By Jason Bruno
Midway through 2021, we concluded our tour of the Carolinas in the Queen City of Charlotte at Carolina Golf Club. The 1929 Donald Ross design and its landscape is managed superbly by Master Greenkeeper – CGCS Matthew Wharton. To meet Mathew is to love Matthew, he has the personality and demeanor of the most welcoming friend and a wise old soul. Few wear who they are and what they do better than Wharton – a leader of men with the proper ethos needed in a profession so demanding, and yet his calming presence isn’t without a youthful and humorous exuberance. As if that wasn’t enough, his golf swing with classic hickories is a silky motion that one could only dream of having. Wharton is also a voracious reader on the history of the game and its Scottish origins. We waited until after he returned from his journey across the pond last fall to touch base on his life in the game. Enjoy our Q&A with the man known on Golf Twitter as “CGC Greenkeeper”.
LinksNation: For those who don’t know your background, can you tell us where you grew up and how you became involved in Agronomy?
Matthew Wharton: I grew up in Castlewood, Virginia, a small town in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in the far southwestern corner of Virginia. When I was 19 I went to work at Lake Bonaventure CC, a 9-hole private club. I worked there while attending community college pursuing an engineering degree. I transferred to VA Tech to complete my Bachelor’s then returned home and went back to work at LBCC LOL. There I met a woman I have now been married to for 25 years. She encouraged me to pursue greenkeeping as a profession so shortly after we married I returned to VA Tech and spent three years working on my Master’s degree.
LN: Who was your mentor that inspired you early on to become involved in the game (and industry)?
MW: I was introduced to the game at a young age by my grandfather. He made my first club for me (a cut down 4-wood) when I was 3 or 4 years old. When I went to work at LBCC I was influenced by Clay Evans. He was a Class A PGA Professional who managed the club and golf course. When I went back to VA Tech for graduate school I studied under Dr. David Chalmers, he was definitely a mentor. After graduation I worked for a legendary superintendent in Virginia, Rick Owens, CGCS. All four men were strong influences in my life and my relationships with the game of golf and greenkeeping respectively.
LN: You’ve been at Carolina Golf Club in Charlotte for a generation, how would you best describe the evolution of the club and its 1929 Ross Golf Course?
MW: The land was once a dairy farm owned by the Dunavant family. When Mr. Dunavant passed away his widow Louise had the foresight to recognize the location just off highway 74 (first four-lane highway in NC) which connected the banks in Charlotte to the textile mills in neighboring Gastonia was fortuitous. She hired Donald Ross to design the golf course and when it opened it was the first 18-hole public golf course in the greater Charlotte metro area. Her son-in-law was the first pro and manager and he operated the facility until 1958 when he persuaded a group of regulars to take it over and CGC became a private facility. Like most clubs in that era they immediately embarked on a tree planting campaign lining the holes with pine trees.
I came on board in 2005 following the club’s acquisition of neighboring property and we embarked on a 4-year, 4-phase renovation and restoration under the guidance of Kris Spence. That project totally transformed CGC and elevated it into the golf course enjoyed today.
LN: What was the experience like working with Kris Spence and Bradley Klein during the restoration?
MW: The cool part of working with Kris is we constructed two new holes on the new land. We converted two prior existing holes into a large practice range and short-game area. We constructed a large, earthen dam to create a 7.5 acre irrigation reservoir. Then we renovated and restored the remaining 16 holes on the golf course. So over the 4-year period I experienced new construction, renovation, restoration, the works!
Kris is so talented and has an amazing eye for unearthing hidden features and details. Recapturing those features and bringing them back to life on the golf course was the most fulfilling part of the project for me.
LN: During our visit to see you at CGC last May, I came to realize that you’re quite the player – especially with hickory sticks. How would you describe your passion and journey as an enthusiast in the game of golf?
MW: As I stated earlier, I’ve played nearly all my life even if those early years was just playing in the yard and fields across from my grandfather’s house. I have always enjoyed the challenge and there is nothing like the sense of accomplishment and reward when you begin to improve and shoot lower scores. Over time I’ve come a little full circle and look more for the simple pleasures in the game and try not to focus on the results, I think that’s probably why I tried the hickory game a few years ago. I love a well struck shot with any club, but a well struck shot with a hickory club is vastly more satisfying to me.
MW: Those first four years were eye-opening and so much fun. Bradley’s role in our project was a simple one. He was hired by the Board of Governors to review the master plan and ease the minds of the membership by essentially “giving his blessing”. We had some members who thought once Kris brought a dozer on property we would never be considered a Donald Ross golf course any longer. I enjoyed walking and playing the course with Bradley and listening to him share his observations. We remain friends and he actually came and played CGC with me in February 2020 just weeks before covid changed all our world’s.
LN: As a fellow Links Golf enthusiast who completely appreciates the ground game elements across the pond, what have you gleaned from your colleagues overseas that has helped you become a better Turf Manager?
MW: I joined the British and International Golf Greenkeepers Association (BIGGA) in 2010 because I wanted to become a Master Greenkeeper. This gave me the opportunity to read about greenkeeping in the U.K. on a regular basis and be exposed to the similarities and differences we share. I joined Twitter in 2013 and the exposure to the greater turf community really took that even further. I didn’t experience links golf until 2019 but I was always a fan of The Open Championship and loved to watch so when I finally got the opportunity I was hooked! This is what is so great about managing a Donald Ross design in the U.S., all 18 greens are accessible along the ground. It’s also another reason why I got into the hickory game on the side, Carolina Golf Club lends itself beautifully to that style of play and as a result I want to focus our efforts on providing the best possible surface for play each day. A firm turf that lends itself to the bump and run can also be attacked through the air if one wants, but a soft, lush course can only be played one way.
LN: What is your biggest challenge at CGC from an Agronomy operations perspective? [ex: CPC – water, Bandon – wind/sand displacement, Cal Club – labor]
MW: Weather and labor. Weather is always the biggest challenge because we are in the Transition Zone. We experience extreme hot, humid conditions, and sometimes bitter cold spells in the winter. We have experienced our share of droughts and we are also subjected to hurricanes and tropical storms. The past three years the labor situation in our industry has been a real headache and we have struggled to find and keep reliable help, but I am also proud of my team for how they have managed to provide a quality playing experience as we continue to adapt and overcome those challenges.
LN: After all of these years, what still motivates you each and every day to become better at your profession?
MW: I love my wife and I love greenkeeping and I love the game of golf, so each day I’m blessed to have the privilege to do what I love for a profession and provide for my family. And I’m motivated this year to see if I can lower my hickory handicap, we all need goals. (Laughing Out Loud)
LN: If you could go back and visit 20-year-old Matthew Wharton what advice would you pass along?
MW: That’s easy, believe in yourself! I think anyone looking at me today might find it hard to believe I’ve had moments of doubt and self-belief throughout my career. Thankfully I have had the benefit of the greatest support system in the world in Mrs. Greenkeeper! Believe in yourselves folks, if you have the passion then trust your gut and make it happen.
LN: What are some of your must-play courses/destinations (in the U.S) that are still on your wishlist?
MW: Outside the obvious ones like Augusta National, Cypress Point, Oakmont, and Pine Valley, I would really like to experience the courses in the Philly area and Long Island, plus the Monterey Peninsula in California. I would also like to experience the Ross designs in the Northeast, all my Ross experience has been southern.