Mattaponi Springs' a country vision of first-time owner

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

RUTHER GLEN, Va. - The directions give a sense of remoteness. Turn right at the Feedlot Restaurant is a good clue you're not headed to a thriving metropolis.

Forget metropolis. You're not even in Fredericksburg anymore.

A vulture munching on a roadside snack barely bothers to move when the car rumbles past.

This is the setting for Mattaponi Springs Golf Club, a new course in the Fredericksburg-Richmond corridor slated to be opened in late October or early November. The locale is either an inspired or an insane choice by first-time owner Jim Oliff. Time will tell which.

On this preview day, it's already apparent it is a deliberate, tirelessly calculated choice. Oliff isn't leaving anything to chance with this dream come true. The North Virginian patent/intellectual property attorney studied golf courses for years before he felt confident taking the plunge himself. Then once he finally found his perfect piece of land, he studied some more. In politics, this would be ridiculed as waffling. In golf course building, if everything goes right at Mattaponi Springs, it might be trumped as genius. Either way, it already qualifies as highly eccentric.

"In so many new courses today, you see an owner who wants a six to nine month turnaround, to get the course done as quickly as possible to get some cash coming in," said Bob Lohmann, Oliff's carefully chosen architect. "Jim is the complete opposite. He wanted everything done right, down to the smallest detail, no matter how long it took."

It's taken almost seven years since the site was first surveyed and purchased, five years of intense building alone. And they're not done yet. The parking lot is still gravel and Oliff refuses to open until everything's complete. There will be no driving through dirt and checking in at a temporary tent, none of the transition period that's become a staple of new courses.

On this preview day, a small army of workers put in the sod around the just completed clubhouse as Oliff quietly looked in. Elsewhere, one of Oliff's employees noted the signs needed to be hung on the locker room doors. Out on the course, pro Neil Massey snapped to attention when someone informed him that two of the yardage markers were reversed. Detail, detail, detail.

This is a crew an obsessive compulsive could appreciate.

"Some in the community have poked a little fun at us, saying, 'Oh yeah, there's supposed to be a golf course at Mattaponi Springs,'" general manager Chris Ferris said. "'When's that going to open again?'"

Ferris laughed. Such is life under the pursuit of perfection.

Oliff is an older man with thinning wisps of gray hair, a dignified presence who'd prefer to stay in the shadows. He attended the media preview, was unfailingly polite to everyone, but he was not looking to be interviewed. Oliff let his hand picked staff of experts do the talking. He mostly observed, studying once again.

It was Oliff's vision to limit Mattaponi Springs to 18 holes rather than go with two courses that could have easily fit on the vast 340-plus acreage. It was Oliff's vision to avoid the public relations and permit disasters that can come with displacing wildlife by doing everything possible to avoid messing with the endangered species.

"Jim was very specific," Lohmann said. "He wanted a course that fit into the land, not the other way around."

It's a sound economic decision (court fights for permits get expensive), but it also adds a sense of real natural countryside missing from so many courses. With its steep climbs, dips, valleys and uphill approaches, Mattaponi Springs somehow seems to seamlessly blend in with scenery that's existed for hundreds of years. You're not playing a golf course as much as you're playing the rolling, rocky Virginia countryside. Lohmann did not rely on bunkers. Instead he used the natural landscape for his obstacles, creating swells, swales and punch-bowl greens.

There are some concessions to technology, particularly the imported, carefully cultivated Zoysia grass, which is almost turf like, providing a near perfect hitting surface. It is virtually impossible to find a bad lie on these fairways. As an added bonus, the Zoysia causes golf carts speeding over it to shake from side to side, a phenomenon Mattaponi Springs' spokesman Hal Phillips happily dubs, "The Zoysia Shimmy."

The long lag between conception and opening made Lohmann worry at first that equipment innovations could render the course antiquated before its first official tee shot. But after playing a few rounds, his concerns died.

"I don't think there's a technology that makes you shoot it straight," Lohmann said, laughing. "And that's the most important thing here."

This being Oliff's dream there was also minutia made mega important. Like getting the rock walls on the course just right. Builders struggled with that one, until someone on the staff said they thought they could do it and proceeded to lay them out perfectly. Then there's the Adirondack chairs on the clubhouse porch. Oliff insisted on Adirondack chairs because those are supposed to be the most comfortable rustic chairs.

"It's all about quality and superior customer service," Ferris said. "No point is too small."

Now, the question becomes: Will anyone show up to experience all these obsessive details?

Ferris points out that Mattaponi Springs is only 16 miles from 1-95, but there's no denying its relative isolation. Fredericksburg is about 30 minutes north, Richmond about 45 miles south. There's not a lot of here here. Nothing else to really do on the way to or from the golf course.

"Look at Cheboygan way up north in the Upper Peninsula and Sand Hills in Nebraska," Lohmann said, bringing up two highly successful famous courses in even starker surroundings. "If you build something special, you can create a golf destination. People come a lot farther than this for a unique golf experience.''

However, things turn out at Mattaponi Springs, one thing is certain. Jim Oliff will be watching, orchestrating every little step of the dream.

The verdict

It is hard to offer predictions based on a media preview day where the staff to golfer ratio is virtually 1:1 and there only five or six groups out on the entire course. Yet Mattaponi Springs looks like the most promising newcomer in a Fredericksburg area that's seen a rash of new courses in the last few years.

The quiet strikes you immediately, the stillness almost taking your breath away. Isolation offers advantages too. There's not a single house in sight and Oliff's vowed to keep it that way. The long distances between holes makes it possible to get lost in your own little world, without seeing a soul who isn't in your group.

The Virginia countryside is clearly the star here, with Lohmann taking advantage of the opportunities he hasn't had in designing courses in the flat Midwest. From the tee, the par-4, 455-yard ninth looks like a roller coaster track with all its steep rises and plunging dips. The par-4, 413-yard No. 11 offers a deliciously wicked alternate-route strategy choice. Go left and the safety of a large fairway beckons. Taking the risk of going right and driving into a narrow target provides an easier second shot to the green however -- if your successful.

The 17th is the only hole where water is an obstacle, and it's particularly tricky 179-yard par-3 from the back tees. There's also a little waterfall, surrounded by that tediously-built rock wall. This is the hole where you want to be at sunset.

The biggest complaint on this day were the slow greens. This is a major detail that still needs work before the grand opening.

If the staff avoids stacking up tee times, a practice that plagues many courses in the area, Mattaponi Springs is capable of turning into what its hovering, hands-on owner always envisioned.

Places to stay

There's a Holiday Inn Express ( (540) 582-1097) that's not far north on 1-95. For something with a little more character, your best bet is to try one of the Bed & Breakfasts in Old Town Fredericksburg or the Lighthouse Inn ( (540) 895-5249) on Lake Anna.

Places to eat

The course plucked a respected chef from a Richmond restaurant to design a menu for what it hopes will turn into a local restaurant destination. Until that opens, the local dinning scene is limited. There's the usual band of fast food restaurants farther out near 1-95. Otherwise, it's off to Fredericksburg or Richmond.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Jim Oliff

    Hugh G. Rection wrote on: Nov 17, 2009

    Jim Oliff is one of the most dispicable people you will ever meet. He has employed at least 8 GMs since opening in 2002, and has fired or forced out more greenskeepers and f&b managers than you can count. His ego and his bank account keep the course alive, but that will soon end. One employee takes care of his "needs", so she stays employed. He thinks since he is a successful lawyer, that means he can be successful as a golf course owner. Shame, as he has a good golf course, that will soon be returned to wilderness....or he will go bankrupt.