By Jeffrey A. Rendall, Photos by Aaron Frey
Note *** Brad Cheney re-visited the course in June of 2006, and offers his ‘Second Opinion’ at the end of this article.
LEESBURG, VA -- It's cool to be British. And that’s not just because Austin Powers is from Britain, or because many of the greatest artists of rock n' roll came from there.
It's because in many ways, the Brits just seem to know how to go about things. This isn't a call to rescind the Declaration of Independence, and we certainly don't need a Queen, but it's hard to dispute the fact that much of our culture runs a continuum from that small group of islands an ocean away.
|Block out the trees around the 16th green, and you're in Great Britain.|
So there's no surprise when people wear Union Jack t-shirts, speak with phony British accents, or even build British links-style golf courses.
And that's exactly what Gary Player's done at Raspberry Falls Golf & Hunt Club, just to the north side of Leesburg in Northern Virginia. America certainly has its share of links-style imitations, but Player's correct when he claims Raspberry Falls is "like nothing you've ever experienced this side of the Atlantic." Having never seen other classic American links courses, such as Shinnecock Hills (on Long Island, NY) or the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island (South Carolina), I still feel confident in claiming the course is very unique in the mid-Atlantic region.
It's hard to imagine now, but golf originated on pastoral land in Scotland, not exactly the centerpiece of breathtaking landscape scenery. Scotland is hilly, chilly and bland. Yet its golf courses are arguably the most famous in the world, because they're natural -- they fit the land they inhabit. It seems all golf architects these days dream of building a links-style course.
And many have tried -- but few truly succeed in an authentic manner, like Player's done at Raspberry Falls.
Gary Player took a spectacular piece of ground in Virginia's hunt country and tactfully molded an excellent golf course into the surrounding landscape. The holes seem to blend nicely with the tranquil rural setting, and you get the impression very little earth was moved to bring the course to its finished capacity. Local color contributes to the setting, such as a functioning barn and fields with cattle in amongst the thoughtfully placed layout. And, true to its name, you can witness actual foxhunts being conducted during the fall, winter and early spring hunting seasons.
|Looking towards the 2nd green, you'll feel the wide-open nature of Raspberry Falls.|
Player's no doubt familiar with Great Britain, having won three British Opens in his career. But he's also perhaps the world's most knowledgeable golf course connoisseur, having logged more international travel miles (12 million) than any other golfer in history.
Player's famous for more than his record -- he's also well known for conquering golf's legendary competitors, despite his smallish physical stature. Standing only 5'7" (and weighing 150 pounds), he's beaten 'bigger men' throughout his career by maintaining excellent physical conditioning and possessing an iron will to win. He's won by mastering the 'smaller' parts of the game.
It's funny, because much of Player's "David slays Goliath" philosophy is ingrained in his work at Raspberry Falls. Steve Clark, Raspberry Falls' Head Golf Professional, says the course doesn't necessarily favor 'big' hitters: "This course is really set up to favor good short games," Clark said. "Our greens run faster than the average layout, and of course our deep stacked-sod bunkers aren't something you'll find just anywhere, so precise shot-making is favored over brute force here."
Raspberry Falls' wide-open nature will also lend itself to being player friendly: "Probably our greatest appeal is the fact very few holes parallel each other. In addition, the holes generally aren't bordered by trees, which will sometimes allow you to play from areas that normally would be out-of-bounds or impossible due to heavy vegetation. And even though the course is rated pretty difficult from a slope standpoint, it won't penalize you the way some tighter courses will," Clark said.
It's true that the wide-open nature won't have trees knocking your ball from the sky, but some of those tall 'British' grasses are pretty gnarly to hit out of -- that is, if you've been able to find your ball. Raspberry Falls is friendlier than most courses of its rating and slope, but overall, it's still quite a test.
|The par three 7th features native grasses and a huge stacked-sod bunker.|
From the back tees it's almost 7200 yards in length and sloped at 140. As is true with most courses, it eases up considerably from the tees farther forward, though the gold tees (next tee forward) seem more challenging than your lesser fabled public tracks (6765 yards, slope of 137).
According to Clark, it could have been harder: "Initially, Player wanted to put in a lot more water features, but they found out we're lying on top of an extensive network of caverns -- and having a lot of water on the course wouldn't be such a good idea. So he thought the large greens and the stacked sod bunkering would be enough to create that links-style feel without a lot of water hazards. A true links-style course is bordered by an ocean or a bay, so we really wouldn't need the water on the course to give it that kind of feel anyway."
Feel is right. If you're in one of those bunkers, you'll get all the British 'feel' you'll want, guaranteed. Like in Scotland, some of Raspberry's most notorious bunkers have their own names. Ranging from the Civil War theme of 'Lee's bunker' and 'Grant's tomb' on number eleven to 'Satan's Foxhole' on number 14, there's never a shortage of color in the names. Finally, there are stone walls and meandering streams to create the feel of a British Isles course.
Even the staff's uniforms fit the bill. Cart attendants are decked out in English Hunt Country Garb, and the service is reflective of the theme's formality. Clark says service at Raspberry Falls is a point of pride: "I think if there's one thing we're known for other than our layout, it's our service. And we want to make sure everything's out in front of you. When you get here, you know where the bag drop is, you know where the putting green is, you know where the range is ... it takes the guesswork out of day at our course."
Throw in the Old Virginia style clubhouse, and there's a little bit of America in the British Isles, too.
|Come down from the hills to the 3rd green, 100 feet below the tee box.|
Turning to the course, the third hole offers the signature drive for the round. Clark says it's a hundred foot drop from the back tee boxes to the fairway, and your ball will curve every one of 'em. But what better chance for a 300 yard drive? Take the big stick out and go for it (it is pretty wide).
The par 4 sixth presents a different kind of challenge, playing just 333 yards from the back tees. Player probably suggests a layup here, but for those who hit a driver relatively straight, you'll leave yourself a simple pitch to the green. But the fun starts with this hole's severely undulating green, sloping back to front. Anything to either side will be a real challenge to leave a makeable comeback putt.
Nine is a nice par five. Clark describes it: "It's a nice risk-reward par five with a St. Andrews type bridge feature and a creek runs before the green. Again, if you're a big hitter, you might go for it and come up short, or for the shorter player you'll have a good wedge in there, and that makes it fun that way too."
A couple of terrific par threes highlights the backside. The thirteenth measures 184 yards, with trouble everywhere. The green is wide, but not very deep. A huge stacked-sod bunker (Motley's Revenge) awaits anything short. Go long, and you're faced with a downhill chip from the rough that could very well see your ball rolling into Motley's Revenge, which you tried so hard to avoid with your tee shot.
The fifteenth features 220 yards of carry to a slightly elevated green. There is a runup path to the green, granting that 'British Open' type shot option. Bunkers on both sides frame the large green. A fair test of your long iron skills, the hole looks harder than it is.
|Take enough club when approaching the par five 9th's green, or risk meeting the stonewall.|
Eighteen is an award winning closing hole -- a classic example of a risk-reward par five. Playing 550 yards, it's a sharp dogleg left off the tee, and big hitters can cut off as much of the leg as they dare. The second shot's either a layup to the right side of the fairway or over a rock filled creek to a green with the clubhouse as the backdrop. Great sight.
Raspberry Falls Golf & Hunt Club offers a way to taste a little of what it's like to play golf on the other side of the Atlantic, while simultaneously sampling some pretty darn beautiful scenery here in the good 'ol US of A. All told, you'll see it's cool to be British; but it's not so bad being a red-blooded American, either.
‘Second Opinions’ by Brad Cheney, visited in June, 2006
Course design and difficulty
|Sand leads the way to the 13th green -- just don't be in it.|
It’s easy to think that building a golf course with Scottish links elements in the heart of Virginia horse country would be a strange concept. But after visiting Raspberry Falls, the conclusion you’ll inevitably reach is that this land was destined to become a golf course.
“Probably the best laid out golf course I've ever played,” is how one golfer described it.
|The Clubhouse provides the backdrop for Raspberry Falls' closing par five.|
What makes it so special? First off, Raspberry Falls offers several holes with panoramic views from elevated tees. And while the course is now surrounded by a housing development, the homes are set far enough back from the holes that they rarely, if ever, come into play – and also don’t spoil the views from the fairways, either. Water is only a factor on a couple holes, but that doesn’t diminish the quality of the course.
Instead, this links-style course design uses creative hole layouts, stacked-sod bunkers and mounds to provide a challenging golf experience. Raspberry Falls’ design can best be summed up in the words of one fellow golfer: “There’s not a dull hole among the eighteen -- the par threes are very challenging and call for precision off the tee, and the nice mix of distances on the par fours and fives require strategic decisions from tee to green.”
Raspberry Falls’ difficulty was described as ‘challenging without being unfair’ by a fellow golfer. Most of the fairways are fairly wide, but the rough is thick, punishing errant tee shots. The well placed, deep fairway bunkers make it very difficult to advance the ball any great distance, often making a lay-up the only choice. The well protected greens are large, but the subtle breaks make putting a challenge.
|The uphill par 4 1st is a great example of what to expect on the course: wide open fairways, large greens and lots of deep bunkers. Photo by Brad Cheney.|
Whatever your skill level, Raspberry Falls will test your ability without making the round miserable.
|The par 4 10th hole is one of the few that water comes into play on. If you stay to the right and avoid the water and bunkers, par is a definite possibility. Photo by Brad Cheney.|
‘Immaculate’ best describes Raspberry Falls’ course conditions. From tee to green, the course was kept in beautiful shape. The only complaint from our group was the tee box on the 18th hole, which currently is laid out with field turf.
Scott Bennett, Raspberry Falls’ Head Golf Professional, explained the problem with those particular boxes: “We’ve struggled with the lack of sunlight and circulation in that area. We just finished putting new sod down on the top two tee boxes. We installed a third tee box with turf to ensure that players weren’t hitting off dirt if the other boxes were closed again.”
Given the number of bunkers on the course, the quality of the sand is critical. Each bunker was in excellent and consistent condition with deep and soft sand. “The bunkering is a signature part of our course,” said Bennett. “Therefore we work very hard every day to ensure that each bunker is in great condition.”
|The view of green, protected by Lee's Bunker, on the par 5 11th hole. Playing 590 yards uphill from the tips, par is a great score on this challenging hole. Photo by Brad Cheney.|
The fairways provide generous roll on well-struck shots. Balls sat up well on the grass making troublesome fairways lies rare. The greens were in great shape, providing a very true roll on every putt. For golfers that play most of their rounds on public courses, Raspberry Falls is one the best conditioned choices available in the region.
Staff and Facilities
|If you're a fan of the run up shot on par 3s, the 13th hole might not be the best place to try it out...|
“When we entered the market ten years ago, we had the reputation for providing a high level of service,” said Bennett, “and we’ve worked hard to maintain that reputation. We do it by focusing on excellent service from every part of our operation, not just the staffers who come in contact with the golfers on the course.”
From the moment you enter the parking lot, the Raspberry Falls staff provides first class service. “The staff was courteous and very responsive,” said one golfer. The beverage cart came through on a regular basis and was well stocked with a selection of drinks and snacks. The marshals were friendly and helpful. The GPS system in the carts is a great feature, providing precise yardage to pins, hazards and other course obstacles.
The large grass driving range (complete with a huge tree in the middle to practice shooting at, around, over or straight into) is a short walk from the clubhouse and first tee. There are also chipping and putting greens conveniently located near both the range and clubhouse.
The beautiful clubhouse provides a great location to host weddings or banquets of up to 100 people, and the facilities accommodate outings ranging from 40 to 144 players. Raspberry Falls also offers lessons that feature video training and the pro-shop has a wide selection of apparel, equipment and accessories.
The only drawback about Raspberry Falls is the price -- a round of golf at peak times will set you back almost $100. But unlike some other ‘expensive’ courses in the area, this one does not disappoint. With an outstanding design, maintenance and service, Raspberry Falls is a wonderful place to play and is definitely worth the drive out to the Leesburg area.
Raspberry Falls Golf & Hunt Club
41601 Raspberry Drive
Leesburg, Virginia 20178
Golf Shop (703) 779-2555
Metro Line: (703) 589-1042
FAX: (703) 779-8721
Scott Bennett - Head Golf Professional
Steve Clark – Director of Golf
Brian Moreau - Head Superintendent
Troy Reynolds - First Assistant Golf Professional
Josh Robinson - Assistant Golf Professional
Andrew Amodio - Assistant Golf Professional
Beth Yahara - Golf Event and Outing Sales Manager
Quincy Bittenbring - Food and Beverage Manager
Kathy Swiger – Special Events Coordinator for weddings, banquets, parties
Black 7191/141 75.8
Yellow 6765/138 73.7
Blue 6296/132 71.2
White 5576/124 71.7
Red 4854/115 68.0
From April through mid-November
Mon-Thurs, $78, 9-holes $45. Twilight, $57. Juniors, $35.
Fri-Sun & Holidays, $98, 9-holes $55. Twilight, $67.
From November through March
Mon-Thurs, $52, 9-holes, $31. Juniors, $35.
Fri-Sun & Holidays, $79, 9-holes, $36.
Rates include cart fees and range balls. Tee times are accepted 8 days in advance.
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