Richmond's Belmont Golf Course: From major host to dirt-cheap muni
RICHMOND, Va. - Imagine paying $18 to play a golf course that once hosted a major championship.
Ludicrous, right? Even Flavor Flav isn't that off the wall. "Where's your time machine?" a golfer at an Italian restaurant downtown asked me, all mocking.
Yes, even many local golfers don't know about the discount history in their midst. Then again, when the historic major-championship course is down the street from a furniture store called The Dump, it's going a be little low-profile.
It's an experience, to be sure. Playing Belmont is an education in just how much the game has changed, especially at the pro level.
Belmont's design would also probably prompt some derision: 13 par 4s, three par 3s and just two par 5s, with only one hole topping 500 yards (and that just barely). What is this, an executive course?
The guffaws tend to stop when golfers find out Belmont was designed by A.W. Tillinghast in 1916 and updated by Donald Ross in 1927. Two of golf's all-time architectural heavyweights involved in the same largely unknown and forgotten course tend to leave mouths agape.
The inventive No. 1 lives up to the pedigree. It starts on an elevated tee below a mansion-like building (these days home to the Henrico County Recreation Center) and proceeds to a green guarded by a moat. Two kids in the group behind me simply tossed balls over the moat onto the green after losing a few in the murky water.
That's one of the pleasures of Belmont. Where else are you going to find junior-golf beginners testing their chops on a Tillinghast?
The history here is deep-rooted and impressive, but the vibe is pure affordable muni. The water and soda in the vending machine outside the little clubhouse (no beer-cart girls here) cost a dollar a plastic bottle. The head professional, Jeff Stanton, has been here forever.
When I asked a graying clubhouse attendant if it's a good walking course, he laughed. "Sure. This is real golf."
Belmont golf isn't showcase golf. It's a more subtle take on the game that favors accuracy over strength. Some of Belmont's landing areas are downright anorexic. This golfer sent his (not badly hit) tee shot on par-3 fourth screaming into the far opposite edge of the parallel first fairway.
Still, that's better than topping one into the tennis courts right near the fifth tee. Belmont is very much in the center of it all, with the attendant traffic noise (and occasional glimpses of cars whizzing by). Urban sprawl has really caught up to Tillinghast's vision.
But can still enjoy the game here. Belmont might be mostly par 4s, but they're not measly par 4s. No. 5, at 470 yards with a severe dogleg, requires brains and some unexpected brawn. Several holes have you shooting up and down, including No. 6, which hits you with an elevated tee shot down to the fairway and then a significant uphill to a green on a ledge.
Belmont doesn't have huge hills, but it's not as flat as it first appears either. When it comes to this place that counts as a minor surprise.
Belmont's days as a top-flight must-play are past. The fairway grass is more than a little faded, and on this early-winter play the first cut of rough was yellow and dormant. Some holes are simply pedestrian.
But a round here can be a great golf day. Where else are you going to get to play a course this historic and interesting for a buck a hole? (That's on a weekday afternoon; mornings are $21, weekends a princely $24.) There are plenty of courses in this burgeoning capital city of about 200,000 that deliver much less satisfaction at far higher prices.
Plus, the staff here seems to really love golf and appreciate what they have. You might not fall head over heels for this unassuming muni, but you'll remember it.
Stay and play
The Omni Richmond (804-344-7000) is well-located, right in downtown with easy freeway access. In fact, Richmond is a great stopping point if you're driving up Interstate 95 to Myrtle Beach from the northeast.
Vie de France Bakery & Café (804-780-0748) in the James Center downtown has tasty sandwiches and soups so good local office workers call days ahead to see when their favorites will be on offer. Avoid Barlowe's Terrace, the restaurant at the Omni - you'll find average food for high prices.
Being a groundbreaking course architect doesn't make your name any easier to spell: On the course's Henrico County-run Web site the designer is identified as "Tillenghast."
January 27, 2007