ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Asheville Municipal Golf Course, a 1927 Donald Ross design listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is in the midst of a $3.5 million capital improvement project funded by the City of Asheville, user fees and grants.
The first phase of the project started in October 2022 and will run through the fall and winter of 2023-24. A major component of the project concerns stormwater and irrigation management and repairing infrastructure that has deteriorated over a century. Tees, greens and bunkers are also being improved, and the pro shop has been renovated. Architect Kris Spence, a specialist in restoring and upfitting Ross courses, was retained through the The Donald Ross Society to provide a masterplan for the course.
“This project has been a long time coming and was very much needed,” says Pat Warren, course general manager and head professional. “We’ve gotten so many favorable comments from regulars who cannot believe the transformation. There’s a lot of excitement over what’s happening now and what’s to come.
“The drainage and irrigation is old, to say the least,” he continues. “The layout is still pretty close to Ross’s original vision. The biggest piece beyond the water management is getting the tee boxes back in good shape, leveling them in places, resodding in places. We’re addressing fairways where they’re thin.”
Ross, the Scottish golf professional and architect who immigrated to America in 1900 and established himself in Pinehurst, built four courses in Asheville in the 1920s—Biltmore Forest Country Club (1922), Asheville Country Club (1926), Asheville Municipal (1927), and Beaver Lake Golf Club (1928). The Muni in Ross’s mind was a key element of a developing wave of city-owned and operated golf courses and followed, by one year, his opening of Wilmington Municipal on the opposite side of the state.
“The development of municipal golf courses is the outstanding feature of the game in America today,” Ross said. “It is the greatest step ever taken to make it the game of the people, as it should be. The municipal courses are all money makers, and big money makers. I am naturally conservative, yet I am certain that in a few years we will see golf played much more generally than is even played now.”
That element of the Asheville Muni experience, which will celebrate its centennial in 2027, has played out over the decades in that it was the one course in the city where citizens and visitors of all races, creed and color could play and enjoy the game and was the first course in North Carolina to racially integrate. The Skyview Open was conceived in 1960 as an all-African American event and had 50 competitors. Two Caucasian golfers participated the following year, and it has been played each July since.
The Skyview has helped launch 29 Black golfers onto the pro golf tours, among them Lee Elder, Jim Dent, Chuck Thorpe and Harold Varner III. World Boxing Champion Joe Louis played in the tournament, as did John Brooks Dendy, who won three National Negro Open championships in the 1930s and was a regular caddie at the Muni, Asheville Country Club and Biltmore Forest Country Club.
The 63rd Skyview, which is being played this week, includes having three stars of the MTV show Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta playing together in the amateur division. Yung Joc, Lil Scrappy and Mendeecees were invited to play by tournament organizers to shine a light on the trailblazing leadership and legacy of the Skyview.
Among the catalysts for the Asheville Muni renovation have been the golf course falling under a new administrative structure in the City of Asheville and taking on a new management company in the fall of 2022.
In January 2022, the city’s golf course, tennis courts, soccer park, Nature Center and McCormick Field baseball park came under the auspices of Community and Regional Entertainment Facilities for the City of Asheville and within the umbrella that also included the downtown concerts/sports arena and performing arts theater.
Later in the year, the Asheville City Council voted to approve Commonwealth Golf Partners II as the new operator of the facility. Commonwealth Golf Partners is led by Peter Dejak and Michael Bennett. They have an extensive background in building, renovating and operating golf courses and country clubs in the Middle Atlantic. Commonwealth has offices in Pinehurst and Williamsburg, VA. The City of Asheville awarded a licensing agreement to Commonwealth that began in October of 2022.
“Every time I go to the golf course, I meet new people who say, ‘I can’t believe this is happening here,’” says Chris Corl, director of the Community and Regional Entertainment Facilities division. “The tried-and-true regulars are ecstatic. The next step is to get the out-of-market visitor to play during tourist season, then get good reviews and grow that business. That will allow us to reinvest—getting visitors to play the course, enjoying it, and coming back.”
Fund-raising is ongoing, and the Friends of Asheville Muni was launched as a 510(c)3 organization to help generate money to assist the restoration well into the future.
“It’s been glorious to watch,” says Phil Blake, who grew up in a house on the tenth fairway and has played the course for more than fifty years. “I never in my lifetime have seen this much money thrown at this golf course. There’s a new spirit around here, for sure.”
Among highlights of the work completed:
- Thinning out underbrush and culling trees to provide air flow, sunlight and turf health
- Cart path repairs
- Sodding tees and fairways where needed
- Extensive tree-clearing and new green and bunkers on the 16th hole
- New signage and pin flags
- Golf shop overall with new carpet, paint, fixtures and and significant upgrade to the retail product offering
- A new weather station to measure green surface moisture
- Restoration of 10 bunkers
- Mounding and broomsedge grass installation on holes one and six to mirror Ross’s original design
“We have a good set of Ross’s individual hole drawings and a good general plan of the 18 holes,” says Spence. “The routing is intact. The evidence on the ground is that the golf course was built according to the plan. In putting a master plan together, my first step was to walk the golf course and try to decide the highest priorities.
”It is not often you get to restore an original Donald Ross that has not been altered over the years. When I first walked the site with Commonwealth, we found Ross bunkers that had been abandoned decades ago. Tees that had trees growing over them. Green edges that you could clearly see and are still defined but have been abandoned. In some ways the lack of attention over the last century to this historic golf course has made the changes that much more rewarding for the players.
“The main thing was cleaning the weeds off, encouraging the Bermuda growth, clearing out trees. In time, we’ll restore the edges to the greens and all of the bunkers around the greens, the ones in the fairways that bring back the essence of the Ross strategy. The Muni is headed in the right direction.”
For more information, visit https://www.ashevillegc.com.
Kevin Frisch PR