Cape Fear Country Club was established in 1896 and is the oldest private country club in North Carolina. In the early days the club relocated twice, however, the course in play nowadays is a 1922 Donald Ross creation which Ross subsequently revised more than once.
The club’s rolling property has seen more than its fair share of tournament action down the years. Cape Fear was the permanent site for the PGA Tour’s Azalea Open from 1945 until 1970, counting Arnold Palmer and Jerry Barber among its winners.
The course has undergone numerous modifications: John LaFoy (1986), Willard Byrd (1993) and Kris Spence (2006). But it’s Andrew Green’s $5m restoration, which returned Cape Fear to prominence in 2019.
Andrew Green takes up the story: “The existing greens were struggling to drain and had bentgrass on them. In order to switch to Ultradwarf bermuda putting surfaces and solve the drainage problems, it was determined that the greens needed to be rebuilt.”
The ground game has returned to Cape Fear. All greens have been lowered “to get them back to a Ross-like elevation and allowing players that don’t spin the ball to be successful. The greens have been shaped in a way to pick up a lot of the Ross-inspired character in their shape and surface. Using the interesting shapes on Ross’s plans as a guide, we have putting surfaces with a wide variety of hole locations.”
Bunkers have also been rebuilt. “The bunker style is inspired by Ross, which I feel is unique and fun without being penal. The bunkers are of a modest depth in accordance with the Ross notes. Most are 3.5-4 feet deep, but they look intimidating and have tremendous character.
The property is a great rolling piece of ground and once held encampments and batteries from the Civil War – we have tried to accentuate those landforms left by time.”
Had the good fortune to play here recently with a friend who is a member. The course is in excellent shape following the renovation. It's a course you can play every day. Just a continuous stream of quality golf holes. Nothing that jumps out as superb and nothing which says it shouldn't be there. If you get an invite, make the time to go enjoy this historic course.
Cape Fear Country Club, originally designed by Donald Ross and recently restored by Andrew Green, is one of the more playable golf courses one will play. While it does not belong in the conversation of the twenty best golf courses designed by Mr. Ross, it is perhaps one of his more fun designs. This is not to say it is without challenge because every ten years the Carolina Amateur championship is played here. Years ago it was the site of the Azalea Open, a PGA tour stop, from 147-1971 won with scores ranging from 269 to 281. It was a favorite course of Jerry Barber, who won a title three times.
Due to financial difficulties of the Great Depression, the club sold off some of the land which was developed into housing leaving two of the holes feeling a bit separated from the rest of the course. The club also once had its starting hole for the back nine, a par 3, located in front of the clubhouse, but that house was eventually relocated by a previous architect to become the fourteenth hole which fits in much better to the routing.
One very nice feature the club added recently was to build a nine hole par 3 course after an extensive tree removal program. The longest holes are approximately 135 yards with holes going to as little as 65 yards. Some of the greens on this par 3 course are excellent and provide a good warm-up prior to tackling the main course.
There are not many greens that are overly elevated. Instead, the highest rise for the green is about six feet. This makes recovery from off the green a more realistic probability, although the greens have adequate contour on most holes to provide additional defense. The “lower” green surfaces also allow for the possibility of being able to run one’s approach shot onto the green. That is one of the three best features of the golf course which is the additional options one has as they approach the green. The other two best features are the routing which moves in all directions and the green complexes.
The course is an easy walk with no significant rises or falls. The tee box for the next hole is typically close to the green just played, with the exception of the tenth hole. To get to the tenth hole one has to walk past the halfway house, the first tee and through the parking lot to find the tenth hole. As previously mentioned, the tenth hole is played between houses. The house at the end of the tenth hole has a nice front porch to sit on to watch people play into the green. The eleventh hole has houses on the left side which continues down the twelfth and again down the eighteenth hole. The course is therefore now land-locked since the par 3 has been built.
From the Championship tees the course measures 7005 yards, par 72 rated 74.4/139. From the Ross tees the course is 6608 yards, rated 72.5/133. We played the Cape Fear tees at 6237 yards, rated 70.4/128, as I was with three senior players. I did walk to most of the Championship tees to see the tee shot for the better players. It was a cold day (December 4, 2020) so I felt my tee shots were essentially where the better players would land their shots. There are three sets of lesser yardages, of which my host played the next set up at 5880 yards.
1. Par 4 – 356/325. The markers were closer to the Championship tees for us. This hole is meant to be a gentle handshake with a wide fairway offering scattered trees down the right side. The fairway falls away gently with a left bunker creeping into the fairway as the one obstacle. The green is flanked by a bunker to either side, neither which is particularly deep. None of us hit the green in regulation, all of us coming up in front of the green. None of us read the green correctly despite three of us having essentially the same line as the break to the front right pin was more substantial than it appeared. This hole is meant to be a par or potential birdie. We moved on.
2. Par 4 – 461/393/361. From the Championship tee the hole goes down and then back up. For us being 100 yards ahead, it went slightly up. There is an early bunker left that should not be in play followed by a bunker on either side of the fairway placed equal to each other. I found one of them roughly 190 yards from the green but was able to knock it on with a 5 metal. There is a bunker placed inside the fairway on the right about ten yards short of the green and another on the left side so one can thread their ball through them to arrive on the putting surface which is what I managed to do. The green is large and has a substantial back to front tilt and interior undulations. It is a good hole.
3. Par 5 – 574/523/506. A stream crosses the fairway which can be reached off the tee with a longer shot. There is a fairway bunker on the right after the stream which can come into play as the green is placed off to the left. Another fairway bunker lies inside the line of the fairway on the right about 10 yards short of the green, similar to the previous hole. There is a smaller bunker on the front left corner. The green has somewhat of a vertical ripple to it and is more elevated than the previous two holes.
4. Par 4 – 460/437/407. This hole plays as a dogleg right with a bunker on the inner corner. The approach shot needs to cross the same stream as the previous hole although the stream is wider here. This green has no bunkers and is shaped narrower at the front. From the Championship tee, it is a nice golf hole.
5. Par 3 – 209/188/171. The first par 3 is a good one, perhaps the best hole on the front side. Going back the other way one plays down over the same stream that should not be in play to a green that has a substantial back to front tilt as it is more raised in the back half. There is a deep bunker to either side at the front. The green is narrower at the front than the back with a sort of bowl effect to it for the front half.
6. Par 5 – 541/504/49. The tee shot moves back the other way. The two fairway bunkers are on the left and out of reach off the tee except for the longest hitters. These bunkers are again set inside the line of the fairway so they are very much in play for any shorter hitter coming up from the left side. There is a single fairway bunker to the left of the raised green which has a good amount of inner contouring.
7. Par 4 375/352/340 – Moving in the same direction as the first hole, but with another change in direction, one plays slightly uphill the length of the hole. This hole offers scattered trees down the right side and a fairway bunker on the left that is in play from all tees. The green is elevated and large with flanking bunkers at the front. We had a back left pin position which found the pin to be on a bit of a plateau. Behind the green it falls-off. When building this green they found hundreds of cannon balls left over from the Civil War, some of which were removed, and others were left there on this site known as McRae’s Battery. Down the right side of the fairway and continuing for the next two holes, the pine needles and the trees are the locations of additional batteries (Dawson battery at the ninth green). Wilmington was one the most important seaports for the Confederate Army during the Civil War and the last seaport to fall to Union forces.
Behind the seventh green and off to the left of the eighth hole is a woods known as a “Potters Field” denoting the unmarked gravesite of as many as ten thousand people, either former slaves or people killed during the many hurricanes that have hit the Wilmington area since the 1700’s.
8. Par 3 – 175/167/148. This hole plays downhill and has a flanking bunker at the front corners. There is a mound on the left side between the green and bunker. We had a front pin location and I came close to an ace just like the wife of one of my playing partners who were in the group ahead of us. The back left side of this green is a difficult pin location as one has to carry the bunker to a pin location that does not hold many shots due to the slope of the green.
9. Par 4 – 483/456/420. The inward nine finishes with the longest par 4 on the course as you change directions for the ninth time to head back towards the halfway house and clubhouse. Trees are thicker down the right side but do offer the opportunity for a pitch-out that advances the ball. This hole doglegs to the right with no fairway bunkers. A single bunker sits to the left side of the green. The green has a tier in it more pronounced on the left side and is one of the better greens on the golf course.
10. Par 4 – 343/314. After the long walk to get to the tenth hole you arrive at the weakest hole on the golf course. This slight dogleg right is well bunkered but they can be avoided. The green is good, however with a front right swale that is speedy and a back half higher tier.
11. Par 5 – 560/542/524. This is the first dogleg left on the course and I played my tee shot too far to the right finding a tree that left me in a ditch from which I barely got out due to the stance. There is a bunker up the right side in play and although it appears that is the better line to the hole, one can easily play to the left of it because the next shot should be played out to the right to avoid the two bunkers on the left and get the best angle to the green. Bigger hitters will fly that first bunker. The green has no bunkers but again has a swale in the front half and a tier in the back half. This green has a flat entrance to it so one can run a low shot onto the green. I saved myself a bit with a one-putt.
12. Par 4 – 460/419/396. This hole plays straight with no fairway bunkers but does have a green that is well bunkered with three on the left and one on the right. The green is also raised with an overall back to front tilt accented by a fair amount of interior contouring. We had a back left pin location that seemed nearly impossible to get to. This is the beginning of four very good green complexes.
13. Par 4 – 344/314. This is a “newer” hole and not part of the original Ross layout. The hole bends sharply to the right playing across a stream that continues down the entire right side and at half of the rear of the green. The best approach to the green is to land just inside the outer fairway bunker. There is another bunker on the right that can come into play for those trying to cut off too much of the dogleg. The green is slightly raised with three fronting bunkers on the right and one placed on the left. This dictates the best way to see the pin is coming into it from the left or center of the fairway. I came in from the right rough to a pin placed close to the fronting bunkers. I hit an excellent lofted shot that landed close to the pin and expected to find my ball within six feet. Instead I was nearly off the back of the green. It is a solid green complex.
14. Par 3 – 155/146. This hole replaced the previous tenth hole but they mirrored it in length and placement of the bunkers. The only difference is that this hole has water down the entire left side. The green is fronted by two bunkers with an additional bunker on each side bringing the total to four. There is a tier in the green. The back left of this green is difficult to get a ball close to as an approach shot will likely fall off the back side and perhaps go into the water. It is a good mid-length par 3.
15. Par 5 – 502/482. Perhaps the best green on the course comes next. This hole plays in an opposite direction with a slight bend left. There is a bunker on the left that is in play off the tee so the best line is center-right. The hole rises to the green with two bunkers on the front left and one on the right. I should asked for yardage for my approach shot to the green because I was a club short leaving a very long putt on perhaps the most raised green on the course. There is a vertical spine that runs the length of the green and the left side of the green has a center mound that influences the break the entirety of the left side with a substantial movement to the right resulting in my only three putt of the day. Yet I like this green a lot.
16. Par 3 – 234/217/205. Despite its length, the members feel this is the “easiest” par 3 on the course as it plays downhill to a green that has an opening and is flattish before a sharp rise to its rear. Only one of us found the green off the tee and he three putted due to leaving his first putt short of the drop and not converting a seven feet putt after his second putt raced by the hole.
17. Par 4 – 442/398/392. There are flanking bunkers in play off the tee for all players. This is another raised green with two bunkers left and one on the right. This hole has a horizontal tier to it and a fair amount of movement.
18. Par 4 – 331/312. This dogleg right plays downhill with fairway bunkers in play for all players. Longer hitters will try to drive the green. There is a center-line bunker placed about 20 yards short of the green and then three bunkers on the right. The green has a lot of interior movement. Two of us had similar putts of different lengths but the same line to a back right pin from below the hole but neither of us saw the three feet break to the left, even on replays. Players either like the hole or think it is too easy. I think it is too easy and a bit of a disappointment as a finishing hole. It would be okay at any other location on the course. However, on the plus side, you are likely not to finish your round on a bad note.
Cape Fear Country Club is a gem of a course. It is fun. The routing on the front nine is wonderful as no two consecutive holes move in the same direction whereas on the back nine holes ten-eleven and sixteen and seventeen do. The green complexes are interesting, with the stretch from twelve to fifteen being very good. If one is in the area and can secure a game here, they will be pleased. The members should be delighted with the course, and thrilled also to have that wonderful par 3 nine hole course.
Cape Fear Country Club is a truly charming Ross gem situated on a perfectly rolling property for golf. Though I have only played once, back in 2017, the club left a strong impression and fit many of my criteria for the type of course I could enjoy playing every day.
CFCC is a classic private club with a lot of Ross flare. The fairways are very wide in most places, and with such large greens, there is a premium on giving yourself the proper angle into each hole. Many of the rumbled putting surfaces are also surrounded by short grass and interesting chipping collection areas, too, which is just not present enough at so many North Carolina championship designs. Course conditioning is excellent, and the entire practice facility was top notch, not to mention a wonderful locker room with Ross’ original hole maps.
Some of the most memorable holes for me include:
• #3: An uphill par 5 that incorporates a shallow creek, bisecting the fairway and adding a tough decision if you play the proper tees.
• #11: Another strong par 5 with a blind tee shot and a fun opening to a green that is receptive both to aerial and ground shots on your approach.
• #13: Typically, I do not prefer holes with ponds that feel ‘gimmicky’, but here, Ross did a great job of providing players with a lot of options off the tee. I found that cutting off too much actually hurt in the long run since this very undulating green required a wedge with more spin to control.
• #16: A classic, stout Ross par 3.
CFCC is the type of place that fits the phrase “the sum is greater than the parts.” While it will not receive any ‘best ever’ rankings, it is the type of place I would love to belong to and play every day. I am excited to see the recent restoration work completed.
It starts with the clubhouse, impressive! Service is top notch, everyone was friendly, courteous and professional. Course was in great shape, a classic old throwback. You definitely want to fly the bunker on 3 and cut as much of the corner as possible or face a long approach over water. Number 11 stay right to avoid the bunkers on the left side. It is a wonderful golf course and we had a wonderful day