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Green Golf on Bald Head Island

My concern started to ebb when I boarded the ferry to Bald Head Island. After three-plus decades of development, there’s still no way to take a private car onto the island. You take the boat. Once there, you walk, skate, bike or ride a golf cart.

In thirty years, the island’s developers have permitted the construction of about a thousand homes. They’re mostly wood-frame, two-story houses, with little of the glitzy architecture of the Hamptons. They have simple decks where you can catch the breeze off the water and, from the river side, watch the odd freighter churning to or from Wilmington. There are a couple of stores and restaurants. The old lighthouse still towers over everything.

The single golf course on Bald Head comports with this sense of restraint. It was designed by George Cobb, who was once the architectural consultant to Augusta National. (He did the par-three course there.) Cobb’s routing stays well clear of the marshes and beaches. It meanders within the maritime forest, with a few greens and tees set around the ridge formed by the island’s principal dune. There are no fairway bunkers. The prime hazards are the lagoons that drain the fairways.

The golf club, owned by its members, tries to be a good steward of its land. The greens are a relatively coarse strain of old-fashioned Bermuda. They’re slower, grainier and bumpier than greens with the more modern hybrid grasses. But they require less fertilizer and fewer chemicals than those hybrids do. When the weather gets hot, the club doesn’t insist that the superintendent keep them slick. It encourages him to raise the mower blades and give the grass a break.

I found, over several pleasant rounds, that I could get used to the greens. And as I walked the course, I could see some of the benefits of Bald Head’s environmentally sensitive approach. Winged creatures flit from the marshes to the course and back again. Ospreys catch fish and feed their young in trees by the seventh fairway and the thirteenth tee. A noisy flock of white ibis roosts on a bank behind the sixth green. In fact, one species, the iridescent black glossy ibis, seems to prefer the edges of the course’s lagoons to the wild marsh. When I saw one, I added it to my golfing bird list.

I know there are environmentalists who would, if they could, tear down all of Bald Head’s houses, let the golf course go to seed and turn the island into a pristine nature preserve. I know there are developers who, if they got hold of the property, would add hundreds of houses and condos, build another golf course with a lot of marsh carries, and lobby the state for a bridge to the mainland. After my visit to Bald Head, I sympathize with neither camp.

I think both golfers and environmentalists need a little of the restraint I saw on Bald Head Island. There’s no reason why golf courses and wildlife can’t coexist. All that’s required is for each side in the debate to respect the other’s arguments and interests. Bald Head seemed a place where that has happened, a place where I could be both a golfer and an environmentalist, without apologies. I enjoyed the feeling.


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