Revival of Wellman provides boost for rural community

  • Wellman Country Club
    Dustin Glider

    “It looks like a Pinehurst area golf course, with sandy soil, pine trees on every hole and gently rolling topography,” says Rees Jones of the renovated Wellman layout

  • Wellman Country Club
    Rees Jones, Inc

    From left, architects Bryce Swanson and Rees Jones with construction foreman Clyde Hall, on site at Wellman

  • Wellman Country Club
    Rees Jones, Inc

    The par-four twelfth as the design team found it in 2020...

  • Wellman Country Club
    Rees Jones, Inc

    ...and after renovation, with the pond restored while leaving space on the right to approach the green via the ground

Toby Ingleton
By Toby Ingleton

Wellman Golf Club in Johnsonville, South Carolina, has been reborn as a municipal facility, following the resurrection of a course that had been closed since 2010. 

With nine holes originally laid out in 1966 by Ellis Maples and nine added by Maples and Ed Seay five years later, the former Wellman Country Club course has now been completely renovated by Rees Jones and design associate Bryce Swanson. 

Funding for the project was largely covered by a Florence County ‘penny tax’. County officials believe that as well as providing a recreation facility for everyone in the area to enjoy at an affordable price, the golf course could help spur economic growth in the region. 

Wellman is less than an hour inland from the golf-dense Myrtle Beach area and currently has green fees in the region of $40 (and even less for locals), so holds appeal as a low-cost and less-crowded alternative to the popular courses of the ‘Grand Strand’. 

The par-five eleventh at Wellman even mirrors one of Myrtle Beach’s most famous holes, the ‘Waterloo’ thirteenth at the Dunes Club, another of Jones’s clients. At Wellman, the hole turns 90 degrees from right-to-left around a large lake, posing a strategic risk-reward question for every shot. 

But Jones says that the course offers a marked contrast to those around Myrtle Beach, instead drawing parallels between Wellman and the famous layouts of Pinehurst, two hours north. “It looks like a Pinehurst area golf course, with sandy soil, pine trees on every hole and gently rolling topography,” he says. 

It was the sandy soil at Wellman that made it possible to complete the renovation of the golf course and related facilities with a budget of US$5 million. Working with long-time collaborator Clyde Hall of Southeastern Golf, Jones and Swanson made design decisions in the field and employed traditional methods for the construction of greens and bunkers, to keep costs down. “That’s what Bryce and I are really proud of,” says Jones. “We were able to build a really special facility with a very small budget. A double-row automatic irrigation system, a new pump station, drainage in the greens, a small maintenance building, clubhouse repairs, the entire golf course recontoured and regrassed, replacing poorer soils with sand – we did it right even though we had very little money.” Their timing was good too, with most of the materials purchased before the post-Covid spiral in costs. 

The putting surfaces now sit more at grade than Maples’ original design, and are open at the front. “We have oriented the greens to hold shots a little better,” says Swanson. “Some of the old greens ran away from you. And for holes with longer approach shots, we built those greens a little deeper.” 

“It will play like an old-style, classic golf course,” says Jones. “We took a minimalistic approach to the layout, largely preserving the original Ellis Maples routing and allowing the holes to fit the land. The trees have matured over the years, giving the layout the character of an older course.” 

Fairway bunkering is “somewhat scattered”, says Jones, so that players have to think their way around holes. 

While all of the features of the golf course have been rebuilt, the routing itself – aside from some work to reduce the severity of doglegs – has not changed. “The bones were good,” says Swanson. “The natural elevation changes create movement, so each hole has its own unique feel to it and yet they all tie together.” 

Jones and Swanson have designed the course to be enjoyable for players of all levels of ability. Bunkers are not overly deep, while most greens have contour that is more fun than fearsome. “Golfers will be able to play the ground game and the aerial game. Shorter hitters can have a way to get to the green and the longer hitters can have a challenge,” says Jones. There are five sets of tees, allowing the par-72 course to be played from around 5,300 to 7,250 yards. 

But one of the most gratifying aspects of the project for Jones is the return of Wellman as a place to bring people together. “A lot of people used to come here to play the game, but also to celebrate weddings, birthdays and other family events,” he says. “Sometimes people just come for lunch. It’s a social gathering spot, just like the public golf courses at Torrey Pines in San Diego or Bryan Park in Greensboro. I had a very emotional connection with this project – my wife grew up in a town just like Johnsonville, and the public golf course there was where everyone came together to hang out. So I know what a club like this can mean for the whole community.” 

This article first appeared in the January 2024 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.