When Wilmington’s Paul Ruggiero teed up with PGA Tour golfers on Wednesday as part of the Gardner Heidrick Pro-Am at the BMW Championship, it was a thrill of a lifetime.
Not only was he playing side by side with Matt Kuchar and Maverick McNealy, it was a rare opportunity to play one of Delaware’s most exclusive courses – Wilmington Country Club.
“It’s a privilege to play here. It’s the Cadillac of country clubs,” said Ruggiero, who is a member at Centerville’s private Fieldstone Golf Club, another posh course where his locker sits across from a fellow member with the nametag “President Joe Biden.”
As president of N.K.S. Distributors, the state’s Anheuser-Busch beer distributorship, Ruggerio is in charge of all beer at this week’s tournament because the PGA Tour and the makers of Budweiser have an exclusive partnership.
One of the perks of the job is being able to wiggle into the pro-am and play just one day before the $15 million championship kicks off Thursday.
And while any day at Wilmington Country Club is a flex of one’s First State status, playing it this week is an ultimate power move. As Ruggiero puts it, “Wilmington Country Club is home to a who’s who of powerful, important Delawareans.”
Private playground opens its gates
Steeped in history, Wilmington Country Club was founded in 1901, two years after the debut of the Western Open, which changed its name to the BMW Championship in 2007.
After more than a century ensconced in privacy and exclusivity, the country club has decided to open to the world this week in its biggest way yet: by hosting the state’s first PGA Tour event.
And not just any event. It’s the top 70 golfers in the season-long FedEx Cup standings for the BMW Championship, the longest-running PGA Tour event on the calendar other than the four majors: the Masters, U.S. Open, the Open Championship and PGA Championship.
A playground for the rich and influential, it’s the kind of place where CEOs, politicians and every other kind of mover-and-shaker mingle in the clubhouse, which underwent a $7 million renovation in 2014. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that it hosted Biden’s first round of golf as president in April of last year.
Wilmington Country Club, which counts Biden as a member and is located just four miles from his home, has hosted Beau Biden Foundation fundraisers in the past and is a magnet for bold-face names, whether it’s a 2013 visit by golf legend Arnold Palmer for the Palmer Cup or Tower Hill School graduate Mehmet Oz for a ChristianaCare event in 2007.
In fact, Palmer and Jack Nicklaus played an exhibition match there in September 1966, with the Golden Bear besting Palmer by two strokes.
While the club has not hosted a professional golf event before, prestigious amateur events have included the 1913 U.S. Women’s Amateur and the 1971 U.S. Amateur, which featured a then-19-year-old Ben Crenshaw prowling the fairways. With two courses — the North Course and South Course, on which the BMW Championship is being played — it’s a site that sprawls across nearly 350 acres.
FedExCup leader: ‘This is a big-boy golf course’
As the 26-year-old FedEx Cup standings leader Will Zalatoris put it Wednesday, “This is a big-boy golf course.”
It is his first time in Delaware and he was not expecting what he found with the vast 7,534-yard South Course, adding, “If I were to design a golf course, this is probably how I would design it for me. So, I’m very excited.”
Even though it’s hard for most Delawareans to get onto the vaunted course, the golf team from nearby Alexis I. du Pont High School used it as the Tigers’ home course for years until switching to the Ed Oliver Golf Club after the height of COVID-19. (Ed Oliver was the original home of Wilmington Country Club before moving to its current location in the 1950s.)
Wilmington native Earl Cooper, a Wilmington Country Club assistant pro for two years starting in 2014, was one of those students who called the Chateau Country course home when he played for A.I. du Pont. In fact, he first played the course at 13 while working there as a caddy.
“I remember being in the caddy yard at the cart barn and wondering what it was like in the clubhouse,” said Cooper, the first Black golf professional in the then-114-year history of the club. “You knew it was a big deal playing there, even at my age.”
If you break a rule, someone will tell you … quickly
It was at Wilmington Country Club where he learned the strict rules found at most private courses, such as always wearing a belt and tucking in your shirt — rules that have been relaxed this week for the general public.
Usually, if you don’t abide by the rules, “Someone will quickly be there to remind you. And since it’s so hard to get in, people listen because they don’t want to jeopardize their membership,” said Cooper, who now lives in New York and is in Wilmington this week for the tournament.
For him, the 2022 BMW Championship is akin to a coming-out party for the course, allowing golf fans into what is an unattainable world for most Delawareans. It’s also a full circle moment for the former Wilmington Country Club caddy. His successful Eastside Golf apparel line, which focuses on younger golfers and promotes diversity within the sport, is part of the tournament.
Eastside has merchandise for sale at a BMW activation site on the course this week, and former New York Giants receiver Victor Cruz even wore a pair of Eastside Golf shoes made in collaboration with Air Jordan during Wednesday’s Gardner Heidrick Pro-Am.
“Dream big because dreams do come true,” Cooper said, reflecting on his journey from caddy to golf professional with his own popular brand being sold on a championship course. “I think having this here is only going to inspire more young kids in the area like I was to realize this is real. This is tangible.”
Club’s culture ‘loosening up’
Tom Humphrey, Wilmington Country Club’s BMW Championship chairman, said he has seen the club mellowing a bit and becoming more family-friendly over the years, even though many of the basic rules remain.
“It’s definitely loosening up. For younger people, you got to have something that’s fun. And in terms of the dress code, you see things now that you would never see,” said Humphrey, pointing to one of the club’s dining areas where you’ll see members dressed in soccer uniforms after practice or even — gasp! — blue jeans.
The retired DuPont Co. executive said there are about 800 core members of the club and a basic membership costs around $70,000, still putting it out of reach for many. But if you tune in to NBC this weekend, you’ll see the same views that Humphrey himself is very eager to see on television.
“This was always a very, very private club, so it’s nice to have the opportunity to welcome a TV audience and everyone else because the course looks really, really great,” Humphrey said, fresh off the course from his pro-am appearance playing alongside Rory McIlroy.
With a membership waitlist even before the BMW Championship came to town, Laura Heien, director of the Delaware State Golf Association, expects that number to grow after this weekend’s broadcast — even if it isn’t a five-year wait like it had been at times in the past.
“When you see something like this on TV and it’s in your neighborhood, you want to check it out,” Heien said. “We’re very fortunate to have some fantastic and historic courses in northern Delaware, in particular. But Wilmington has 36 holes and a history of hosting prestigious events.
“It’s the cream of the crop.”
Brad Myers contributed to this report. Have a story idea? Contact Ryan Cormier of The News Journal at firstname.lastname@example.org or (302) 324-2863. Follow him on Facebook (@ryancormier) and Twitter (@ryancormier).