ISLE OF PALMS — The story — the claim, really — has been floating around the golf world for more than three decades. Tom Fazio never confirmed it, but he didn’t refute it, either.
Now, one of the world’s premier golf design architects — with more courses ranked among the top 100 in the U.S. than any living designer — figures it is time to set the record straight.
Wild Dunes Resort’s Links Course, which opened in 1980 and remains among the most honored courses in South Carolina, is NOT Fazio’s inaugural solo design … not exactly, he says.
“Raymond Finch (one of the original developers of Wild Dunes Resort) made that up,” Fazio, 66, said with a chuckle. “I guess it was good for them, marketing-wise, after more people knew my name. Raymond liked to say that, and I never corrected him.
“But I was doing other courses at the same time: Indian Wells (in California), PGA National at Palm Beach Gardens (Fla.). ... Wild Dunes wasn’t the only one I was working on then.”
That said, none of the others gave the then-35-year-old such a magnificent piece of property to work with.
“Wild Dunes is very much a major milestone golf course in my career,” Fazio said.
In 30 years of heroics and heartbreak, destruction and despair, revival and rejuvenation, Fazio has always treated Wild Dunes like his first love.
When Hurricane Hugo all but obliterated Isle of Palms and its landmark course in 1989, Fazio’s team descended on the ravaged coast and had the course up and running in less than a year. When erosive tides threatened to destroy its signature par-5 18th hole, his crews helped rebuild the seaside fairway not only to its original design but, some believe, even better.
Terry Florence, Wild Dunes’ director of golf for 20 years before moving to Awendaw’s Bulls Bay in 2001, says of the venerable layout: “She’s a tough cookie, I tell you what; a great, fun golf course.”
And one that shares an intimate history with the man who built it.
Fazio was 18 years old in 1963 when he began working with his uncle, former PGA Tour player George Fazio, in the golf course design business. Tom opened his own firm in Jupiter, Fla., in 1972, and looked to create his own brand.
Then at the end of the 1970s, the Finch brothers (Raymond, Henry and Michael) were looking for property on which to build Charleston’s first modern coastal resort. They coveted the largely undeveloped north end of Isle of Palms, owned by J.C. Long.
“Rumor has it that J.C. and the Finches contested the value of that end,” Florence said. “J.C. finally said, ‘If you think it’s worth so much, I’ll sell it to you for $1 million.’ And the Finches called his bluff.”
Florence in 1979 was assistant professional at Charleston Municipal Golf Course when Pat McKinney, in charge of the project’s real estate, offered him a job at under-construction Wild Dunes, “potentially an incredible resort and golf course. I jumped in with both feet,” Florence said.
The property’s original name was Isle of Palms Beach & Racquet Club but Raymond Finch “just loved the golf course’s Wild Dunes name.” In 1982, the resort was renamed Wild Dunes.
Finch also knew who he wanted to build his dream course. “He was a golf fanatic,” Fazio said, “and he had played several (Fazio family-built) courses: Butler National, Pinehurst No. 6, (the Fazio course at) Palmetto Dunes, (Hilton Head’s) Moss Creek. He called and asked me to come and look at the site.”
What Fazio found, he said, was “sensational, fabulous.” The property had huge, windswept dunes as well as thousands of ancient oaks to frame the course’s inland holes. Fazio says Finch questioned if holes could be built amid the dunes; “I went, looked and said, ‘This is all-world,’” Fazio said. “We knew we had great potential.”
Fazio over the years has earned a reputation — unfair, he says — of moving vast amounts of dirt to create his courses. Not so this time.
“That became a bad thing later,” he said. “I never moved dirt where I didn’t need it; if you had a boring site, you’d better make it not boring. But Wild Dunes didn’t need much. It’s one of those natural sites where we did sculpting into the ground rather than built it up.”
The result was an instant hit. Golf Digest, Golf World and Golfweek put Wild Dunes in their top 20. In 1985-86, Fazio’s crews returned to carve out the Harbor Course, a par-70 companion design that gave Wild Dunes more available holes.
Then in 1989, Hurricane Hugo changed everything.
Florence, who had evacuated to Charlotte, listened to news reports of the damage. “It sounded like there was not a thing left standing on Isle of Palms,” he said. “No houses, no trees. That was wrong; there were some … but not many.”
When employees returned by boat (bridges were out) to see for themselves, “that was undeniably one of the darkest days of my life,” Florence said. “The damage was unimaginable; I never knew a storm could do that much damage. The tree damage, in particular, was overwhelming.”
Fazio arrived two weeks after the storm, and “it was such a shock to the system to see the devastation,” he said. “It’s one of those courses, you always feel attached to it. My staff and my company, we have a love affair with Wild Dunes.”
Crews began a nearly year-long process of removing trees and destroyed condos, then replanting, reshaping and restoring the course. Florence admits he wondered, given the cost of reconstruction, if owner Rochester (N.Y.) Savings & Loan would bother.
“They could’ve locked the gates, written it off as banks will do … but they wanted to rebuild it,” he said. Less than a year later, in July 1990, Wild Dunes reopened — minus many of the old trees, but still in business.
Scott Ferguson, Wild Dunes’ superintendent since 1996, remembers Hugo — he worked at another Charleston-area course in 1989 — but says the wounds inflicted by the storm are largely a memory. “The trees have pretty much recovered,” he said. “You’d have to be told Hugo came through here now.”
In fact, Ferguson contends in some ways, Hugo “actually made the course fit its name. It left the dunes more exposed to the wind, gave it more of a links feel. The wind is a huge factor now.”
Wild Dunes’ troubles with nature were not done. Changes in tide patterns during the mid-2000s eroded the shoreline next to the 17th and 18th holes. By May 2007, two-thirds of the 18th fairway and most of its green had washed away, forcing Ferguson and Jeff Minton, director of golf since 2006, to convert the hole to a 190-yard par-3 and Wild Dunes to a 6,387-yard, par-70 course.
“That,” Ferguson said in 2009, “was probably worse than Hugo.”
But in May 2008, the City of Isle of Palms obtained permits for a two-month, $10 million project to re-nourish a two-mile stretch of the beach, including that bordering Nos. 17 and 18, pumping ashore 900,000 cubic yards of sand. Soon, Fazio Golf associates Andy Barfield and Bryan Bowers were on site, and in two months restored the 18th fairway — adding a right-side fairway bunker and waste areas inside the beachfront dunes, raising the fairway so players could see the ocean.
These days, Fazio’s people make regular trips to check on Wild Dunes. The designer says the course has matured over its 30 years, changing in ways but maintaining its original philosophy.
“I’m into looking forward; I think there’s nothing you can’t improve on,” Fazio said. “Hugo exposed some areas, opened up views for housing. As a purist, I remember it without the buildings on the beach” — particularly at No. 18, where high-rise condos look down on the green — “but that’s not the real world.
“I think it still has what the perception (of it) was when it opened: a great destination where everyone who goes will feel they’ve come to a special place.”
Minton says golfers still are drawn by the dunes, the ocean views — and the Fazio brand.
“Anytime you have a Fazio golf course, it draws people,” he said. “Being able to say you have two 18-hole Fazio courses is a big factor.” Minton should know; before coming to Wild Dunes, he worked in Tucson, Ariz., at a resort which also had two Fazio courses, also built around 1980.
“Yeah,” Minton said, laughing, “the same time (Fazio) was doing this course, he was doing Ventana Canyon.”
So Wild Dunes might not be Fazio’s first course. “But it was an important project,” he said. “It had a major impact on my career.”
Thirty-plus years later, it still is doing that.