CHARLOTTESVILLE, VIRGINIA | The vistas immediately catch your eye. Birdwood Golf Course has always presided over a strikingly beautiful piece of property, but on a crisp, clear October afternoon with autumn color draped across the Blue Ridge foothills that surround the University of Virginia, the panorama across the course stands out more than ever.
Thanks to a complete redesign by Davis Love III’s course-design company, those vistas sweep in directions previously unseen – or at least underutilized. By clearing out hillsides of invasive brambles and trees, moving some dirt and incorporating every side of the existing ponds, Love Golf Design has opened up a sleeping giant of a golf course and turned it into a showcase for the University of Virginia as well as Boar’s Head Resort guests.
“When we went out for the first time, I was just amazed,” said Bowen Sargent, the longtime UVa men’s golf coach. “They did an unbelievable job putting in beautiful vistas of mountains and restoring the pastoral setting of the property. It’s always been there, but he made it seem like it’s bigger.”
“He’s taken what was a really good piece of property and good golf course and made it great,” said Martin Winters, the director of golf at Birdwood/Boar’s Head Resort. “It’s an incredible transformation. The course is super fun to play, with challenging holes and some gettable holes. It’s pretty special.”
Davis Love III can accurately be described as “old-school.” His actual old school is the University of North Carolina, where he was a three-time All-American in the mid-1980s. UNC and Virginia football have played in the South’s Oldest Rivalry every year since meeting twice in 1892.
So how did a Tar Heel end up redesigning UVa’s Birdwood course, which first opened in 1984 – the year Love won the ACC championship?
It started with connections. Love has teamed up with sports psychologist Bob Rotella since embarking on a World Golf Hall of Fame career, making frequent trips to Charlottesville to see him since 1986. He’s also close with Bill Goodwin, the former rector of Virginia’s Board of Visitors who owns three golf resorts including Sea Pines in Hilton Head, South Carolina. Love Golf Design got rave reviews for its redesign of the Ocean Course at Sea Pines, which earned DL3 Goodwin’s endorsement for Birdwood.
But what ultimately sold the Hoos on hiring a Heel was the pitch. The Love Golf Design team – which includes Davis’ brother and partner, Mark, and lead architect Scot Sherman – seemed to understand best what a historic institution like Virginia needed – something classic. After all, it sprawls across a property that was one of the original “upland wilderness” land patents in the colony dating to 1739 and is presided over by a colonial brick mansion that dates back two centuries and was built by the same workers who constructed Virginia’s iconic centerpiece, the Rotunda.
“When you have a 200-year-old university, it ought to look like it’s been here forever,” Love said of the course, originally designed in a modern architectural style by Lindsay Ervin. “You’ve got this cool mansion and beautiful piece of property; this is the style we’re looking for.
“And who’s going to use it? It’s a combo course of some members, some university play, some resort play, and then two teams of expert players who need a practice facility and place to play. You had to balance all those people and what they want. Design style is an art interpretation. We didn’t like the style that was there, and it didn’t fit with a big old brick mansion and old university. Boar’s Head was in the midst of a big renovation anyway, so we needed to bring it up to five-star level and make it maintainable for the greens superintendent.”
Winters called the Love team a “perfect fit” that stood out among a who’s-who of candidates.
Embracing “classic” meant the original Birdwood’s island-green par-3 14th hole – the picture of which graced the old scorecards – needed to go. Love was also ready to scrap the original 13th hole that wrapped somewhat blindly around a lake with a small hidden inlet at the corner that frustrated golfers for nearly four decades. Sargent pitched fixing it, however, and Love’s team obliged by clearing all the obstructions, filling the inlet and moving the tees closer to the water to make players take on the new fifth as a reverse Cape hole.
“The Love group was very open and willing to listen,” said Sargent. “There’s a blend of a little bit of the old and definitely some new.”
Only five holes remain relatively similar to the original course, sharing the same corridors, direction and par as their predecessors. Nos. 1 and 2 almost feel exactly like the old start, though the par-5 second now has a creek running in front of the green. The former 13th turned into the modified Cape fifth. The new 14th is very reminiscent of the old 18th, while the new finishing hole is an updated version of the old ninth.
The 10th hole also starts almost exactly like the original par-4, but when you get to where the green used to be the hole keeps going downhill and to the right for another 200 yards over what used to be the first half of the old 11th, creating what can play as a mammoth 615-yard par-5 from the Cavalier tees. The par-3 13th basically incorporates the final approach of the former par-5 17th.
The rest of what Love Design created is completely original, much of it on 50 acres of land cleared out to take advantage of all sides of the existing water that used to come into play on only three holes. Now the same three ponds have proximity to eight holes, including the par-3 11th and 17th holes.
“We could have built a whole ’nother 18 holes back there,” Love said of the expansive property. “But we took advantage of the land we had right there and created a few new holes to get rid of old holes and turned a few holes in a different direction to take advantage of either the lake or the views or terrain. … Tried to make it more playable for everybody and challenging for the expert players and bring out the views.”
Love reversed direction of the par-4 along the water near the front of the property, turning the left-to-right former sixth hole around the pond that abutted the old green into a right-to-left par-4 16th where players can choose to bite off as much of the water on the drive as they dare. But the real key was clearing the bramble on the opposite side of the pond to build a new long par-3 17th that tucks underneath the historic mansion and water tower – revealing those features that were largely removed and hidden on the old layout.
“Birdwood Mansion is the showpiece of the property and being able to incorporate into finishing holes was a nice element,” said Winters, who started working at Birdwood when he was a student at Virginia in the mid-1990s.
The par-71 course has six sets of tees ranging from 3,856 yards for beginners and kids to 7,116 yards from the Cavalier tees for the elite players. It boasts an entirely new infrastructure to accommodate bentgrass greens, zoysia fairways and Bermuda tees. With old-style bunkering and many squared-off greens, it looks “classic” in every way.
“It really does look like it’s been there a really long time – classic, timeless, long views,” Love said.
One of the highlights is the 1-acre putting course directly off the clubhouse patio. It’s four times the size of the old practice green and incorporates three grassed island mounds that help replicate the mountains that separate the course from the grounds of the University of Virginia.
“There was stuff in the way of looking across mountains,” Love said. “They did a great job with the original placing of the clubhouse and golf course, but if you look over the putting course now you can see across all the vistas.”
While the land from the old third hole was used to build UVa’s tennis facility at the Boar’s Head Resort, the old fourth and fifth holes that ran along the right of the entrance road were transformed into a six-hole par-3 course and a 6-acre short-game practice facility for the UVa men’s and women’s teams. At the back of the driving range is the $7 million golf team building which Love says compares favorably to the performance center at the five-star, five-diamond Sea Island Resort.
“But only 25 people go in the one at Virginia; it’s unbelievable,” said Love. “I get excited every time I go in there and start pulling my clubs out and want to hit balls in bays and use Trackman and the locker room. That’s now the standard. That’s what these kids are seeing and that’s what’s recruiting them. Facilities on top of program on top of school, and when you put all that together at UVa it’s a great recruiting tool.”
COVID-19 restrictions haven’t allowed Virginia’s golf coaches to show off the facilities in person to recruits, but what they’ve highlighted on social media has drawn rave reviews. As has the course, which opened for play in July.
“It is a complete game-changer for us as a program,” said UVa women’s golf coach Ria Scott, referring to the combination of the course redesign and practice amenities. “We have a facility that’s a true one-stop shop for players to work on every aspect of their game.”
Sargent, who came to Virginia 17 years ago, said the completed project is a fulfilment of the vision that began before he took the reins. They were blessed to get it completed before the ramifications of pandemic shutdowns in athletics affect the bottom line of many college athletics departments.
“We started working on this even before I got hired,” Sargent said. “It’s like parents seeing kids off to college.”
Both coaches say their players are “blown away” by what they now have at their disposal. They can’t wait to start showing it off by hosting events, starting this spring with the women’s team’s first Cavalier Match Play that will bring in eight schools including ACC rivals Duke, UNC, N.C. State and Virginia Tech.
The hope at Birdwood is the changes will vault its status in the next round of collegiate course rankings, putting it in line to host large amateur events and NCAA regionals.
Love knows it’s already raised attention at his alma mater, where he’s been trying to convince them to make a major overhaul of UNC’s Finley Golf Course where he literally lived during his tenure as a student athlete.
“We’ve had a plan for UNC and been working on them for over three years before COVID hit,” Love said. “In the three years we’ve been talking about this, UVa has built an incredible team building, redone a golf course, built a short course and 6-acre practice facility and they’re going to kick our butt in recruiting. We’ve got to get it done.”
In the meantime, the Wahoos will enjoy the fruits of a Tar Heel’s design upgrades.
Top: No. 17 at Birdwood Golf Course. Photos Courtesy of Boar’s Head Resort
We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!
Tell us how we can improve this post?