The struggling Belmont Golf Course in Richmond, Va., has always been stuck in its glorified past, yet saddled with an uncertain future.
The 6,282-yard muni owned by Henrico County hosted the 1949 PGA Championship won by Sam Snead back when the course was the Hermitage Country Club. Despite its historic pedigree as the only course in Virginia to host a major - and one of only 32 public courses to host a major worldwide - it could never deliver the proper course conditions or facilities to match the more iconic major championship munis like Torrey Pines and Bethpage Black. The land and routing afforded a pleasant round of golf, but the aging infrastructure was failing, the lack of TLC evident and key pieces (a driving range, for example) didn't exist. Golf Advisor reviews of the past five years referenced a course "well past its glory days" that was a "waste of money."
Thankfully, somebody recognized its potential and is willing to bet big on its future. The First Tee of Greater Richmond has supplied the lifeline for a muni worth saving, as I noted earlier this year. On Dec. 10, the Henrico County Board of Supervisors approved the non-profit's proposal to transform the course into a community-focused, inclusive and affordable public golf facility.
The local First Tee chapter will invest more than $4 million raised by donors to build a driving range, short-game practice facility, short course, putting course and 12 "championship-level" holes that will celebrate the 1917 work of original course architect A.W. Tillinghast. The course, which also has ties to Donald Ross, will close Jan. 1 in advance of the redesign, beginning a 20-year lease under the First Tee's management. The Love Design Group, headlined by Davis Love III and his brother Mark, hopes to have Belmont's new look ready by May 1, 2021, although no formal plans have been unveiled.
"The community spoke loud and clear they wanted that space to remain a golf course. That is why they (county officials) did the RFP (request for proposal)," said Brent Schneider, the First Tee of Richmond's president and chief executive officer. "We really understand the facility. A lot of us played it growing up. Myself and board members know the history. It is a great course with good bones. Yes, we will change it, but we hope those changes honor the past and help Belmont enter the future of the game.”
The First Tee chapter's experience managing two other area facilities made the bid attractive to the county. The First Tee of Greater Richmond opened the Tattersall Youth Development Center at the Chesterfield Golf Course in Chesterfield County in 2000 and the Elson Redmond Memorial Driving Range in downtown Richmond in 2003. That facility, the practice home of the Virginia Commonwealth University men's golf team, underwent a $1.2-million renovation in 2017. The First Tee has agreed to pay Henrico County $3.25 million over the 20-year lease. This is in addition to the $750,000 Henrico County plans to invest into course renovations.
"The First Tee of Greater Richmond's proposal was a clear winner in terms of everything we needed and wanted," Neil Luther, director of Henrico County Recreation and Parks, said in a statement. "The organization has a proven track record of operating and managing golf facilities in addition to impacting children and teens from all over Richmond through its golf programs. We're thrilled to be a part of its plans for the future of Belmont."
What's next for Belmont
Could Belmont be the latest Sweetens Cove? Schneider referenced Sweetens Cove, the beloved nine-holer in rural Tennessee, and the new reversible nine-hole Bobby Jones golf course in Atlanta as inspirations for the new Belmont. In its current form, Belmont, taken over by the county in 1977, has lost money every year since 2000.
He said the six new par-3 holes could range from "under 100 to 200" yards, much like the holes on the six-hole practice loop at Elson. He indicated that some corridors from Tillinghast's holes would remain in the new 12-hole routing. "The corridors and routing of the back nine are essential to our plan," he added. "The front nine has been redone so many times, they have lost a lot of that Tillinghast feel."
The Love Design Group already has some experience in building versatile, unique golf facilities. It designed the Origins Golf Club in Florida's Panhandle, a six-hole regulation course of 1,800 yards that can also play as a 10-hole par-3 layout through the use of alternative tee boxes and auxiliary greens. The key will be making the 12-hole regulation course good enough to attract everyday golfers who don't have children in the First Tee program.
Is the 12-hole trend back again?
Building 12-hole courses has been talked about as a trend since Jack Nicklaus first suggested the idea during the last recession somewhere around 2007. It continues to be bandied about, but no true 12-hole regulation course has ever been built from scratch since his comments. Golf Advisor's Managing Editor Brandon Tucker debated the merits of this very topic in a golfchannel.com story from 2010. Staff Writer Tim Gavrich followed suit with his thoughts in a Golf Club Atlas forum post in 2011.
Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, the game's most influential modern development, debuted the 13-hole, par-3 Bandon Preserve in 2012, giving the movement a little momentum. The Woodside Golf Course in Lansing, Mich., was a family-owned, nine-hole course until it was bought by Eagle Eye/Hawk Hollow owner Daryl Kesler and expanded to 12 holes in 2015. Now the 4,221-yard course gets great reviews on Golf Advisor (a 4.3 rating). In 2016, Nicklaus designed a 12-hole, par-3 "Golf Park" at Red Ledges in Utah. The Railside Golf Club in Gibson City, Ill., shrank from 18 holes to 12 after a redesign in 2017. Its Golf Advisor reviews are more mixed since the changes. Canada's Derrydale Golf Club outside Toronto also offers 12 holes at 2,541 yards long. The most revered 12-holer resides in Scotland, the 2,996-yard Shiskine Golf & Tennis, a links on the Isle of Arran that dates to 1896.
Could Belmont finally be the modern model for the 12-hole round that's faster and more fun, two critical elements for golf's survival in the 21st century? Schneider hopes so.
"I’m more focused on what we can do to honor the property (its history) to make it a community asset," he said. "Can we make it great for our program? How do we make the six-hole (par 3) loop as good as any around? How do we make our practice facility good enough that people want to use it often? How do we make the 12-hole course, so people can't wait to come back and play again? We have been blessed through this project. We have a motivated group of donors. We've got a capable architect. The vision and goal is to create something very, very special. I don’t have concerns (as an operator). It will take some time. The plan may be new or different. We hope people give this a chance.”
Do you think regulation 12-hole courses are a part of the future of golf? Are you interested in playing the new Belmont when it reopens? Let us know in your comments below.