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Green Golf on Bald Head Island

I like to consider myself both a golfer and an environmentalist. I’m the kind of guy who carries his clubs in the trunk of a hybrid car and keeps an informal count of the number of bird species he’s seen as he’s played. But more and more often, I feel like a friend to both the Hatfields and the McCoys. Too often I’m presented with an apparent and painful conflict between being green and being on the green.

In Ireland not long ago, I watched Tom Doak sketch the routing for an exciting new course on a stretch of rugged linksland twenty-five miles from Tralee. That project has gone nowhere; one reason is the high cost and hassle factor of fighting opposition from Irish and European environmentalists. (In the same region, Greg Norman had to re-route Doonbeg to protect a snail so small that you could keep a family of them on the top of a golf tee.) Doak told me that back in the States, his second eighteen at Stonewall Golf Club outside Philadelphia required more than twenty environmental permits; a decade earlier, his first course at Stonewall had needed about five. Certainly no one planning a course in this century does so without anticipating a long and thorough environmental review, and it’s safe to say that many of the world’s great courses could never be built today.

So it was with both anticipation and trepidation that I recently planned a week on Bald Head Island, North Carolina. If ever a place seemed destined to force me to choose between golf and the environment, this was it.

Bald Head sits on the southernmost tip of North Carolina’s Cape Islands, at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. Confederate blockade-runners once plied the adjacent waters trying to get supplies up the river to the port of Wilmington. The island is shaped a bit like a fork, with three tines of dry land poking into a maze of creeks, marshes and wetlands. A maritime forest, its trees stunted by the salt breeze, covers much of the lee side of a central dune that spans the six-mile length of the thickest tine.

I had a bit of history with the island. Back in the 1970s, I was a cub reporter for the Associated Press in North Carolina and Bald Head was the subject of a political controversy. Bearing just a lighthouse and a few abandoned Coast Guard buildings, it was considered the biggest piece of pristine land left on the Atlantic Coast. The governor at the time, Bob Scott, wanted the state to buy it for a park. The legislature, though, was inclined to let a developer start turning it into a resort.

One day in 1971, I drove to the coast and took a small fishing boat to the island. I found miles of beaches unmarked by anything but shorebird talons. I also found bulldozers rumbling up and down the central dune. The developer, unannounced, had decided to preempt the governor by beginning construction. The story I wrote appeared on front pages around the state. It helped launch my career.

At the time, I was in the stage of life where a young man’s clubs often gather dust in his parents’ garage because there isn’t enough time and money for golf. Perhaps not coincidentally, my sympathies then were largely on the side of the environmentalists. I thought there were already enough beach houses and golf courses on the coast—and not enough parks.

That sentiment had kept me from revisiting Bald Head Island for several decades. When I finally decided to go back, I was curious to see what had been done to the island—and fearful that I’d find another place with houses jammed along the beach and golf greens jutting into a suspiciously brown and sickly marsh.


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