown, relatively low cost of living, setting on the banks of the Cape Fear River and proximity to white, sandy beaches have made it one of the fastest growing and most frequently visited burgs in North Carolina.

With a little creativity and planning, Wilmington can also prove to be just as satisfying and challenging a golf destination as its neighbor to the south.

"The great thing about Wilmington is that the golf courses of Brunswick County are just a half an hour away in most cases," says Patrick Crean, President of Magnolia Greens Plantation in North Brunswick County. "You can stay in downtown Wilmington, with all there is to do there, and drive out to play golf at one of the top shelf courses in Brunswick."

Located just five minutes south of downtown, Crean has marketed his 27-hole Tom Jackson designed facility as a place to play on the way to and from Myrtle Beach. But the truth is, Magnolia Plantation can also serve as the central headquarters for a Wilmington based golf trip that doesn't necessarily require any help from the Grand Strand.

Ask any long time Wilmington area golfer and they'll tell you that Michael Jordan's hometown struggled for years to establish any sort of golfing identity. For years, courses were either extremely private, like the Cape Fear Country Club, or somewhat destitute and municipal.

But Wilmington's seaside location and semi-sandy soil finally began to appeal to golf course developers in the late 1980's and early 1990's, and a core of respectable, daily fee golf courses began to spring up from the marshes of the Cape Fear River Basin.

"I found that you can't make a living just selling golf packages to the Wilmington area, but as a golfer, it's a awesome place to visit," says Jerry McGraw, president of a local golf packager. "There are more than enough good golf courses to make for an interesting three or four day golf trip, and then there is all that the area has to offer."

In fact, the following scenario could easily unfold one fine day in Wilmington:

You could awake at the crack of dawn in your two-bedroom golf villa at Magnolia Plantation. Before the dew even clears the tee boxes, you could wolf down some breakfast, suck down a cup of java and be ready to tee off for 18-holes on Magnolia's finely crafted fairways and true rolling bentgrass greens.

For lunch, you could dart over to downtown Wilmington and hunker down on some seafood while sipping a cold beverage along the River Walk. Following a quick visit to the St. John's Museum of Art, you could get back into the car and drive out to Porter's neck Plantation and Country Club for 18 holes at Wilmington's sole Tom Fazio designed golf course.

A quick trip back to the golf villa and a warm shower later, you could be back in downtown Wilmington, taking in the nightlife at the Pour House or the Front Street Brewery and generally enjoying one of the Carolina's best small cities.

The next day could be all about golf. Point the car south and head to one of the finely crafted courses of Brunswick County. If there's enough daylight, you could easily work in 36 holes, especially if you were to opt for one of Brunswick's award winning multi-course facilities such as Ocean Ridge Plantation, Sea Trail, or St. James Plantation.

"I think Wilmington and Brunswick County appeal to a different type of golfer than does Myrtle Beach," Crean says. "If you've already experience all that type of nightlife and shopping, you might be ready for something different, and I think that is what this area offers."

With a respectable sampling of courses, a colorful history, proximity to the beach, eclectic shops and one of the region's best art and entertainment scenes, Wilmington doesn't need to be the Golf Capital of the World to be one of the true vacation capital's of the Southeast.

Wilmington Area Golf Course Capsules

Bald Head Island Golf Club
A George Cobb designed course that is only reachable by ferry. Views of the Atlantic Ocean and Cape Fear River are breathtaking on the ride over, the layout itself is one of the most under appreciated in the state. A demanding, challenging and scenic course that would rank among North Carolina's best if it were on the mainland. The round trip ferry ride is $15.00, and the car parking fee is $5.00. Well worth the trip!

Beau Rivage Plantation
An 18 hole championship course built in 1988 featuring bentgrass greens, naturally contoured Bermuda fairways and tees and elevations of 70 feet (including the highest point in Wilmington). The par 3's are some of the strongest in the area, and water comes into play on 9 holes. Eddie Lewis designed the course, which opened back in 1988 and the par 5 18th, with its double dogleg, is one of the most interesting three-shoters in the area.

Belvedere Plantation
With its elevated greens and tree-lined fairways, Belvedere is a traditional gem designed by Russell Burney. The holes at Belvedere are naturally routed through the woods, and Osprey, Grey Heron, and Canada geese can be seen with regularity. Belvedere is not a long course, but it plays tough from the 6,400 yard tips. The greens are bent with 419 Bermuda fairways and both No. 3 and No. 8 are considered the course's signature holes.

The Cape Golf & Racquet Club
The Cape Golf and Racquet Club is situated on a peninsula between the Atlantic Ocean & the Cape Fear River. The wind is normally up, making this layout a challenge for all skill levels. Keep your eyes peeled on the 6th green, you may get to see some baby alligators. Host course for a 1997 NGA Hooters Tour event. Ponds, marshes and 24 lakes give the Cape a true coastal, mid Atlantic feel.

Carolina National at Winding River
The first Fred Couples designed course in the Carolinas. Carolina National is located at Winding River Plantation, halfway between Wilmington and Myrtle Beach. The 27-hole facility is destined to be one of the finest courses in the area. In 1999 and 2000 Carolina played host to the official developmental tour of the LPGA with a Futures Tour event.

Castle Bay
The newest addition to Wilmington area golf, Castle Bay opened to rave reviews in November of 1999. Castle Bay is a links style course just north of the city in Hampstead. The course features rolling dunes and is completely devoid of trees. The course is woven through protected wetlands with strategically placed water hazards and sand bunkers.

Echo Farms Golf Club
The venerable Gene Hamm designed Echo Farms back in 1974, but ownership made a number of improvements to the course back in 1995 including upgrading the greens to bentgrass, and Ian Scott-Taylor further improved the course in 1998. Echo is set on an old dairy farm amid a residential community and a large nature preserve.

Magnolia Greens Plantation
This Tom Jackson-designed golf facility just south of Wilmington is a popular stop for golfers on their way to and from Myrtle Beach. With 27-holes, a solid selection of golf villas, and a location just 10 minutes from downtown historic Wilmington, Magnolia Greens easily stands on its own as one of the area's premier golfing destinations. Host course for the 1998 & 1999 PGA Tour first stage Q-School.

North Shore Country Club
One of two courses located on the city's northern tier, but the trip to North Shore is always a favorite year after year for our golfers who travel to the Wilmington area. Located 35 minutes north of Wilmington, and only 2 minutes from Topsail Island Beach. The bentgrass greens and 419 Bermuda fairways provide ideal playing conditions year round. North Shore features a boatload of mounding, and plenty of water and wind off the nearby ocean.

Oak Island Country Club
Designer George Cobb, of Bald Head Island & Linville Ridge fame, uses the coastal terrain to give all levels of golfers a challenge. Water oaks, tropical vegetation, and constant ocean breezes are integral characteristics of this very popular course. Oak Island features two of the best finishing holes on the coast. Located on Yaupon Beach.

Olde Point Golf Club
This Wilmington area favorite sits in a natural setting of woods and water. Olde Point is lined with plush landscaping, lakes, and ponds. The new 419 Bermuda fairways complement the large bentgrass greens. Olde Point requires well-placed shots from the championship tees to a more relaxed round from the other 3 tees.

Porters Neck Plantation and Country Club
This is the first and only course in the Wilmington area designed by world-renowned architect Tom Fazio. From the gold tees, Porters Neck plays 7200 yards, but only a few daring pros ever play it from the tips. A true championship course, Porters Neck hosted the 1995 North Carolina Open. Home course for LPGA Touring Pro Cathy Johnston Forbes. Hosted Round 1 of the 1997 PGA Tour Q-School. Play is open to the public on a limited basis.

River Landing Golf Club
Located 35 minutes NW of Wilmington, this Clyde Johnston design is a great choice for your first golf round on a week long trip. Play it on the way down to the coast, and then head down Interstate 40 to play the rest Wilmington or Myrtle Beach has to offer. River Landing is one of the best new courses of the Carolinas. The course now has 27 holes with several of the holes wrapping around the scenic Cape Fear River.

Topsail Greens Golf Club
Designed by Russell Breeden, Topsail Greens is what you might expect from an oceanside layout: tight and windy. From the island green on hole No. 8 to the tough par five that follows, Topsail Greens will impress the experienced player, but it will not intimidate a beginner. The course is known for its excellent conditions and friendly staff.

Five Brunswick County "Must-Play" Courses

River's Edge
Rivers Edge opened back in 1998, and golfers haven't stopped talking about it yet. Arnold Palmer's design team laid out the course along the Shallotte River, one of the most enviable settings of any Grand Strand golf course. The first seven holes play through the inland stretches of the property, and the eighth and ninth holes begin the march out to the river. The par 5 ninth has become on of the most talked about holes in Myrtle Beach. The second shot has to be drawn (ideally) onto a little sliver of land that poses as a fairway. The green is equally narrow, and an approach shot that reaches the putting surface will typically be applauded by the small galleries hanging out on the porch of the clubhouse. The back nine plays around the river, and is arguably one of the best backsides at the beach.

Tiger's Eye
Ocean Ridge Plantation's "crown jewel", Tiger's Eye, opened to outstanding reviews in March of 2000, and has since emerged as one of the beach's top ten tracks. A sensational blend of traditional design principles and modern nuances provided by former Willard Byrd student Tim Cate. Tiger's Eye features over 40 feet of elevation changes, surreal waster bunkering, flawless bentgrass greens, and a championship caliber test from the back tees.

Oyster Bay
This Dan Maples design is one of the most scenic layouts in Brunswick County golf. Oyster Bay is a classic marshland course that winds through the Intracoastal Waterway and features some of the best golfing views in the county. The course features two island green par 3's and more lakes than you can shake a ball retriever at.

Marsh Harbor
Quintessential Brunswick County course, featuring Carolina hardwoods, marshland, and even a few elevation changes. Numerous directional changes make this a shotmakers course. Par-5 seventeenth hole has been dubiously dubbed as "marvelously terrifying." The drivable par-4 18th is one of the most dramatic finishing holes at the beach. Considered by many golfers to be the most scenic golf course in the entire Grand Strand, with the course conditions to match.

The Thistle
Tim Cate designed masterpiece that took Brunswick County by storm when it opened back in March of 1999. Considered by many golfers to be the best inland course in the North Strand. The Thistle features elevated tees, artfully sculpted fairways and behemoth bentgrass greens.

Top Five Brunswick Values

Calabash Golf Links
Within the corporate machine that is Myrtle Beach Golf, there exists a tiny sampling of family owned, brilliantly managed and finely conditioned golf courses. Calabash Golf Links is one of them. For an inland course that only charges around $50, Calabash is a must play. Kemp Causey, the owner, is typically out playing nine or "puttzing" around on the putting green. Joy Causey, his daughter and marketing manager, can be found roaming the premises chatting up players. The layout features a couple of memorable holes, and a bunch of good ones punctuated with tight little tiff dwarf Bermuda greens.

Meadowlands Golf Course
Looking for bang for your buck, this immaculately maintained Willard Byrd layout in Calabash offers one of the better courses for the money in Brunswick County. Meadowlands is an inland course that features a number of freshwater lakes and Carolina hardwood trees.

Brunswick Plantation
Twenty-seven user friendly, inland holes that are always in good shape. The proshop staff is solid and overall, it's a nice experience. The setting doesn't stack up to Rivers Edge or Brick Landing Plantation, but not many golf courses are blessed with waterfront views. Buoyed by an excellent head professional and superintendent, Brunswick has plenty-o true rolling Crenshaw bentgrass greens and tightly manicured Bermuda fairways for players to enjoy. For the money, you'd have a tough time finding anything better.

Lockwood Folley Country Club
The term is over used by public relation pundits, but Lockwood Folley is truly one of the hidden gems of the North Strand. The piece of property is sneaky awesome, with a back nine that plays right up against the Lockwood Folley River. The course is always in excellent condition, and the staff is one of the most cordial in the North Strand. Even if you are not on a shoestring budget, Lockwood is a must-play. One of Willard Byrd's better offerings at the beach, the course is totally playable from the middle tees, but backs up to a 139 slope from the tips that will challenge the better players.

Carolina National
National doesn't get the hype that Tidewater and Rivers Edge do when it comes to the Brunswick County, but this 27-hole Fred Couples/Gene Bates designed layout deserves to be mentioned in almost the same breath. The course is set on the scenic Lockwood Folley River, and has been certified as an Audubon Sanctuary. The third nine opened back in late 1999, and rivals its slightly older siblings for scenery and challenge.

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of from 1997 to 2003.

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