5 Things to Know: Wilmington CC

·10 min read

The second stop in the FedExCup Playoffs goes to The First State, as the BMW Championship arrives at Wilmington (Del.) Country Club. While the course has more than a century of history and has hosted a variety of high-level events, this will be the first time the PGA TOUR visits.

Here are Five Things to Know about this new venue:

1. Rich History

Golf at Wilmington Country Club can be traced back to 1901. The Delaware Field Club, which provided members with opportunities to play baseball, football, tennis and cricket and had previously built a nine-hole course in nearby Elsmere, evolved into Wilmington Country Club that year, buying 129 acres of land in Wilmington and offering stock at $25 a share. Annual dues were also set at $25.

The original course was nine holes and carved out of a wheat field cleared by 25 workers using eight horses. Full construction took about two months and cost $2,000. Nearby land was meant to be reserved for wheat harvesting, but the board quickly saw golf as a greater source of revenue, so another nine holes were added for $850. The 5,700-yard course played as a par 72-and-a-half.

In the 1950s, Wilmington Country Club bought a new piece of land and handed the keys to Robert Trent Jones, one of the era’s preeminent golf architects. Jones created a beast, which is expected to play longer than 7,500 yards for this year’s BMW Championship.

While the South Course opened in the fall of 1959, the North Course followed roughly one year later with a shorter 6,721-yard design by Dick Wilson. The North Course may be shorter, but it also features smaller greens, narrower fairways and more sand than the South.

(Western Golf Association)

2. Flip It

While this will be Wilmington Country Club’s first professional event, its amateur history goes back over a century, as the original course hosted the 1913 U.S. Women’s Amateur. The new South Course followed with the 1965 and 1978 U.S. Junior Amateurs, the 1971 U.S. Amateur, the 1978 U.S. Girls’ Junior and the 2003 U.S. Mid-Amateur.

The 1971 U.S. Amateur, then a stroke-play event, produced Wilmington’s signature shot, one that is both the most famous in the club’s history and led to a re-routing of the layout. Canadian Gary Cowan, who’d also won the U.S. Amateur five years earlier, came to the 72nd hole with a one-shot lead over 19-year-old phenom Eddie Pearce, who’d won the 1968 U.S. Junior Amateur and returned to the final a year later. But Cowan yanked his drive into the left rough and found himself in a buried lie. He’d faced a similar shot two days earlier and came up short of the green. A playoff seemed like a real possibility.

Cowan, who’d used a wedge in his first trip to this same rough, took out a 9-iron this time for the 130-yard shot. The 32-year-old insurance man’s strike carried to the green and rolled into the hole. The walk-off eagle gave him a three-shot win.

Cowan’s shot would change Wilmington Country Club forever. Ahead of that U.S. Amateur, the television broadcasters asked the club to flip the nines in order to feature the clubhouse on the shot into the final hole. After Cowan’s heroics, Wilmington’s membership decided to permanently adopt the U.S. Amateur layout.

The course will again be slightly adjusted for a big event. This time, the routing is being changed to fit hospitality tents on key holes and balance the two nines (the current front nine typically plays more difficult for the members). The BMW Championship layout will see Nos. 10-13-14-15-5-6-7-8-9 used as the front nine and 1-2-3-4-16-17-11-12-18 as the back nine, meaning Cowan’s finishing hole will still be the final hole 51 years later.

Along with the USGA events, the 2013 Palmer Cup came to Wilmington and saw a United States team led by Justin Thomas, Daniel Berger and Patrick Rodgers dominate the European team, 20.5-9.5. Thomas and Rodgers each collected three and a half points in the event, while Berger recorded three.

Wilmington Country Club also is where a player with one of the TOUR’s great nicknames got his start. Ed “Porky” Oliver was a caddie at Wilmington Country Club before going on to win eight times on TOUR and play in three Ryder Cups. Oliver will be inducted into the Western Golf Association’s Caddie Hall of Fame at this year’s BMW (the WGA also conducts the BMW Championship). Oliver’s biggest win was the 1941 Western Open, which also was conducted by the WGA. Both Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson were runners-up in that event. Oliver was runner-up in three majors, finishing second to Hogan in the 1946 PGA and 1953 Masters and Julius Boros in the 1952 U.S. Open.

(Western Golf Association)

3. The King and The Bear

After Jones finished the course, Wilmington Country Club welcomed some of the globe’s best as guests. In 1963, Arnold Palmer came through for an exhibition. In July 1966, Carol Mann and Gary Player descended upon Wilmington for a match.

And then in September 1966, the big one occurred, as Palmer returned to Wilmington with Jack Nicklaus in a match between the budding rivals. Palmer joined forces with Delaware Amateur champion Roy Marquette, while Nicklaus teamed with amateur legend Bill Hyndman. Hyndman had defeated Nicklaus just seven years earlier at the British Amateur before losing the championship match to future PGA TOUR Commissioner Deane Beman.

Nicklaus’ 69 edged Palmer’s 71, but strong play from Marquette lifted Team Palmer to a narrow victory. Birdies by Palmer on 13 and Marquette on 14 (in the original routing) flipped the match into their favor. A crowd of 1,500 cheered the group around Wilmington as they helped raise $10,000 for charity.

Palmer reportedly passed on a dinner with President Lyndon B. Johnson to play in the exhibition, flying in on what “The Morning News” called his “$900,000 jet.” Nicklaus, coming off a 10-day Florida vacation, tied the course record with a 69 and narrowly missed a 20-footer on 18 that would have broken the mark.

The par-5 12th hole – which is now the third hole for membership, but will be No. 12 again this week – was the site of a memorable scene. No player had ever reached the 594-yard hole in two, but Nicklaus gave himself a chance with a 350-yard drive. His second shot with a 1-iron sailed over the water short of the green, past the pin and ended up in a bunker. He proceeded to get up-and-down for birdie. When someone in the gallery mentioned to Nicklaus that Gary Player had called the hole “unfair,” Nicklaus’ bluntly retorted, “That’s because he can’t reach it.”

That exhibition also was the site of an ace by Palmer. Or was it?

Palmer wrote in his autobiography that he made his eighth career hole-in-one during that match. He said the hole-in-one came on the 13th hole, which will play as No. 2 for the BMW Championship.

However, a scorecard from the event and “The Morning News” story make no mention of this. According to Michael Shank, PGA Director of Golf at Wilmington, the club’s centennial history referenced the exhibition, but says nothing of the hole-in-one.

Could it have been during a practice round with Nicklaus?

Perhaps, or there’s another plausible answer. Palmer’s long-time dentist, Howdy Giles, was based in Wilmington and Palmer used to fly into town to both get his teeth checked and play Wilmington Country Club with Giles and friends. Did the hole-in-one occur during one of those rounds? This mystery remains unsolved.

4. Toughen Up

When the BMW Championship was awarded to Wilmington Country Club in November 2020, the planning committee spent the winter both celebrating and planning renovations. Six decades removed from Jones’ creation of the course, changes were needed to prepare the course for PGA TOUR play.

Keith Foster had previously provided renovations in 2008, but in 2020 a new batch of adjustments was needed. A tornado earlier that year had brought down 300 trees and destroyed every bunker on both the North and South courses.

Architect Andrew Green used the repairs as an opportunity to introduce new characteristics to the course. For example, the fifth hole lost two trees that previously protected the hole’s left side. As a means of deterring players from launching drives into open rough or using the nearby 16th fairway (the 14th hole for the BMW), Green added bunkers to the open area between the two holes. He also moved the fifth fairway slightly left to “protect the strategic integrity” of the hole, Shank said.

Another hole, the 14th for the members and the BMW’s third hole, appeared to be a par 5 that could be adjusted to a par 4 for the pros. However, the unfortunate loss of a 280-year-old white oak behind the original green led Green to propose moving the green 60 yards farther back. While softening the dogleg in the fairway, this will now play as a 582-yard par 5 for the BMW Championship.

A total of 250,000 square feet of construction was done, with about 200 yards added to the course. It now measures 7,5349 yards and plays to a par of 71.

“The South Course presents challenging tee shots with fairway bunkers guarding the landing zones, very large putting surfaces divided into multiple sections and flash-faced bunkers,” Shank said.

The greens and approaches are Bermudagrass with bentgrass tees and fairways, along with tall fescue in the courtesy paths, primary rough and secondary rough.

(Western Golf Association)

5. Heading Home

Taking some liberty with the routing for its PGA TOUR debut, the BMW Championship has loaded the final stretch with character and treachery.

The 15th hole (the regular 17th) is a par 3 that can play as long as 234 yards, with water defending most of the green. The triangular green features three different plateaus, with the lowest at the front right and higher tiers on the back right and back left. A left pin placement demands a full carry over water, as the green narrows the farther back and left a tee shot goes. A bunker directly behind the center of the green guards against a long shot. A back-left pin on Sunday will surely penalize players who are overly aggressive with double-bogeys.

No. 16 (usually the 11th hole) can play as long as 393 yards, but is also a good candidate to be turned into a drivable par-4 at some point during the week. The hole plays slightly uphill with a bunker on the right side of the fairway, 85 yards short of the green. Players will need to decide if they are going to lay up short of the bunker, leaving an approach of approximately 100 yards, or play around, or over, the trap that cuts into the fairway.

On the green, a ridge that runs through the center of the green acts as a backboard for front hole locations while protecting pins cut on the back half of the putting surface. It will be both the location of the tee and the flag that will determine how players choose to play this hole.

After a 17th hole (normally No. 12) loaded with sand, the 18th hole – the only hole on the back nine in its normal spot in the routing – is a 446-yard, dogleg-left par 4 with an uphill approach shot. Most players will look to land their tee shot at the bend of the fairway, where bunkers await to swallow tee shots on both the left and right sides. Bunkers are stationed short of the green on both sides, and the approach becomes more blind the farther back the pin is placed.

Of course, players can opt for the left junk if they want to recreate Wilmington’s most historic shot.

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek