When Billy Armfield first cast the vision for Eagle Point Golf Club, he imagined a first-class private course that would rival the best on the East Coast, if not the nation.
He wanted the clubhouse to match the course in quality, to be a first-rate building in form and functionality.
But the initial mandate he gave architects Henry and Ian Johnston had nothing to do with the outward style or the placement of the facilities.
"He said, 'I want it to feel like your favorite sweater,'" Ian Johnston says, recalling the first conversations with Armfield some 18 years ago. "When you come into this building I want it to feel like it's comfortable, someplace where you feel at home."
A comfortable sweater feeling -- that is what makes the difference between a golf club and a golf course. This isn't just a place to come and play 18 holes and leave, but a place to enjoy spending time with friends.
"That's the culture of these great clubs," Johnston says. "It's about the hospitality and the camaraderie, the membership culture. That's the level they wanted to establish."
During the first week of May the eyes of the golfing world will be on the exclusive facility in Porters Neck on the Wilmington mainland side opposite Figure Eight Island as the club plays host to a big-time event, a PGA tournament.
The Wells Fargo Championship is temporarily moving to New Hanover County this spring. The tour stop usually is held at Quail Hollow Golf Club in Charlotte, but the Queen City course is being prepared to host the 2017 PGA Championship in August.
That the world will see at Eagle Point is a course and facility that ranks among the best-kept secrets in the golf world.
Eagle Point is private -- restricted to members, currently about 450 -- and invited guests. It annually ranks in national publications' top five courses in North Carolina and the top 100 in the United States.
It's what Armfield, who died in 2016, and the other founding members envisioned.
"The level at which the founders had perceived the persona of this club, they wanted it to stand among the great iconic golf clubs of the East Coast," Ian Johnston says.
They made sure Eagle Point would meet those exacting standards by hiring renowned golf architect Tom Fazio, an native North Carolinian, to design the course. They tasked the Johnstons with designing buildings to match the quality of the playing surface.
Henry Johnston had earned a reputation as one of the preeminent architects in Wilmington, but he never before had designed a building for a golf course.
"It was interesting how it started," he says. "I lived up at a development called Eagle Point off Bald Eagle Lane. I got a call from Billy one day. He said, 'Henry, we're going to start a golf club and we have stolen your development name. But as consolation you get to design all the buildings.' I said, 'Billy, that's a good trade.'"
It's a great story, but Ian Johnston doesn't remember it that way. He recalls that Armfield and the other founders contracted the architecture firm months before deciding on a name. But regardless of how it came about, they were glad to land the job. Ian Johnston says it is the most significant private project he and his father designed together.
The club is about three miles off Market Street, a major thoroughfare, but the Porters Neck Road setting is rural. Eagle Point is on about 275 wooded acres, abutting a bay behind Bald Eagle Lane, with the Intracoastal Waterway and Figure Eight Island just beyond.
This is not a residential golf course. It looks like it's in the middle of nowhere," Ian Johnston says. "It's really very forested and a very natural setting. That provided our philosophy on the character, the look and feel, of the club."
The master architectural plan was based on a style that included elements of the woods and the water. The plan involved extensive use of cedar for the exteriors, open rooms and vaulted ceilings for the interiors, and natural elevations and floor-to-ceiling windows to emphasize the views of the trees and undulating landscape of the course and the bay and estuary beyond.
"Our overall philosophy was to try to create something that wasn't trendy or ephemeral," Johnston says. "It was to create something more timeless. Its characteristics and its overall style was this Down East vernacular, but expressed in a very refined and contemporary way. That was our overall guiding principle to the design. It's Down East-style architecture, coastal and eastern North Carolina."
That served as a template for the clubhouse, the first and signature building that was built by Clancy & Theys and completed in 2002, and the most recent structure, a fitness center and six-room dormitory for overnight accommodations that was finished in 2016 by Monteith Construction.
The Down East style was something the Johnstons insisted on, trumping Armfield when he tried to give South Carolina-influenced design direction.
"Billy expressed the desire that he wanted the buildings to be low country," Henry Johnston says. "I resisted that one. I told Billy what he really wanted was a club that belongs in eastern North Carolina."
The design drew inspiration from the history of the region.
"Those buildings have big bracketed roofs with overhangs and porches," Johnston says. "If you look at the Coast Guard stations on the Outer Banks, and the railroad stations, even farms for drying tobacco before it went into the barn to be cured, you see overhangs. Buildings reflected the climate. This is a hot, wet climate. A good overhanging roof was important for shade."
The Johnstons worked with Billy Anderson, Eagle Point's director of golf, and Fazio to select the best position for the clubhouse. They chose a natural bluff in a huge pine thicket.
The next step was to site it for optimal views.
"We went out into the thicket and set up two stories of scaffolding that we could put our feet on and see what the views were going to be like," Ian Johnston says. "There was no way to get a lift out there. I literally had to carry the scaffolding through the woods and create a tower that we could climb up and evaluate the spot."
The natural bluff was enhanced to create a knoll that's about 15 feet high, supported in the back by a 200-foot retaining wall.
"The building is part of that hill; it sort of grows out of it," Johnston says. "It's a subtle, nuanced extension of the land."
The clubhouse makes use of the height with a second floor covered porch out back that provides beautiful vistas of the course and water, and beyond to Figure Eight. Shell Island on Wrightsville's north end can be seen in the distance.
"We looked at how to best respond to the views, the light, the breeze," Johnston says. "We created these really gracious outdoor spaces on the south side of the building. The way it complemented Figure Eight was key. The synergy between the club and the island was clear at the forefront. The course is a hop, skip and a jump from the island."
Club members and guests approach the clubhouse via an entry drive that winds around the bay, crosses a creek, and continues through the woods before opening up onto views of the lush, green course.
"We were trying to create a very pastoral entry user experience," Johnston says. "You wind around these groves of live oaks, with sabal palms below, incredible specimen trees."
A circular entry leads to the front of the clubhouse, which features a wide, inviting porch.
"The entry is the porch," Johnston says. "It's a very Southern-style building in that regard."
Armfield had made another suggestion for the porch, but again was rebuffed.
"Billy asked if we couldn't have colonial columns," Henry Johnston says. "I said no. I didn't think that was appropriate to the building. We designed the tapered shingle columns, which we felt were more in keeping with the eastern North Carolina feel."
The Down East influence is carried in the eastern white cedar shake on the columns and the walls. The roof is western red cedar shingles. The fa?ade is graceful without being grandiose.
Wings accommodate the functional needs. The men's locker room is in the west wing. The women's locker room and kitchen facilities are in the east wing. The pro shop has a separate entrance on the west side.
Between the wings is the central gathering space, with a huge stone fireplace, vaulted ceilings with exposed beams, and tables for dining.
"That set the tone for the interiors," Ian Johnston says. "As you walk in each room you see the structure. Everything's exposed."
The men's locker room features the same vaulted ceilings, and custom-built lockers. Mike Powell of Coastal Cabinets built the lockers along with the club's other casework, including the bar. The Wilton weave carpet was imported from Great Britain, chosen because the tight weave would hold up to golf spikes.
"The lockers were actually custom-made cabinets," says Chip Overman, senior project manager with Clancy & Theys. "They are high quality, not the old metal lockers you bang around. The carpet was from Scotland. It was very specific; it had to be just right. Everything was looked at with that exacting scrutiny. "
The fireplaces in the central room and locker room received the same level of attention.
The masonry fireplaces are beautiful, of course," Overman says. "And there was a high level of engineering behind them. They had forced air ventilation so they wouldn't draw warm air out of the room. That was the feel of the whole job. It was special, and it was going to be done one way and done the right way."
The clubhouse is the central gathering place and also the focal point of the course. The first tee and the 18th green are steps away. The ninth green and 10th fairway converge behind the building, allowing golfers to take a break for a snack and a drink before playing the back nine.
"That's the magic of the clubhouse siting," Johnston says. "Your planets are perfectly aligned if you can pull that off with a golf club."
The architecture firm designed several smaller structures on the grounds, including two four-bedroom cottages, a well house, and two "pit stops" on the course. Then, the club contacted Ian Johnston about another large building.
"They said, 'We'd like to have some more member lodging, we'd like to do a fitness center,'" he says.
The ideal location was on the eastern side of the clubhouse, but the lack of space was a challenge.
"This was an incredibly tight, tight envelope," Johnston says. "The lift station was on one side, and you've got the existing building. It was down to the inch to put this building in place."
The small footprint eliminated the possibility of a wide building, but neither did the design team want something tall that would loom over the clubhouse, literally and figuratively.
"How was it going to fit, and blend into this village, and yet support the club and also be a more nuanced edition to the campus without drawing too much attention to itself?" Johnston says. "We've got this iconic clubhouse that is the image of Eagle Point. We didn't want to diminish that in any way."
Downstairs is the fitness room, an open space with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over the course. Upstairs is a dormitory with six bedrooms and a lounge area, a place for out-of-town members and guests to stay.
"The challenge here was to put a two-story building into a one-story envelope," Johnston says. "We did not want to do a two-story structure. That was out of the question. We literally used every square inch of volume in the roof."
The tight space was not the only obstacle.
"We built it during the summer, their most active time of the year," says Frank DeAndrea, Monteith Construction's project manager and site supervisor for the job. "We wanted to keep it neat and have it look good for the golf course. We did fence in a small area for a construction zone but it didn't look like a construction site. I'm pretty proud of how we did it. It looked like every day at the club."
DeAndrea is also pleased with how well the new building blends with the old.
"It was a little challenging to get it to fit in and make it look like it was always there," DeAndrea says. "Now you drive through there and you can't tell. I have contractors drive though and ask where the new building is."
Billy Armfield wanted a club that rivaled the best while remaining warm and welcoming. He got his wish.
"The golf course is aesthetically beautiful," says Anderson, the director of golf at Eagle Point. "The clubhouse has the same feel. It's understated and elegant at the same time. It has a relaxed, easy feel. They go hand-in-hand."
When the gates open to the golfing public for the PGA Tour event in May, the word will be out.
The Wells Fargo 2017 Championship at Eagle Point
WHAT: The Wells Fargo Championship is a PGA Tour event, the 19th in 2017.
WHEN: May 1-7, 2017. Tournament play begins Thursday, May 4.
WHERE: Eagle Point Golf Club, 8131 Bald Eagle Lane, Wilmington.
DEFENDING CHAMPION: James Hahn.
TICKETS: Available at www.wellsfargochampionship.com. The tournament is expected to draw more than 20,000 attendees each day. Transportation will be by shuttle.
TELEVISION: The first two rounds will be broadcast on the Golf Channel. The third and final rounds will be nationally televised on CBS.
WHY WILMINGTON?: Quail Hollow Golf Club in Charlotte, the regular location, is serving as host to the 2017 PGA Championship in August. To give the Charlotte course time to prepare for that event, and to keep from having two tour stops on the same course in one season, the Wells Fargo Championship was moved to Eagle Point. The tournament returns to the Queen City in 2018.
WILMINGTON AND THE PGA TOUR: There was a PGA Tour event in Wilmington from 1949 to 1971, called the Azalea Open during most of that time. Winners included Arnold Palmer, Mike Souchak and Art Wall, Jr.
AT STAKE: The Wells Fargo Championship tournament purse is $7.5 million. The first place winner will receive $1.35 million.
WHO'S COMING: Like every weekly stop on the tour the Wilmington event will feature most of the top pros, but at press time there were no official commitments. The deadline for players to commit to a tour event is Friday at 5:00 p.m. before the next week's tournament. Players can withdraw from a tournament at any time.
ABOUT EAGLE POINT: The Tom Fazio-designed course offers 18 holes of par-72 golf over 7,258 yards. The course rating is 75.5 and it has a slope rating of 146. There are four par-5 holes, 10 par 4s and four par 3s. The greens consist of Penn A-4 bent-grass. The tees, fairways, approaches and rough consist of Tifsport Bermuda grass. For tournament preparations, the course was over seeded with perennial ryegrass.