Sand Play: Donald Ross Golf in Wilmington
Donald Ross was a busy man. The legendary designer crafted more than 50 golf courses across North Carolina, and most are still in play today. This includes the course regarded as his best – Pinehurst No. 2 – and several more in and near Pinehurst. Others are in the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky mountains, including one that’s on the site of the state’s first golf course, and some are along the coast.
No matter the region or native landscape, certain traits make Ross’ courses instantly recognizable. Each includes the need to contemplate the result of every swing before it’s made. Ross believed this decision-making process made the game more enjoyable. Now imagine pairing that with a trip to Wilmington and its beaches, where even though there’s plenty of coastal fun to be had, you'll want to make time to play a round or three at two Ross-designed courses.
Day 1: Play a Round and Enjoy the Sand
Ross designed Wilmington Municipal Golf Course in 1926, and former golf professional John Fought, who worked on Ross’ Pine Needles Golf Course in Southern Pines, led its $1.5 million renovation in 2014. The work restored its original splendor, doubling Ross’ trademark turtleback greens and upgrading tee boxes and cart paths, though this is a great course to walk.
Its deep bunkers, revitalized through support from the Pinehurst-based Donald Ross Society, provide textbook Ross challenges. If you don’t plan your shots, you may end up in them. But when your round is done, there's other sand you won’t mind visiting.
Located only a 10-minute drive from the Wilmington course, Wrightsville Beach has been a destination for more than 100 years. Here you’ll find classic beachside motels, rental homes and full-service resorts such as Shell Island. Its central location makes it the perfect place to stay. So do its rooms, which are all oceanfront. But don’t spend your afternoon inside.
The resort’s 3,000 feet of gentle sandy beach is great for catching rays, searching for shells and wading in the waves. You can rent beach chairs and umbrellas at its Tiki Hut, which also has boogie boards, stand-up paddleboards and kayaks. You also can rent a surfboard to catch some of the East Coast’s best waves. If you’d like to swim in a more controlled environment, the resort has indoor and outdoor pools.
If your beach time has you craving a seafood dinner, head to Catch. Its chef, a James Beard Foundation Best Southeast Chef finalist, creates locally inspired dishes, including raw Topsail oysters on the half shell, North Carolina sweet potato salad and cast iron blackened swordfish.
Day 2: Hit the Road to Uncover a Ross-Designed Gem
Across from Wrightsville Beach Museum of History, where you can relive beach vacations from Ross’ time, is Causeway Café. Be there when it opens; it’s popular with locals, especially on weekends. The friendly staff serves a menu filled with tasty and reasonably priced dishes, including the Carolina Blue Crab Omelet, which is made with mozzarella cheese and topped with hollandaise sauce.
With a happy stomach and a beach chair mere steps from your room, a 90-minute drive up U.S. Highway 74 for a round of golf might not sound like an enticing adventure. But all treasure hunts take effort, and this one ends at a gem. Pinecrest Country Club and Golf Course is only about 1 mile from Interstate 95’s Exit 17 in Lumberton. Ross designed half its holes, but his influence is felt throughout the course. The wide pine-lined fairways and brilliant azaleas help the sand traps and water hazards blend with the landscape.
While Pinecrest has a snack bar, a local caterer serves lunch at the club Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. It’s worth partaking if scheduling permits. The buffet overflows with mouth-watering Southern cooking, including fried chicken, barbecue ribs, candied yams and okra. But don’t linger over the homemade desserts. There’s a busy evening ahead back in Wilmington.
The 230-block Wilmington Historic District is home to nationally registered buildings, brick-lined streets and sprawling live oaks, which create an atmosphere of days gone by. This continues inside Caprice Bistro, where ceilings are covered in pressed tin. Try its house specialty – Waterzooi – a mix of local seafood and cream broth. The menu also includes traditional French dishes such as duck confit, beef bourguignon and a three-chocolate mousse.
After dinner, shop the district’s unique boutiques or enjoy a drink at Front Street Brewery, which has the state’s largest whiskey selection. See more of the district on a carriage ride by Springbrook Farms. The Bizzy Bee water taxi is also an enjoyable and scenic way to get around the adjacent Cape Fear riverfront, voted America’s best by USA Today readers in 2015. It’s home to Battleship North Carolina, which played a vital role in World War II’s Pacific theater and is open for tours.
Day 3: Another Round and Seeing the Sights
Arrive early and you can watch the sun rise from Shell Island Resort’s restaurant. But if not, its breakfast buffet will still be there. Choose from eggs, sausage, grits, pastries and fresh fruit, or have a chef make an omelet or waffle to your order.
Playing a golf course on consecutive days or twice in three days usually doesn’t score well, but that’s not the case at Wilmington Municipal. With inexpensive green fees and immaculately groomed grounds, you’d regret not revisiting this Ross design while you’re in town.
Take time to enjoy all the Ross details, including the Bermuda grass. He pioneered its cultivation while tending to Pinehurst No. 2. Think out a different approach to the third hole, the 430-yard dogleg right that regulars claim is this course’s most challenging. Or refine your game at the recently installed short 3-hole course and practice and chipping greens.
When you’re done at the course, head south to explore Kure Beach. You’ll be ready for lunch, so stop at Kure Beach Diner. Located next to the oldest fishing pier on the Atlantic Coast, its hush puppies are legendary. And you won’t go wrong with one of the burgers here, if you need a break from seafood.
During the Civil War, nearby Fort Fisher protected the last Confederate supply line. Now a historic site, it features a visitors center, where a 16-foot battlefield map and exhibits detail the Union troops’ amphibious assault, a scope that went unmatched until D-Day. Afterward, follow the trail around the fort’s remains, where there are a restored gun emplacement, monuments and markers to explore.
Farther down the road is Fort Fisher State Recreation Area. Its 6 miles of trail lead you across sandy beach and through salt marsh, both teaming with wildlife. Learn more about it at nearby North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, where exhibits describe a trip down the Cape Fear River.