Somerset still trying to prove it belongs on Fredericksburg golf scene

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

LOCUST GROVE, Va. - The neighborhood dog casually sauntered up to the first tee. It was apparent this black Labrador retriever had been here before. The guy holding his brand new Callaway driver looked a little shocked to see the wandering pet for sure.

"Shoo, shoo,'' the golfer commanded.

The dog yawned, scratched himself for good measure.

"Shoo, shoo." It was more of a plea now and the dog knew it. The animal settled into the soft grass, right in front of the tee box.

Welcome to life at the Somerset Golf Club, where the neighbors' pets become your golf pests. Not that you can blame the labrador. Everyone's seen golf courses with subdivisions built around them. Somerset does them one better. It's a course that's literally built smack in the middle of a subdivision. There's the Smith's house and then there's Somerset's clubhouse.

"Sure, you can see some strange things on this course,'' local Leon Jennings said, shrugging.

Jennings wasn't about to be fazed by reports of a close encounter of the canine kind. He'd just finished putting out on the 18th green, a much nastier experience to be sure. Navigating the par-4 18th's twisting uphill approach and landing on the green offers little respite. Only Somerset first timers breathe a sigh of satisfaction then. Veterans like Jennings know better.

"I swear that 18th green is like felt," Jennings said. "I've seen a guy putt from 55 feet away and watch it roll all the way past the other way, down the hill.. Then his putt back rolled all the way past, down the other hill."

Jennings paused.

"It's a lot of fun."

Somerset is known for producing feelings of strong ambiguity. This course's symbol should be a sunny rainy day.

Somerset entered the Fredericksburg golf scene as a pioneer. When it opened in 1997, it was heralded as a new face of the region's golf renaissance. It would bring upscale golf to the common man, help turn Fredericksburg into a golf destination. In some ways it happened. Somerset did help pave the way for the recent region boom that's brought Cannon Ridge Golf Club and Mattaponi Springs Golf Club in the last few years alone. But not soon after opening, Somerset lost its own way.

The course became more and more rundown with less and less done to stop the decline. It got so bad, turned off so many area golfers, that Somerset found itself out of business. It closed down in the summer of 2002. Many area golfers were convinced it would never reopen. Some weren't sure if they ever wanted it to.

"It had a bad rap before the redesign and other changes,'' local Bob Harmon said. "A real bad rep.''

Lighthouse Golf Group purchased the course and brought in architect Rick Robbins for a redesign and reopened last September. They would try again on the land that some locals swear is cursed (this was the site of a hospital that took in the wounded and soon departed from some of the bloodiest battles in the Civil War).

Ghost this! That's Roy Westerfield's view. He isn't buying any talk of a curse.

"It's challenging compared to some of the other courses that claim to be tough around here,'' said Westerfield, Somerset regular. "The greens are in good shape. There's not that many other people out here, backing up the course. What more could you want?

Green grass in the fairways, perhaps? If this is Somerset post makeover, it is hard to imagine what it was like before. There are several patches in the fairways that are overgrown, others that are little more than brown grass and dirt. The is by far the worst maintained course seen in a three-day tour of the

Throw in the fact that there weren't enough people working at the course to notice the wandering dog and it doesn't exactly scream upscale experience. The new management's had a year now to turn things around and if there are noticeable improvements, there's also a ways to go. Except maybe in the clubhouse.

"Look at the girl behind the bar and tell me things aren't better here," a golfer who asked not to be identified challenged. "She's from Austria. Too bad, she has a boyfriend though.''

The guy's buddy, Tony Woodward, just laughed. Even that Labrador retriever would have known this guy didn't have a shot.

Oh well, such is life at Somerset Golf Club, one of the strangest neighbors you'll ever find.

The verdict

There are challenging, fun holes if you can get over the scene and some of the conditions. The stretch of four through six will definitely test your game. Each of these holes has greens guarded by waste areas that can swallow wayward tee or second shots. Once you get on the back nine, the neighborhood is at least a few hills away, providing a chance to get a little caught up in nature. Just don't go expecting to be wowed. The redesign team made a point of opening up some of the Rapidan River views (parts of the course lies along the banks). It's a good theory, but in reality the Rapidan looks like a dirty pond with its brown water rolling over rocks.

The scenery does succeed on hillier closing stretch, particularly the 17th with its three little creeks cutting across a curving fairway and the 18th's long uphill climb. But perhaps the biggest advantage of Somerset is its lack of crowds. On this late afternoon, there is only five or six groups out on the course, making for a nice, brisk playing pace. You could do worse than plunk down $25 for one of the Monday through Friday after 1 p.m. re-introductory tee times.

Of course, four-legged friends get in free. It's only neighborly.

Places to stay

There's a Best Western ( (540) 371-5050) that's not far from the course. A better bet is take the 15-minute ride into Old Towne Fredericksburg and pick one of relatively inexpensive Bed & Breakfasts. Chez Soi ( (540) 310-0036) is quirky enough to offer a Belgian atmosphere in the heart of the historic district. It's also quirky enough not to accept any credit cards.

Places to eat

La Petite Auberge ( (540) 371-2727) offers big portions of some surprisingly innovative cuisine in the midst of the historic district. Spanky's ( (540) 372-9999) isn't what you might think. It's a shop with the largest sandwich menu in town.

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.

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