By Jeffrey A. Rendall
MIDLOTHIAN, VA -- Baseball and football are classic American games, no doubt about it. Both sports have thrilled fans for over a century, making legends out of players and accumulating a sizeable stock of memorabilia for commemoration and remembrance. Fittingly, perhaps, some forward thinking folks got together decades ago to build each sport a Hall of Fame--and now the small towns of Cooperstown, New York, and Canton, Ohio, are themselves enshrined as the hallowed ground of baseball and football, respectively. They're the 'homes' for their sports.
How about Midlothian, Virginia? I'd guess it's not a name rolling off the lips of many a sports historian, but in time, this place will certainly be known to Old Dominion golf aficionados as the home of Virginia golf -- the reason being the new Independence Golf Club is located there. Independence Golf Club is owned by the non-profit Virginia State Golf Association (VSGA), and boasts an eighteen-hole Tom Fazio signature golf course, a nine-hole short course (also a Fazio design), and will soon host the Association's offices and educational facilities.
It'll also house a museum dedicated to Virginia golf and its history. Many a sport would be fortunate to possess such rich digs for a home.
Adding to the uniqueness, the Fazio designed course is the only public layout in Virginia bearing his signature. Fazio's achieved much notoriety and acclaim for designing some of modern golf's most enduring layouts (and 'upgrading' others, such as Augusta National), and he's very well known instate for creating several private tracks often cited amongst the best in the region -- The Virginian (Bristol), Lowes Island (Sterling), Bayville (Virginia Beach) and Two Rivers (Williamsburg), amongst others.
Fazio says he was happy to return to Virginia to design the Independence Club courses, for several reasons: "I saw the Independence project as a chance to do something really special. All the folks at the VSGA, starting with the first call from Harry Easterly, were very serious about creating the best all around golf facility they could build -- and it's fun for a designer to receive that kind of support."
Fazio continues, "Having designed several courses in Virginia, I knew the country up there is beautiful terrain for golf. There're hundreds and hundreds of golf courses just waiting to evolve out of the Virginia topography, which is a nearly ideal landscape for golf."
I've always thought this myself, but I've left it to Mr. Fazio to articulate it.
Independence Golf Club is quite a blend of all Virginia has to offer, with some ups and downs, some wetlands, some water, lots of trees and beauty that's hard to equal (outside the state!). The golf architect's provided some incredibly wide driving avenues, but keeps you honest with intelligent bunkering and well thought out green complexes.
Fazio says it's always his goal to use each individual property's environmental gifts to their fullest, and Independence Golf Club was no exception: "My goal is to create a distinctive, different type of golf course every time, and that's what Independence turned out to be. Each piece of ground is different, and you just have to work with the land to fit the golf holes into the surroundings without altering the landscape too much."
Fazio adds: "A good example is Independence's first hole, which has a sizeable lake to the left of the driving area. Well, it just turned out this particular area was a good place to locate the main irrigation storage area for the entire property, so we incorporated it into the course design. It wasn't because we decided we wanted water on the first hole or because of some preconceived plan to put certain things on the course. It's because it fits the environment of that particular space better than any other place."
Sure enough, the entire layout blends nicely into the varied countryside, and your eyes tell you this particular tract of land was made for golf. There's a very natural ebb and flow to the golf holes, excellent visibility at every turn and more than enough opportunities for players to achieve a solid golf round, devoid of tricks or gimmicks.
But that's just the golfing component of the experience. Mike West, Director of Golf at Independence Golf Club, says playing the Fazio course is only part of what the VSGA strives to offer. "We want people to know that the Fazio golf course, though special in and of itself, is just one piece of the overall package we have here. We're going to provide educational opportunities -- both on and off the course--for all levels of golfers at this facility. We'll also headquarter the VSGA offices here."
West continues, "We've got a sixty seat amphitheater where we'll host rules, handicap, course rating -- every kind of educational seminar the VSGA now provides, on site. We'll also have the junior dormitories opening in the early part of 2002. That'll allow us to bring in junior golfers and host day camps, week camps, instructional schools, etc. In addition, the short course will provide an excellent 'classroom' to teach juniors the game of golf, while also making it fun."
So I guess you could say that Independence Golf Club brings together all the elements of Virginia golf, all in one location. It's like the 'capital' for golf in the state -- good thing it's close to Richmond.
For those visiting just for the day, the Fazio course will be the focus. As previously noted, it's got a plethora of variety, is easy on the spare golf ball pocket and challenging enough from the back tee sets to keep everyone in the game. It's extremely well bunkered, which Fazio says he uses to 'frame' his golf hole images.
"As an artist, you must decide what frames your picture. It may be metal, gold, silver or ornate -- it accentuates what's inside. Bunkers are the same way on a golf course. There're different styles and different looks that you invent, and we felt at the Independence Club, in order to create the set up for the golf holes--for their 'frame' -- the bunkering we used presents a very artistic and dramatic look."
It just goes to show that golf architects use nature as their tableau, sculpting with sand, water and flora. Golf courses just might be the largest sculptures in the world.
Turning to the course, as indicated above, Fazio starts you out with a challenging 465 yard par four. The tee is quite elevated, allowing for some air under the tee balls, but stay clear of the lake on the left. On one, as is true for most holes -- there's plenty of room to miss right. Being in the rough is better than getting wet, but will make it difficult to reach this slightly elevated green.
Four is the first par five at Independence, and provides a good opportunity to perhaps pick up a shot lost after the first three, very difficult par fours. The tee shot's to a plateau fairway, and if you stay towards the right side, may give you a shot at getting home in two. This green is huge (as are most of the greens at Independence), so the difference from front to back could easily be two to three clubs.
A note on the greens. West points out they're A4 bentgrass, a rarity in this region (we saw it at Bay Creek) -- but an incredible surface to putt on. The greens rolled very quick and true -- somewhat surprising for a course this new. You may get a break or two on your drives, but don't expect one on the greens if your stroke's off.
Seven's the first par three on the course, and a good one at 220 yards, shooting over a cleared ravine with a stream at the bottom. Fazio elaborates on his thoughts behind waiting until the seventh hole to put in the first par three: "Generally speaking, par threes are the easiest holes on the course to design, and you'll use them as fillers between some of the other holes, because you can often utilize the most difficult ground on them."
"If there was a 'plan,' you'd probably want a par three near the middle of the first nine, but it's a matter of opinion. What happened at Independence--from the location of the property lines, the environmental constraints, and topography--we determined a par three would fit well on this particular land (number seven). It's a good example of how you basically route the layout according to the lay of the land," Fazio said.
The ninth is also a par three -- and another solid one. West says there's a great set of par threes on the course, and I'd have to agree. They're all very distinct, and challenge different player skills -- variety and quality.
Jumping to the eleventh, it's the shortest par three on the course, 162 yards from the tips and plays over wetlands to a well-bunkered, small green. There is some room to miss long, but that'll leave a tough up and down on this slick and undulating green.
Not to be redundant, but the fourteenth is another great par three. 208 yards and slightly uphill, you're shooting at a tiered green that slopes slightly behind the green. Save some film for this one.
Sixteen is a monster par four, 460 yards and a dogleg right. Don't try to cut the leg here though, as a huge bunker guards the corner. If you're in there, better think about what distance to layup to. Par here is an excellent score.
Seventeen is a 592 yard par five that seems like it goes on forever. Here, again, is an extremely long green, and somewhat narrow. If you don't choose the right club for the third shot, better bring your sixty-foot putting stroke.
The final hole is a medium length par four, hitting over water to another wide landing area. The second shot is slightly uphill with a large bunker protecting the approach to the left. Here you'll have grand views of the clubhouse (named Charles House), modeled after Thomas Jefferson's Monticello.
Reminds you a lot of 'home.' Independence Golf Club is quite a facility -- and though it definitely shows signs of being brand new, it's not hard to tell how grand it will be one day in the not so distant future. It's nice to know that Virginia golfers now have a great place to call home sweet home.
Independence Golf Club
600 Founders Bridge Boulevard
Midlothian, VA 23113
Phone: (804) 594-0261
FAX: (804) 594-0305
Director of Golf: Michael L. West
Course Architect: Tom Fazio
Operated by Kemper Sports Management
Mon-Thur: $60; Fri-Sun: $70
For VSGA members, $45 and $55.
Rate includes cart and range balls.
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