Crash Course – Golf eagerly awaits a new home in Finley
The Carolina men’s golf team joins 29 other teams this weekend in the NCAA Men’s Golf Championship at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Arizona. The five golfers representing the state of Arizona honed their games at the Thunderbird Golf Resort (underwritten in part by Sun Devil alumnus Phil Mickelson), which among many bells and whistles has a green with one, two, three and four percent incline zones. Florida State players composed their short games on a 12-hole short course designed by Jack Nicklaus (whose grandson was a star on the Seminole football team). Vanderbilt players had access to 36 holes at Vanderbilt’s Legends Club and a 21-acre practice facility with a curving grass green and two Mini-Verde chipping greens. And for a late-night romp, the Commodores can head after golf to a team facility for some fiery ping-pong matches.
Highly drafted golfer from North Carolina State will line up against the Tar Heels who told the Carolina coach Andrew DiBitetto several years ago, in the nicest way possible, “Coach, I love what you’re doing here. But I just don’t see my game improving here like I see it at other schools.”
So, as the Tar Heels celebrate their move to the National Finals for the fifth consecutive year (only five teams have longer streaks), they are also announcing the impending overhaul of the UNC Finley golf course, their practice facilities and team and their headquarters. The golf course closes in October and will reopen in late summer 2023 with renovated greens, tees and bunkers, two new holes and an extensive new practice facility for the men’s and women’s golf teams – with a site reserved for a new team building to come the second phase of the project.
“We have some serious catching up to do when it comes to our golf course and, more importantly, when it comes to our facilities,” said DiBitetto, who is finishing his fifth season leading the Tar Heel program. “Is our existing facility any good? Yes, absolutely. Can we do better? Absolutely. This project has been on the horizon for several years. This is the next big step we need to take.”
“This project is a game-changer for us in recruitment,” adds the female coach Aimee Neff, who just completed his freshman year at Chapel Hill which saw his team qualify for the NCAA Tournament. “Putting a golfer through every possible situation they will encounter in competition is so important. We will be able to do that like never before.”
Finley Golf Course opened in the summer of 1950 following grants of land from renowned university professor and botanist William Coker and money, materials and labor from the construction magnate Raleigh-based AE Finley, with golf architect George Cobb creating the holes from woodland just southeast of campus. At one point early on, project visionary Chuck Erickson, Carolina’s athletic director, referred to the new course as the “Finley-Coker Golf Course”. This facility served college golf teams and the local golf market until the late 1990s when Tom Fazio was hired to blast what was there and create a new course with agronomy and drainage. modern. The new UNC Finley opened in the fall of 1999.
Part of the new initiative addresses the issues of a 23-year-old course built before the advent of heat-tolerant Bermuda putting surfaces. Over the past decade, most high-end private clubs and fee-based courses in the so-called Mid-Atlantic “transition belt” have transitioned from bentgrass to new Bermuda strains that hold up well to increasingly hot late summer months. (Duke University Golf Course, Hope Valley Country Club and Old Chatham Golf Club among its neighbors for doing so). Finley regulars have known for the past decade that starting in mid-July the greens would be soft and bumpy as workers struggled to keep them alive in the heat.
“There is always an evolution, and some would call it a revolution, in terms of building bunkers and maintaining drainage equipment under the greens. It is important that we bring all this up to date,” says John W. “ Johno “Harris III, a Tar Heel golfer from the early 2000s who brings expertise from the Charlotte-based Lincoln-Harris business development and construction company run by Harris and his father, Quail Hollow butler Johnny Harris Club in Charlotte.
The second major part of the golf project involves finding two new holes to replace the current 10th and 11th, which will be abandoned and turned into a practice enclave for the men’s and women’s golf teams. The current front nine, located east of Finley Golf Course Road, will become the new back nine, and holes 12 to 18 on the west side will now become the starting nine, with two newcomers.
The first new hole will follow the current par three 14th hole. It will be a short, uphill par-4 to the north and tie in with the current par-4 15th hole. The land slopes steeply from left to right and the fairway and green will be heavily bunkered. Long hitters will have the option of driving the green or having to surgically set a long iron into a steeply banked fairway with an uphill approach to a rolling green.
Short par-fours have become a ‘thing’ in golf, says Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham. “Just watch Southern Hills 17th in the PGA Championship. It was great fun to watch.”
DiBitetto adds: “We are seeing more and more holes like this. There’s one this week in Grayhawk. Today, these kids are all about length. rhythm.”
Golfers will play this new hole (falling as #4) and then par-four #5 (existing 15th). The second new creation will be a par-three dug from the ground near the existing 15th green and up towards the 17th green. The area comprising the current double-level 17th green complex will be redesigned to accommodate two greens. After playing the new sixth, they will follow the existing routing on what will be the new holes seven through nine.
Design changes are led by Love Golf Design and its founder, former Tar Heel golfer Davis Love III (1982-86) with assistance from company president Mark Love, also a Carolina graduate (1988) and former Tar Heel golfer, and principal architect. Scottish Sherman. One of DiBitetto’s missions upon taking office in 2017 was to re-engage former Tar Heels like Love on a more consistent basis. In 2018, Love committed to the Davis Love III Men’s Golf Fellowship, and bringing the Love company into the loop to coordinate Finley’s redesign was another upshot of the relationship.
“Andrew contacted Davis when he took the job, and they’ve had many conversations over the years about many elements of the program,” Mark Love said. “The concept of a practice center and how to improve it came up, and one idea led to another. Little by little, the ideas continued to evolve.”
The Tar Heel men’s and women’s golf teams have been headquartered for two decades at the Chapman Center at the east end of Finley’s driving range, with a private strike zone and short game complex right on their doorstep. But the quality of locker rooms, workouts, physical training, and short-game facilities at rival college institutions far surpassed the Tar Heels.
This phase of Finley’s overhaul includes taking the acreage where the current 10th and 11th holes are located and creating a state-of-the-art practice complex – with a short course, a variety of bunkers and targets, and opportunities to create all sorts of on-course simulations that take into account weather, wind, and sun direction. The second phase of the project will include a new team building and coaches offices currently located on land extending roughly from the current 10th tee to the 11th green.
“College golf has changed since I was there and certainly since Davis was there,” Harris says. “The fact is, the number one question from the best junior players in the country is, ‘Where am I going to train, how am I going to improve?’ Ultimately, they want to get to the PGA Tour, and this is the infrastructure to get them there.
“It was fun to reconnect with the program and with Carolina,” said Mark Love. “We were there when we were hitting balls on small pads and mostly dirt and had no team building. We’ve both lived in the clubhouse at one time or another. I’m thrilled to see this project evolve.”
Meanwhile, the Tar Heels will be looking for their best NCAA result next week in the arid expanses of Arizona. Carolina was runners-up to Oklahoma State in 1991 and third to Florida in 1993, a sweeping two-hit, at a time when the NCAA was structured on a global stroke play format. Last year, they finished eighth in stroke play qualifying and lost in the quarterfinals to Arizona State.
“Our men’s and women’s teams should play for national championships every year,” Cunningham said. “The men’s team has had another good year. We are confident that Aimee will get the women’s team on the right track very soon. Our department and the Rams Club are supporting them with this new facility. The timing is working perfectly.”
This facility project will be funded entirely by private donations – and the fundraising effort continues. If you would like to support this project, other capital projects, or student-athlete support through scholarships, team support, or an annual Rams Club membership, please contact the Rams Club at 919-843-2000 and visit www.ramsclub.com to learn how you can positively impact the lives of Tar Heel student-athletes today.
Chapel Hill writer Lee Pace (Carolina 1979) has covered Carolina golf and athletics for four decades. Email him at [email protected] and follow him at @LeePaceTweet.