The par 5 8th hole at Cape Fear National brings all the key elements of Tim Cate's design into vivid display -- and into play.
The best golf course designers are like painters or mixed media artists, combining layers of texture and colors into a playable canvas that is both a challenge and a visual delight. For coastal golf courses, the textures include some combination of sand, marsh, sprays of sawgrass, dunes, and the contrasting greens of fairway and putting surface. Throw in the ocean blue for those lucky enough to have been handed a property at ocean’s edge, and even a round poorly played has its compensations.
You would expect a former landscape architect to have a leg up on other golf course architects when it comes to sculpting a piece of property for maximum eye appeal. And your expectations would be met if your example was the brand new Cape Fear National in the Leland, NC, community of Brunswick Forest. Former landscape designer turned golf architect Tim Cate, a hot property along the North Carolina seacoast, has created a layout that is a good bet to be as popular with golf architecture buffs as it is with those who play it. The good news is that everyone can play it for the foreseeable future.
Cate, a native of Sunset Beach, NC, just north of the Myrtle Beach area, has done almost all his work near the coastline and works as hard as any architect at embedding coastal topography into his designs. Large sand bunkers are prevalent in his courses at Ocean Ridge Plantation (Tiger’s Eye, Leopard's Chase) and The Thistle Club, as are earthmover-created dunes and a splash of blue from manmade lakes. Cate also takes great pains to ensure lots of framing with the natural grasses of the Low Country, primarily the sawgrass whose whispy shoots form distinctive crowns.
Neither Kemper Sports, which manages the club, nor the developers of Brunswick Forest are saying how much Cape Fear National cost to build, but given the 1.5 million cubic feet of dirt that was pushed around, it could not have come cheap. The result is a landscape that is both sculpted and natural looking, a vast improvement over the flat, undistinguished piece of canvas Cate inherited –- although he reportedly was granted as much property as he needed. Virtually every hole includes dunes sprouting sawgrass and impressively long and sculpted sand bunkers, including some that serve as cart paths; and where traditional cart paths cannot be avoided, Cate buries the offending macadam behind dunes or just plain low points in the fairway, much like Tom Fazio does on many of his courses. Over one stretch of holes on the back nine, the designer created a high and long berm that separates a few holes from each other and provides almost an arena-like effect reminiscent of some (British) Open Championship layouts.
Cape Fear National (I keep repeating the “National” because there is a traditional club in the area called “Cape Fear”) has been set up for all levels of play. In fact, the separation between tee boxes is unusual and another sign of a spare-no-expense attitude. Most holes feature four or five separate square or rectangle teeing areas, not the customary one or two long ones dotted with two or three sets of tees. Although the separation of the tees represents a bigger up-front investment and slightly higher maintenance expenses, back tee hitters never feel as if they are driving a ball down an airport runway. And the wispy grasses and occasional hazards between tees add more texture to the designer’s artistic design.
Both nines at Cape Fear National end with par 3s. The 9th is the best of them.
The scrub and sandy waste areas between tee and fairway play tricks on the golfer’s eyes. On some holes, the fairways appear almost unreachable and, on others, so narrow as to be impossible to hit. In these cases, the free yardage book (the club plans to charge for it after a few months) is of invaluable use. There is considerably more landing area than apparent, and the distances are much shorter than the expanses of scrub imply. In March, the fallow brown rough propped up any offline shots, but don’t expect that condition to last beyond late April. When the Bermuda rough takes on its natural gnarly characteristics, there should be much gouging and cursing. The rough and other features of the challenging layout explain why the golf course from the tournament tees (7,200 yards) carries a rating of 74.7 and slope of 143.
Those other challenges include well-bunkered, large and contoured greens, the longest of which is at the par 5 8th hole, an impressive 46 yards deep. When the pin is at the back, it adds a good 30 more yards to the already long hole (576 yards from the tips, 536/500/472/433 from the other tees). To complicate matters, water runs from the right side of the tee boxes all the way to the right side of the green, in play for right-handers who push or lefties who pull. The hole forces you to play it as two right-turn doglegs before a wedge to that mammoth green. It is a visually stunning and thought-provoking hole (see photo).
The 13th and 16th holes, two of those with tee-to-green waste bunkers that do double duty as cart paths, are about as close to redundancy as holes get at Cape Fear National. Both are par 4s of roughly the same length -– 375 and 371 yards respectively from the “gentlemen’s” tees –- and the waste bunkers come into play for shots pushed right. However, the hole-length bunker on 13 crosses in front of the green, making it a punishable offense to come up short. At 16, the bunker remains to the right of the green, but the green tilts perpendicular to the fairway, making the bailout area short and left pretty much a requirement for those with long approach shots from the right side of the fairway.
Oddly, both nines at Cape Fear National end with par 3s. The 9th was the most attractive and challenging of the one-shot holes on the course -- all carry over a lake which is bordered by a rocky edge and that protects the left two-thirds of the green. Pin positions from mid point left on the redan-style green are especially thorny. Although elsewhere on the course, the scrub pines do not form the most attractive backdrop, behind the 9th they are so dense that they seem a key element of the painting of an attractive golf hole.
For mid March, the putting surfaces were a delight. Their dusty green color belied the fact they putted as if in June form, smooth and fast (Director of Marketing and Sales Brad Walker indicated the morning’s stimpmeter reading was 10). After a few putts, I stopped worrying too much about judging speed since the greens were consistent. The fairways were pretty near the equal of the greens in condition, and I did not have to roll the ball over once (although I picked up a spot of mud here and there). After the prior day's rain, the course showed it drains well, a characteristic of coastal courses with sandy soil.
If I have one quibble with Cape Fear National, it is the placement of directional signs for carts in front of the greens. They seem out of place and distracting on a course whose landscaping has been lavished with such care and whose natural look is otherwise unimpeded by 150 yard posts or the typical large granite tee markers. (Cape Fear uses a simple plaque on a post to indicate the hole number.) The club can certainly use a starter to instruct golfers to exit the fairways 30 yards before the greens, and rangers can patrol to ensure compliance. The cart signs are not only unnecessary but they are like a dab of magic marker ink on an otherwise beautiful painting.
Brand new golf courses typically need a couple of years to mature, and Cape Fear National will only get better in the condition department if maintenance crews can keep up with the abundant play that is just about guaranteed once word starts to reach vacationing and Wilmington area golfers. Expect that by the course’s official grand opening the week of April 16, warm weather will tighten up the turf even more and begin to turn everything a brighter shade of green -– and turn Cape Fear National’s prospects for a rousing success even brighter. A great layout is already in place.
Cape Fear National Golf Club, in the community of Brunswick Forest, is just off Highway 17 in Leland, NC. Annual pass: $5,250 per couple, cart included; $3,000 for a single. Green fees: $50 resident, $75 Wilmington area resident, $110 rack rate. Yardages: 7,217, 6,686, 6,195, 5,603, 4,802. Ratings: 74.5, 71.9, 69.8, 67.1, 63.4. Slope Ratings: 143, 134, 127, 111, 101. Website: CapeFearNational.com. For information about real estate in Brunswick Forest, contact me.
Although the opening hole at Cape Fear National provides a nice "warm-up" for what follows, it is not without the potential for a hazardous beginning.