A round of renovations at a Henrico County-owned golf club is getting a second look, in part due to a local group’s efforts to shine a light on the century-old course’s architectural past.
The county next month will hold a community meeting to discuss plans to rework the bunkers at Belmont Golf Course, which opened in 1916 as part of Hermitage Country Club and is the only course in Virginia to ever host a major PGA tournament – the 1949 PGA Championship won by Sam Snead.
But it’s the history of Belmont’s design – and the architect who designed it – that’s prompted at least one local golfer to question the county’s planned bunker rehab.
Sitting on Hilliard Road, near the intersection of Brook Road, Belmont was designed by A.W. Tillinghast, an icon of golf-course design whose creations include Cedar Crest Park in Dallas, San Francisco Golf Club, and Quaker Ridge Golf Club and Bethpage Black in New York.
The county’s community meeting, planned for Nov. 1 at 11 a.m. at Belmont, is partly the result of a group of local golfers and self-described golf course architecture nerds who say they worry the bunker repairs will further bury Tillinghast’s influence on the course, and would miss out on what they see as an opportunity to capitalize on that history.
Much of the hubbub was sparked by Bert Clark, who’s lived in Henrico since the mid-’90s and occasionally plays Belmont.
“I’ve always been sort of an armchair golf course architect,” Clark said. “I’ve always been aware that Belmont was a historic course.”
He said he became interested in restoring and improving Belmont after playing there a year ago, and approached the county out of curiosity.
“The more research I did and the more I contacted people across the country (golf course architects, historians) it became increasingly clear that Henrico County had an incredibly valuable golf course because it’s a Tillinghast,” Clark said. “The place is really special.”
He learned about the plans to redo the bunkers after the county put the work out to bid earlier this year, and didn’t like the designs. Clark then helped stoke a debate about Belmont in recent weeks when the issue was picked up by national golf blog FriedEgg.com and featured in a segment on the Golf Channel.
That all caught the eye of other locals – and the county.
Neil Luther, director of the county’s Recreation and Parks Department, which oversees operations of the Belmont, said he’s heard from Clark and others, and saw the national coverage.
He said the county had already decided to cancel the RFP for bunker work for lack of bids, but didn’t ignore the issue that had arisen over Belmont’s history.
“We have a bunker renovation that’s funded, but we didn’t get the number of bidders we were hoping for, which coincided with the concerns raised,” Luther said. “We are taking a second look at it and because of some of the questions that were raised we’re setting up a Q&A to invite anybody who plays at Belmont and is interested in golf to come out for a community meeting.”
Luther, an avid golfer, said the county is well aware of the Belmont’s history and has no plans to wash over that heritage. But, he said, the bunkers at Belmont are in dire need of repair – they haven’t been rehabbed since the course belonged to Hermitage Country Club.
“They’re at the point where replenishing sand doesn’t work,” Luther said. “You can’t hit out of many of the bunkers.
“Greens and bunkers in poor condition are a knock against your course. We’ve heard loudly” from players that bunkers are an issue, he said.
The county also must consider the challenges of operating a municipal golf course in modern times.
“We’re trying to balance playing conditions with the integrity of the historic fabric of the course,” Luther said. “We don’t get capital dollars for maintenance very often and we have to live within our means on that.”
Belmont’s annual budget is typically around $1.1 million. It was in the black for fiscal year 2017, with expenses of $964,000. The county budgeted $300,000 to repair the bunkers – funding that may not be available in the future.
Over the last several years, Belmont has averaged about 27,500 rounds of golf. That pales in comparison to the sport’s peak in the ’90s.
“Back in the early ’90s we were seeing 50,000 rounds (a year),” Luther said.
Its weekend and holiday rates are $47 for a round and a cart and $32 to walk the course. Weekly rates are $42 with a cart and $27 to walk. The rate for seniors, an important demographic for Belmont, is $33 to ride and $22 to walk. Henrico residents receive a $3 discount.
He said Belmont competes well with other local daily fee courses.
“It’s got a loyal following,” Luther said. “It’s very hard to grow rounds at any course and we’re trying our best to maintain market share for what we are at product and price.”
Clark and his group see more potential. He said they see an opportunity for Belmont to capitalize on the Tillinghast connection, and are willing to get more organized to see if that’s possible.
“We want to use this opportunity to bring this great course to the attention of locals and people all across the country,” Clark said.
“Ultimately what we’d like to do is get the course restored – an authentic restoration, where they’d bring back the lost features. A lot of the Tillinghast features are still there. The bones are still in place.”
He said Belmont is one of only three public Tillinghast courses in the country to host a major and that heritage could be a golf tourism driver.
“People will come from far and wide” to see it, he said.
Clark credits the county and Luther for being willing to gather public input and he hopes the county will think big.
“It’s going to take a considerable effort on the part of Henrico County officials to look at that course different than they ever have in the past,” he said. “They don’t see it as a historical gem or a driver of tourism dollars.”
Clark, who works in real estate, said his admittedly amateur estimation is that it could cost as much as $4 million to restore the course.
He said he and his group has had initial, brief discussions about formally preserving the property and raising money to support the cause.
“We’re going to form a group called Friends of Belmont Golf Course. That group will begin to advocate for the restoration of the course. Exactly how that gets done, I’m not sure.
“Our first objective is to make people aware of the historic significance of the course and see if we can gather momentum for the idea.”
Luther said the county would need to do a market study, keeping in mind the practicality of running a course day-to-day.
“I’m not going to discount it out of hand, but I’m also not going to accept it,” Luther said. “There may be some potential to it, but it’s not in and of itself going to bring in 5,000 more rounds,” he said.
Still, Luther said the county is keeping an open mind.
“We never intended to be disrespectful to the heritage of the course and we’ll take an open eye of anything anyone brings to the table,” he said.