RICHMOND, VIRGINIA | History and progress aren’t often compatible. Brent Schneider knew that when he submitted a 120-page proposal for what his Greater Richmond chapter of the First Tee would like to do with the beleaguered Belmont Golf Course that had Hall of Fame roots digging back more than 100 years but seemed unable to flourish in a new century.
“Where the history of American golf meets the future of American golf,” is what Schneider pitched in his detailed proposal in 2020. “If you’re not interested, stop reading.”
Connecting history and the future is a fine needle to thread, but the County of Henrico accepted the challenge. And the result is a model reimagining of how a land-locked piece of historic property can serve both the golf purists and golf curious in a way that might just benefit everyone.
The new Belmont Golf Club that reopens May 24 will be both familiar and new to golfers in the Richmond metropolitan area. There are 12 holes faithfully restored by the Davis Love III Golf Design group to what A.W. Tillinghast first created (and Donald Ross later tweaked) in 1917 – basically bringing back the original seventh through 18th holes upon which Sam Snead won the 1949 PGA Championship and Ben Hogan the 1945 Richmond Open.
“The first thing I said at Belmont is, ‘Wait a minute, it’s classic, let’s just renovate it the way it is. Don’t change anything. Bring it back to what it was.’ They said, ‘No, that hasn’t worked for a long, long time.’ It doesn’t make money as an 18-hole golf course. That’s the point.” – Davis Love III
On part of the rest of the property, the Love team created a six-hole “Little Bell” – a short course inspired by some of Tillinghast’s famous par-3s – as well as 31,000-square foot, reversible 18-hole putting course called “The Ringer” that features 12 feet of elevation change and is larger than popular inspirations like the Punchbowl at Bandon Dunes, the Himalayas at St. Andrews and Thistle Dhu at Pinehurst.
And, of course, there will be a practice facility that is the heart of every First Tee, including two other existing properties in its Greater Richmond portfolio.
Love admittedly had to be sold on the notion of tearing up part of a Tillinghast classic and repurposing it for broader use.
“The first thing I said at Belmont is, ‘Wait a minute, it’s classic, let’s just renovate it the way it is. Don’t change anything. Bring it back to what it was,’” Love said. “They said, ‘No, that hasn’t worked for a long, long time.’ It doesn’t make money as an 18-hole golf course. That’s the point.
“There was not enough room for a practice facility or big putting green. Not enough room for a First Tee building. It doesn’t work. That’s why it’s failing. (Richmond native and amateur champion) Vinny Giles made a great point, that maybe with COVID it could have survived for a little bit longer. But long term it had to be rethought.”
Love, himself a Hall of Famer, came to embrace the bold variety-option concept as “the future of golf.”
“Take Topgolf, people are going and hitting balls and having fun, how do you get them to go all the way to a five-hour day at a country club?” Love said. “There’s a huge gap between those things. So playing 12 holes or six par-3 holes or going out and putting before dinner at a community place where people can walk or hit balls or play a couple holes, I think that’s the future of golf.”
(Click on images below to enlarge them and to get caption information.)
Tillinghast first designed what was originally called Hermitage Golf Club just north of downtown Richmond in what was then rural Henrico County in 1917, making it among his earliest surviving designs. The famed architect of Winged Foot, Bethpage Black and San Francisco Golf Club said “the features on this tract are far more pleasing and interesting than any I’ve encountered south of the Mason Dixon line.”
The limited piece of rolling property – bisected by a primary road and constrained by a modest middle-class neighborhood that grew along its perimeter – was considered a jewel in its early days. Enough of a jewel to play host to the only major championship in Virginia history, won by commonwealth native and legend Snead at the peak of his powers in a 3 and 2 victory over Johnny Palmer in the final match.
“It’s unique,” said Schneider, the CEO of the First Tee-Greater Richmond. “We had a course that hosted a major, that two Hall of Famers helped design and two Hall of Famers played and won on it. We know it’s special and were very intentional about how the renovation would work.”
Despite its hallowed history, Belmont had fallen into disrepair and was failing as a golf club and providing a fiscal drain on the county. They were originally ready to give up on golf altogether and either convert the land into a recreational park or sell it for commercial development. But the surrounding neighborhood banded together and lobbied to maintain it as a golf course, so the county decided to lease it to someone long term who would take on the financial responsibilities of running it.
Purists, of course, wanted it to simply be restored (only 15 of the original holes actually remained relatively unchanged because of road widening and 100 years of natural evolution) and most of the submitted proposals replicated that simple blueprint. That plan, however, had repeatedly failed to prosper through the years for a property not in the toniest part of the Richmond metro area.
The First Tee proposal was not only the most unique, but the non-profit had the best chance of thriving affordably without the pressing need to recoup the $5 million it was investing to enact its concept.
“As a non-profit we have a donor who bought into our vision and we don’t need the same return on investment others would,” said Schneider of a facility that will be inclusive with $35 rack rates to walk on weekdays ($40 weekends), $10 to play Little Bell once (or $25 all day) and $5 for the putting course. Kids will be able to use the features free of charge if they sign up for the First Tee program and there will be lower senior and military rates. They already sold most of a limited 100 Founders Club membership spots for $2,700 renewable each year.
Making the vision work all hinged on finding the right design team to implement Schneider’s plan, and he felt an immediate bond and kindred spirit with Love Golf Design’s lead architect, Scot Sherman.
“One of my big concerns early was, are these guys really all in – are they really buying our vision,” Schneider said. “I said, ‘Guys, we’re going to change a Tillinghast jewel – are you OK with that?’ Scot told me that some of his favorite holes in golf that he’s gotten inspiration from happen to be from what they call children’s courses in Scotland – shorter courses that have some real architectural genius. He said, ‘It doesn’t have to be that we’re wrecking something; we’re recreating it and saving it and restoring it.’”
Using old aerial photos and any other reference material they could dig up, Love, his brother Mark and Sherman were as faithful as possible restoring the original Tillinghast holes, carving out and rebuilding deep flat-bottom bunkers, restoring green complexes to precise specs and trying to apply their “Tillinghast brain” to fill in any lost Golden Age details in lieu of original site plans.
As Love described the process: “This is what was here on some holes; this is what we think was here on some holes; and this is our interpretation of Tillinghast if he was around to tell us what to do.”
“Belmont is a really, really cool project and unfortunately you’re taking a classic course and not really putting it back to 18 holes. But for the good of the game people will learn the history of golf because Belmont/Hermitage has so much history. We had to adapt.” – Davis Love III
The 12 holes (among the 15 that remained from the original) feature the first three on the clubhouse side of the road that wrap down and around a large lake, eight more on the other side of the tunnel on a footprint that includes a boundary creek and a cross barranca before finishing back across the street on what was the original par-3 18th. It features back-to-back par-5s (Nos. 3 and 4) and a pair of par-3s (7 and 12) that can stack up against some of Tilly’s best – including the push-up seventh green surrounded by four yawning bunkers at the center of the “back eight.”
“Old architects like Ross and (CB) Macdonald and Tillinghast, they knew what they were doing,” said Love, whose team drew rave reviews for its restoration of Donald Ross’ Brunswick Country Club in Georgia as well as its renovation of Sea Pines’ Atlantic Dunes course, which was the first built on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. “We’re not inventing anything new.”
Little Bell features two restorations of original Belmont green complexes (the old fourth and fifth holes) along with scaled-down reproductions of a Tiny Tim template opener, Southward Ho’s No. 4, SFCC’s famous No. 7 Duel Hole and finishing on a Reef template.
Schneider calls it “something new and fun for the community” while Love simply says it’s “really, really cool.”
“Belmont is a really, really cool project and unfortunately you’re taking a classic course and not really putting it back to 18 holes,” Love said, “but for the good of the game people will learn the history of golf because Belmont/Hermitage has so much history. We had to adapt.”
The four unique elements – range, putting course, short course as well as 12 championship caliber holes – blended into a place with Belmont’s history, it has the chance of rewriting what is considered normal for a public golf facility. And with easy access just a few minutes off I-95, the most travelled corridor on the East Coast, it could provide an attractive affordable pit stop to suit any timetable for golf aficionados heading South for vacation or a golf trip.
Schneider, Love and the First Tee may actually have threaded that needle to appeal to something for everyone and fulfilled that original mission to “transform this into an inclusive, welcoming place” where the history of American golf really does meet the future of American golf.
Top: An aerial photo of Belmont Golf Club. Photo: Courtesy Belmont Golf Club
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