Paul Bonesteel began playing at Asheville Municipal Golf Course – long known as the “Muni” – more than 20 years ago.
As a documentary filmmaker (“The Day Carl Sandburg Died,” “The Mystery of George Masa”), Bonesteel soon recognized the wonderful stories and characters that were the fabric of North Carolina’s oldest municipal course that opened for play 93 years ago.
He understood that there was so much more to Muni than 18 well-worn holes that weaves through the East Asheville neighborhood of Beverly Hills.
The backdrop of Muni is a culture of black and white, once divided by Jim Crow rules that fostered racism but eventually gave way to a diverse nature of coexistence, of friendship and camaraderie amid the heat of competition.
The history of that evolution and the rich stories of those who have lived much of their lives at the golf course is well captured in “Muni,” a one-hour documentary by Bonesteel that will debut on the Golf Channel, a 9 p.m. airing on Oct. 27.
Shot over a span of four years, “Muni” is an oral history presentation through the eyes and voices of a collection of golfers who for decades have played the course and have not only witnessed but played huge roles in the changes from a time when blacks were allowed to play there just one day a week.
Locals who play Muni will recognize names like Billy Gardenhight, Cortez Baxter, Dwight Bryson, C.Y. Young and Pete McDaniel.
These are men that as youngsters served as caddies to white men, fell in love with golf and became obsessed with the game despite the lack of opportunities to play.
Their stories and recollections, from fond memories to the ugly days of segregation, are the heart of the film and provide a cultural timeline to the history of Muni.
Cortez Baxter has worked at the Muni for exactly half of his life. At age 92, he is in his 46th year at the course, still putting in three or four days a week, sometimes 10 hours a day as a starter on the first tee. He could be the epitome of both the golf course and the film. “Golf is my outlet, my love,” he said. “I feel like if I can just get to the golf course, I have no problems.’’
When he is not getting about 200 golfers a day organized to tee off, Baxter is chipping and putting at the practice green next to his starter’s stand.
In his 11th decade on the planet, he is still working to get better, seeking answers to a better golf game.
“Over the years, golf has been a beautiful thing for me; don’t know what I would do without this place,” he said. “This is where I come to relax, and not worry about anything. I’ve made a lot of friends at Muni, and I hope to make some more.”
The film, narrated by popular rock and country singer (and avid golfer) Darius Rucker of Hootie and the Blowfish fame, also focuses on the Skyview Golf Tournament, held annually at Muni since 1960 until the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 event.
Billy Gardenhight helped create the tournament and was the tournament director for more than a half-century.
He talks lovingly of his baby, which brought some of the best black golfers in the game to Asheville. Lee Elder, the first black man to play The Masters, won three Skyview tourneys in a row in the early 1960s.
Once a regular stop of the black North American Golf Association tour, the Skyview was created as a blacks-only event but by the second year became integrated.
In its heyday more than 225 pros and amateurs competed over three days and 54 holes, and a downtown banquet and dance was a highlight of the black social season in Western North Carolina.
Bonesteel effectively ties in the evolution of black-and-white golf at both Muni and the Skyview tourney over decades. “As a white male who grew up with easy access to a golf course, I wasn’t sure it was a story I could or
should tell,” said Bonesteel. “I really wanted to make a film that let these guys tell their story about how their love of golf permeated their lives, how they fell in love with the game and were going to play it no matter what challenges they faced.”
In addition to the original Golf Channel airing on Oct. 27, Bonesteel hopes his film will be shown again on the network on future dates.
“Muni” is also scheduled to be featured on PBS’ Reel South Series in April, 2021.
“This was a chance to retell the painful story of segregation through the lens of golf, with some wonderful characters,” said Bonesteel. “Golf is not about getting a chance to play on fancy courses that cost a lot of money...this film tells a story about how golf is loved by people of color and that golf belongs to everyone.”