‘Everybody’s Golf Course’
Charleston’s hottest ticket in golf is a $20 tee time at the city’s beloved Municipal Golf Course on James Island. For almost a century, the course has hosted seasoned golfers and first-time hackers, all trying to get better at a game that can be frustrating, time-consuming, expensive and exclusive. But fresh off a year-long renovation and with more people picking up clubs, “The Muni” is still Charleston’s come-as-you-are course.
Charleston Municipal’s 18 holes are strung along Maybank Highway as it approaches the Stono River Bridge, laid out the same as they were when the course opened in 1929. The Muni shares some of its golf pedigree with members-only courses nearby, with initial inspiration likely drawn from Country Club of Charleston, down the street, and Yeamans Hall Club in Hanahan, both assembled at around the same time by designer Seth Raynor. But unlike those, Charleston Municipal was built as a public course from the start. The deed for the land, donated to the city in 1927, requires it to be used as a city-run course.
As part of a $3 million renovation mounted with private and public money, Charleston-native golf course architect Troy Miller incorporated Raynor’s hole designs to create challenging, unique golf experiences. The result is effectively an all-new course. Five holes that straddle Maybank Highway along the Stono River were completely rebuilt, with changes made to improve drainage and pump up the playability of the course’s new signature backstretch. Even holes that appear unchanged have new turf and improved tee boxes and greens. Good thing, too, since more than 60,000 rounds of golf tee off at The Muni during busy years, said Marshall Ormand, 36, who has been course manager since 2014.
“We were working with the grass on the putting green that was from the early ’60s, the best we can tell. At that time, if you watch golf footage on TV, you see the wrist slap and the ball come to a slow stop,” a far cry from the pristine, tournament-ready courses players expect, he said. “The best we could do is keep a full cover of grass and maintain it the best we could.”
Ormand bristles when he mentions the course’s high traffic. But with a $20 price tag for local residents who want to walk 18 holes during the week ($80 for visitors, with cart rental), Charleston’s municipal course is one of thousands like it in the U.S., offering low-cost ways for people to play a game often reserved for resorts and private clubs.
“If you play golf in Charleston, you’ve probably played this golf course for some reason,” said Boykin Powers, the Muni’s head pro.
Powers spends 20-25 hours per week teaching individual or group lessons at the Muni, so naturally his favorite addition from the renovation is the sprawling new practice area. With space to practice short-range shots — pitching, chipping and putting — the area is also free and open to the public.
Chris Pinckney can’t remember a year since 1962 when he didn’t play in the Muni’s annual citywide amateur golf tournament. After initially working as a caddy on the course in his teens, before he was allowed to play it, Pinckney was one of the few Black golfers at the Muni when it was the first S.C. course, public or private, to desegregate in the early 1960s. He went on to take the city title in 1979 and 1983. Now 77, the retired military welder and machinist still walks 18 holes without a golf cart and can drive the ball 250 yards off the tee. (Average driving distance on the pro tour is only a little longer, at 295 yards.)
“The Muni has been a great experience, because it taught me a lot. If you can play the Muni golf course, you can carry that game anywhere in the world,” he said. That’s exactly what he did, playing in amateur tournaments across the country. As an adult, Pinckney also went on to work as a caddy at Cassique, a private course at the Kiawah Island Club.
On any given afternoon, you can find Pinckney and plenty of other Muni regulars posted up on the porch of the clubhouse grabbing lunch after a morning round or just holding court, razzing and reminiscing as others come and go.
“Most of the people that are our age — this is where you learned to play golf,” said Billy Wise, 74, who grew up paying 25 cents a round to play, starting when he was 9 years old. “And, we still used to sneak on.”
Lea Anne Brown moved to Charleston from Charlotte in 1984 and played in her first ladies city amateur championship at the Muni at the invitation of a golf acquaintance.
“I played, and I won it for nine years in a row,” she told the City Paper, modestly. Brown’s hopes for a 10th-straight title in 1993 were dashed, but undeterred, she returned in ’94 and got her 10th. After a few years off from the tournament, she asked herself, “Why did I quit playing in that?”
“So I went back, and I won it a couple more times,” she said. Today, she’s the membership director at Bulls Bay Golf Club in Awendaw.
Al Weston, 75, wasn’t playing when he stopped by the course last week to watch a few groups tee off and say hello to Harold Pinckney, Chris’ nephew, who was on the driving range.
“This is about the only place we used to play for a while,” the retired Navy pipefitter said. Weston’s first experience playing golf came when a stranger roped him into a game at a now-closed West Ashley par-three course, only to find out he would be playing for money. “Twenty-five cents a hole, 10-cent greenie [closest to the pin] … I think I ended up winning 75 cents.”
Maxed out, with room to grow
“The mission isn’t complete yet,” Bert Atkinson said, launching into his pitch for continuing to improve the city course. As president of Friends of the Muni, the nonprofit that raised part of the funds and led the charge to renovate the course, Atkinson is a seven-time city champion himself, with a vision for the course he still plays often.
“The Muni’s got a place in this community that I don’t think people really appreciate,” he said. “It truly needs to serve as a community center, a place where people go meet.”
Next on the list, Atkinson said, are on-course bathrooms to replace portable toilets, a shelter for the short-game area and eventually a new clubhouse — which Ormand affectionately describes as “a DMV with a few shirts hanging around.”
But as the manager of a formerly segregated facility in a sport fraught with a history of race and class division, Ormand hopes the Muni can help change the conversation around golf’s negative stereotypes.
“What we’re really wanting to do is diversify a little more, in the sense of getting other demographics out here,” Ormand said. Plans are underway, he said, to increase outreach, using the new-look course to open new doors.
Atkinson pointed to Powers’ programs aimed at recruiting kids into the game as a success story on its own.
“Our junior programs have grown tremendously here,” Powers said. “Some of the programs, as far as adult development and junior development, they’re maxed out. We don’t have any more time to do any more.”
With upwards of 300 youth participants each year, Powers is hopeful new resources like the expanded practice area will introduce the game to more young golfers.
Brown, who is also on the Friends of the Muni board, said playing with friends in junior programs like the ones at the city course helped instill a lifelong tie to the game.
“We grew up playing junior golf, and that’s so important, I think — to have a buddy to play with,” she said.
Back on the porch, John Weeks, 79, remembers settling old bets on a spare “19th hole” set up between the final hole and the clubhouse.
“A lot of money won and lost right there,” Billy Wise recalled, remembering the little things that stick out in his mind about Charleston’s beloved Muni.
“It’s everybody’s golf course.”