‘The bones are still in place’: Locals push for Belmont Golf Course rehab

belmont golf club aerial

The community meeting will discuss potential bunker repairs at Belmont Golf Course. (Kieran McQuilkin)

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.

belmont golf course sign

The course opened in 1916 as part of Hermitage Country Club. (Michael Schwartz)

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.

belmont golf course

Belmont averages about 27,500 rounds of golf annually. (Kieran McQuilkin)

“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.

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Dave Tindall
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I do not feel the County should run a golf course. It is a declining business and other are better suited. Sell it if possible.

Conrad Rickers
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Conrad Rickers

I for one actually like the idea of localities owning an occasional golf course in their respective park systems. It is a great amenity for its residents and gives people a chance to come to the game of golf on the lower end without needing to join a country club membership or have to pay very high daily greens fees (e.g., Independence). And also if the county were to sell this gem, you would hate to see it run into the ground by a poor operator, like what happened at River’s Bend in Chester, for example.

Louie Pettinato
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Louie Pettinato

Henrico County is in the top 20 in Virginia in median income per capita, with a golf course (Belmont) that is an embarrassment. While the City of Petersburg is in the bottom 20 in median income per capita with a golf course (Dogwood Trace) that is in better condition than most courses in Central Virginia. What’s wrong with this picture?

Bert Clark
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Bert Clark

There are a number of historic courses that have been authentically renovated by municipalities in recent years, the financial results are impressive. People will gravitate to a quality experience that is both fun and challenging. The Friends of Belmont Golf Course, a recently formed group with the goal of promoting a restoration of the course as well as, expand the range of services at Belmont for both golfers and nongolfers. Here are a few ideas bing discussed: Holes #6 & 7 would be converted to a driving range and two replacement holes be added on the Brook Road Neighborhood Park… Read more »

Eric Bickel
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Eric Bickel

Some great ideas. As an avid golfer, most of them I know that play weekend golf, would much rather play a course that has good greens, and nice fariways at a value. It’s an expensive sport. Belmont offers one of the best values in Richmond. However, more times than none, people either stay away because of condition of the greens or pace of play. Henrico County would be better served to actually hire a professional Golf Course Super instead of plug and play maintenance workers. The course could be in better shape if the people doing the work actually knew… Read more »

Christopher Muller
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Christopher Muller

As someone who lives nearby, I think that spending some money to make this course special again could be a good value driver for not only the course itself but to help out the surrounding areas. More golfers at Belmont means more customers for the small businesses on Lakeside Avenue, as well as more traffic that might help some of the struggling retail centers on Brook. I also find the idea of a driving range very appealing, as currently to get to a driving range from Lakeside/Northside, one either has to go almost to Ashland, into the far West End,… Read more »

David Peters
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David Peters

Bert, Thanks for sharing some of the ideas under consideration. Personally, I’d rather see any available funds go towards restoring the existing course rather than replacing 6 & 7 with a driving range. In addition to altering the Tillinghast design, seems like that would require some big unsightly nets along holes 5 and 9. I think rebuilding some of the problem bunkers, restoring the original mowing lines, and removing a few trees would go a long way. Also restoring the 1st green to its original location and removing intrusive cart paths. How can folks get involved with the Friends of… Read more »

David Peters
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David Peters

Also, if you haven’t already done so, I’d suggest talking to course architect Keith Foster. His restoration of another Tillinghast course, Philly Cricket Club, is awesome!

Louie Pettinato
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Louie Pettinato

How does one join The Friends of Belmont

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[…] facility next door at 5500 Brook Road. To the north, the county-owned Belmont Golf Course is slated for bunker rehabs that have prompted further […]