Virginia National Golf Club: A Layout With Personality

By Jeffrey A. Rendall, Contributor

BLUEMONT, VA -- It’s often said that houses or pets take on the personalities or appearances of their owners. Sometimes, that’s a frightening proposition, especially when the owners’ disposition (or looks) isn’t the greatest. But it’s unmistakable that some things are heavily influenced by what created them, trained them, heck, even designed them. I guess you could say, you reap what you sow.

Could the logic extend to a golf course? If so, such is the case for Virginia National Golf Club in Bluemont, Virginia—a piece of ground so beautiful, peaceful and isolated that you scarcely believe you’ll play a golf round there, so far away from the impurities and hustle-bustle of the city (about an hour from Washington DC). It rests on the banks of the south-to-north flowing Shenandoah River, and it’s more than just the river’s reversed directional flow that’s unique about this patch of earth.

The property has it all—incredible mountain scenery, wildlife, the river, and a pretty nice golf course. But what’s not readily apparent when you drive down the long and narrow entrance road is that Virginia National is the life’s project of its owner and creator, Cliff Boyd. One might say Virginia National Golf Club is the embodiment of Boyd’s personality—and in this case, it’s a good thing.

We’ve all heard stories about legendary golf architects tweaking their creations over decades to make sure everything’s perfect. Donald Ross spent the better part of his life touching up Pinehurst #2, while still managing to lend his expertise to hundreds of other layouts. For this, he’s posthumously received a number of accolades, and no doubt a special place in the center of the golf circles of heaven.

But here on earth, there are still many living illustrations of that type of devotion to a piece of ground, molded to accept the game of golf. Mr. Boyd is one of those examples. His resume doesn’t include a birthright in Scotland or apprenticeship under the legends of golf course design. In fact, he comes from the trucking industry—not exactly the breeding grounds for golf hole invention genius.

It hardly matters when you see his golf course. Right away you’ll realize it was a difficult slice of mastery to place a layout here—the course lies in between a mountain range and the Shenandoah River. And, the TLC the property receives can only come from someone who knows it and nurtures it. Boyd’s the man.

“I was here almost everyday during the years we were building this course,” says Boyd. “I don’t really have any other ambitions in the world of golf, other than making this course and this property into the best that it can possibly be. It’ll probably never be completely finished, because I’ll fiddle with it until I’m satisfied—and who knows if that’ll ever happen. My goal is to still have people playing golf here a hundred years from now, and saying ‘Wow, this must’ve taken a lot of thought to create.’”

In addition to the property’s considerable natural appeal (and Boyd’s loving care) is its history. The manor house that occupies a portion of the land (and will be open to the public when restoration is complete) was built in 1799, and became the ancestral home of the Parker family. ‘Hanging Judge’ Richard Parker is probably its most famous resident—he presided over the trial of John Brown in 1857, and sentenced the anti-slavery zealot to hang after his raid on the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry.

Seven years after the trial, the stretch of river in front of the Parker tract played host to the battle of Cool Springs, in the latter stages of the Civil War. The Confederate forces took substantial advantage of local knowledge in this region of the state throughout the war, and this battle was no exception—the federals retreated into the river after being routed. Luckily, the spirits of the soldiers who perished here seem to be at rest. It’s easy to see why in such a tranquil few hundred acres of our earthly existence.

Not to be overshadowed by the property, Virginia National Golf Club is a fine golf course. Its two nines showcase an entirely different personality, and demonstrates that Boyd has a keen eye for detail. The front nine is relatively flat, tight and concise. Several holes either border the Shenandoah, or feature beautiful river views.

The back nine, in contrast, runs along steep mountain ridges and features distinct up and down shots, stunning mountaintop views, and more river exposure. You’ll see everything from tee boxes carved into the side of a mountain to an eighty-foot drop on a 148 yard par three. There’s little doubt it was a challenge to carve out some of these holes.

Accuracy’s the name throughout the course, and hitting the target is the game. There are places where you’ll be able to shank some shots and get away with it—but not many, especially on the back nine. For that reason, it plays very tough. The yardage book’s a big help, though—study it and plot a safe path through the layout.

Boyd says they’re always looking to improve the course, and one way they’ll do so in the near future is to cut down some of the tall grass. “We’ve found since we opened that although the tall grass looks nice, it’s not really fulfilling its intended purpose—guarding adjacent fairways from stray shots. We’ve found we don’t need it, so we’re going to cut it—based on suggestions from our players. We’re very open to that.”

That’s just one of the benefits of having the owner and architect on-site—responsiveness. Boyd also mentioned some other potential improvements will be made by the start of next year, including in the service area—all intended to increase the enjoyment of the players.

In other words, things are continually changing at Virginia National, and it’ll only get better—especially through the efforts of Cliff Boyd.

The round starts off a straightforward par five, 548 yards from the back tees—all yardage marked to the front of the green. That’s another interesting aspect of the Virginia National experience—precise yardage. The scorecard’s printed out daily—and contains the yardage to the front of the green, and the number of yards onto the green for the day’s pins. A simple math equation, but make sure you’ve got it straight from the beginning!

Three’s a great short par four. We’ll let Boyd describe it: “The best way to play this hole is to choose the club you want to hit going into the green, then seek to reach that distance off the tee.” In the process, you’ll want to avoid a creek that runs some 20 yards before the green, and trees on both sides of the landing area. The green is quite undulated, so a precise approach shot is paramount!

Five’s the #1 handicap hole, and though it only plays 394 yards (to the front!), you’ll need a near perfect drive and medium iron shot to make the green in regulation. There’s a slope to the left of the green that leads directly to water—and there’s a bunker guarding the right side. Tough hole!

Nine’s a nice par five to close out the front. A true three shotter at 554 yards, you’ll drive to a wide landing area, where you’ll most likely be choosing your layup club. There’s a lake that guards the right side of the hole and the river to the left—so you’ll probably like to layup. The green’s not reachable for most of us. Play it in three shots, and still leave a chance for birdie.

Eleven is Boyd’s favorite hole. “I like eleven because it requires a lot of thought to play correctly. Unlike most par fives, you can’t just hit a drive and then try to hit a three wood as hard as you can to go at the green in two. You’ll need to carefully plan out the distances of all three shots, then hit the clubs to execute them.”

Fourteen is probably one of the signature holes, but mainly for the scenery. Standing on top of an eighty foot drop, you’ll see the entire Shenandoah Valley before you—and if it’s clear enough, the Allegheny Mountains in the distance. It’s not a masterpiece of a golf hole—a 148 yard par three that offers few options other than hitting the green—but no doubt the views are impressive.

Fifteen’s another beautiful hole—a 471 par five with yet another elevated tee shot. Shoot out towards the river with the tee ball, and think about clubbing down to avoid going left—where certain death waits. If you have a good drive, the green’s approachable in two, but the shot will require a precisely played long iron or fairway wood to a narrow runup area. Even if you’re in the vicinity of the putting surface in two, birdie’s not guaranteed—it’s quite an undulating green.

Eighteen presents some beautiful scenery—and is not a bad golf hole, either. You’ll hit your drive short of a stream that runs through the fairway, about 285 yards from the back tees. The approach must fly the steam, a lake and two bunkers to reach this relatively narrow green. If you miss right, it’ll be your final opportunity to try and solve the deep rough.

After sinking the final putt, you’ll be done with the round, but you probably won’t want to leave Virginia National. Boyd says “even if you don’t play well, when you come here, you’ll be able to escape from the world for a few hours and visit one of the most beautiful spots on earth.” That’s very true, and we can thank him for that—because Virginia National has definitely taken on his personality. And lucky for us, we won’t be forced to sit through any ‘pet-master look alike’ contests to discover it.

General Manager/Course Designer: Cliff Boyd
Professional Course Designer and Consultant: Jerry Mathews

Jeffrey A. RendallJeffrey A. Rendall, Contributor

Jeffrey Rendall is an avid golfer and freelance writer. After passing the California Bar in 1994, he moved to Virginia to pursue his interests in history and politics, where he's worked since 1995.


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