Golfers know something special is in store for them before they reach Bald Head Island Club. Taking a boat to and from a golf course will do that to a person.
I can attest to the effects when visiting Bald Head Island Club, off the southeastern coast of North Carolina. On my first visit in the mid-1980s, I missed the final ferry of the night from nearby Southport, N.C., to Bald Head Island and had to endure an emergency, white-knuckled ride in the dark on a jon boat from a couple of rowdy friends — about 2 miles across the mouth of the rough Cape Fear River as it spills into the Atlantic Ocean. Golf would be easy after that escapade.
“When people are here, it’s kind of a disconnect from the real world,” said Brian Stewart, who became the head golf professional in early 2018. “You’re on island time here. It’s not your fast-paced, got-to-go-now kind of vibe.
“We’re a little off the beaten path, so many folks may not be familiar with how good a golf course we have here. Till you’ve been here, you really don’t know what to expect.”
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The pre- and post-golf travel arrangements — including parking and a 20-minute voyage on a privately owned ferry system — add approximately 45 minutes each way and add about $30. But the time and additional cost are well worth it for the seclusion of a course located on the island just south of Wilmington, N.C., and up the coast from the golfing mecca at Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Even though it’s listed as a private facility, Bald Head Island Club is publicly accessible for most island vacationers and renters or with reciprocal referrals from area golf clubs. The course is ranked among the top 10 publicly accessible courses in North Carolina.
The par-72 course measures just a hair over 6,800 yards from the tips, but the vagaries of coastal and island golf are usually apparent. Wind is particularly a factor, especially on the long and watery par-3 16th. The tee is perched up in the air for a great view, but also makes the golfer withstand winds to loft a forced carry 180 yards over water to reach a wide, bulk-headed green with trouble lurking short, right and behind. The brutish par-4 ninth and 18th holes offer similar challenges as golfers emerge from the trees to tackle fingers of fairway that are surrounded by water upon a return to the clubhouse. Fourteen of the holes have some sort of water hazard and many tees and green surrounds are made up of elevated dunes. The historic Bald Head Island Lighthouse, "Old Baldy," is in site on holes Nos. 6 and 7.
With coastal winds and the sounds of waves crashing on the beaches nearby, the course can be visually intimidating, but there’s more room for shots than it appears. Also, more than half of the holes wind through a coastal forest, so there’s some buffer from the wind, which usually comes from the north in winter and south in summer.
The original course was designed in 1974 by architect George Cobb, who designed Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte (site of the PGA Tour’s Wells Fargo Championship) and the par-3 course at Augusta National. Architect Tim Cate, another architect focused on the Carolinas coastal area, completed a restoration in 2010. He cleaned up the course, resurfaced the greens to a more modern Miniverde bermudagrass and added 35 acres of natural sandy areas where rough once existed. An expansive practice facility, with a short-game area, was also enhanced.
Golfers can relax afterward on an island that does not allow automobile traffic. Only golf carts are permissible for inhabitants who can roll about to fish and visit the beach, shops or Old Baldy, which is the state's oldest standing lighthouse and dates to 1817, thought is no longer operational. An expanded aquatic center, with a water slide and other amenities, is scheduled to open in 2019. There are only 250 year-round residents, but the visitor total approaches 5,000 in the summer when rentals are readily available. Homes are sold for an average of $660,000, topped by the scenic “Castle of the Whale,” inspired by Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” novel and with a sales price approaching $12 million.
The island was a main filming location for two movies, “Weekend at Bernie’s” in 1989 and “The Butcher’s Wife” in 1991. Before that, centuries ago, pirates and Native Americans used this island as an escape and fishing location.
“It’s a special place,” said Jeff Phieffer, an 11-year assistant golf professional at Bald Head Island Club. “The golf course stands up to anybody’s game and there are lots of things to do on the island. Plus, I get to ride the ferry twice every day instead of taking a hectic car commute. That’s very soothing.”