By Jeffrey A. Rendall, Photos By Jeffrey A. Rendall
PENOLA STATION, VA – Golf Course Designer Bob Lohmann says his experience at the brand new Mattaponi Springs Golf Club (in Penola Station, VA, midway between Fredericksburg and Richmond) was different than anything he’s ever worked on.
It wasn’t because of Mattaponi’s sandy soil; not because of its vegetation; not because of its topography… or its wildlife. Not because there was a mountain to shape, or an ocean to mold its golf holes around. It wasn’t because of environmental concerns (the course is eco-positive), or even because Mattaponi Springs was Lohmann’s first East Coast design.
|Mattaponi Springs starts off with a downhill par four, with a pond near the green.|
Mattaponi Springs was unique in Lohmann’s estimation because of his relationship with the club’s owner and builder, Jim Oliff, whose dream after years of playing top courses in the United States and around the world, was to build a golf course. The owner searched for years to find a suitable site, and then deliberately learned the ropes in constructing a golf course, with most of the lessons provided by ‘Professor’ Lohmann himself.
“The owner and his staff did the majority of the work themselves,” Lohmann explained. “I’d never been involved in designing a brand new golf course where the owner took such a hands-on approach, first asking millions of questions about how to route a golf layout, then using almost all his own people and equipment to physically construct it. We hear lots about people whose dreams are to own golf courses, but this owner’s vision involved someone willing to do the actual work to turn his idea into reality.”
And this owner wasn’t in any hurry to realize his dream, either. There would be no golf before its time in this owner’s world.
|At 233 yards from the back tees, the par three 14th hole is quite a challenge.|
Work began on Mattaponi Springs in 1998, then slowly but steadily progressed until now, the verge of opening day (set for November 1st). Two years for clearing and rough shaping, then one each for drainage, irrigation and shaping – and finally, it was sodded with Zoysia last year (2003). This year, the course has spent a leisurely summer continuing its grow-in to make sure the club was ready before he opened it – and that includes the clubhouse and facilities. No temporary trailer to check in here, folks, and no having to head straight to the first tee because the practice range isn’t done.
This owner wanted to get it right from the start. It took an enormous level of patience and perseverance, but it’ll be worth it with the arrival of the first group on opening day.
Not that there weren’t a few bumps in the road – it’s very difficult to do anything well the first time. But according to Mattaponi Springs’ General Manager, Chris Ferris, Lohmann was hired specifically because of his willingness to work with an owner who was new to the business: “The owner interviewed numerous firms from across the country before deciding who would design this golf course. He selected the Lohmann Company because they would be easy to work with – and were willing to take the journey with someone who was for all intents and purposes, a beginner owner.”
|Looking from behind the 4th green, notice the waves of green back in the fairway. Wide corridors, happy golfers.|
It certainly was on-the-job training. Lohmann says the owner didn’t always take his advice on the best way to do things, but he was definitely thorough in his quest to comprehend. That’s rare in a day where people might invest millions in a venture, only to want it done their way or the highway. This way, accountability rests with number one, which is just how the owner wanted it.
You could also say Mattaponi Springs is special because of its isolated feeling, or because there will never be any homes surrounding its fairways. That’s well and good for any golf course fortunate enough to border a protected wilderness area or a body of water. But once again, the ‘just a golf course’ situation at Mattaponi was how the head guy envisioned it.
“When I first saw the site, since it was such a large piece of land at over 340 acres, I went through the usual mental gymnastics figuring out the typical problems… how many homes, how many golf holes, etc…,” Lohmann said. “But the owner wouldn’t have any part of it. Not only was he uninterested in the site’s potential real estate possibilities, he ultimately decided to put only one eighteen-hole golf course there, on all that land. Of the total acreage, only a little over half of it’s even touched.”
|The par three 17th hole sits aside a 14-acre lake. Don't go right.|
The property used to be a boys’ camp, and before that, an excelsior mill in the 1800’s. Every one of its ancestral owners seemed to realize its special quality, and they each took good care of it. That tradition continues with the present care-takers.
“Where some owners might direct us to go ahead with the planning and worry about the potential ‘green’ pitfalls later, this owner was just the opposite. He went out and delineated all the wetlands, and we routed the holes to avoid all of the questionable areas,” Lohmann said.
He continues, “That’s really what drove our routing of the golf course. It turns out that it limited us to eighteen holes, because we really stayed away from those wetlands. It was a completely different owners’ mind-set, working with this owner. He said from the start that he wanted to build something special, and he was willing to sacrifice a lot in order to do that.”
|Measure the wind on the second shot to the par four 9th hole. As you'll see on several holes, there's an attractive rock wall before the green.|
Land wasn’t the only sacrifice. Plenty ‘o greenbacks met their maker, too.
When touring the facility, even prior to opening, I couldn’t help but notice its excellent condition. Ferris said it looks great because of its Zoysia grass tees and fairways, as well as its L93 Bentgrass greens. But anyone who knows grass knows Zoysia takes a long time to take hold… it’s a tremendous playing surface, but a pain to get established. The owner and Lohmann again solved that potential problem.
Lohmann supplies the details. “Since the owner had such a devoted concern for the environment, he was especially worried about erosion and the damaging effects of run-off from the golf course. I told him the best way to avoid the problem, when considering the undulating nature of the ground with all these slopes, was to sod the golf course. It would take some money, but it would be worth it in the end.”
|There're some breathtaking long-range views at Mattaponi Springs. Here, the view from the tee of the par five 12th hole.|
It’s hard to argue with that rationale. The sod allowed them to keep a lot of the land’s natural contour in place. If you don’t have to move a lot of dirt, you save a lot of construction time and expense. Mattaponi Springs has that ‘natural’ look of conforming to the land, where most of the earthwork involved shaping – and distributing the soil garnered from digging two large irrigation lakes on the property, to hold all the water that oh-so-green grass will ever need.
Ferris said that the owner dug the lakes over twice as deep as Lohmann recommended. If a deep lake would supply all the water you’ll need except in extreme circumstances, then a very deep lake will ensure that you’re never lacking (also worth mentioning is the incredible stone work around the lakes – unbelievable, considering they did all the work themselves).
Sure, you can crow all you want about saving the environment and having great playing conditions, but if the golf course layout ain’t up to snuff, you’re not going to get people to return. There’s enough quality competition, especially in this region of the state – players want it all.
|It took some convincing, but Lohmann helped the owner see that the 2nd hole would be spectacular, once finished.|
And if there’s anything that average players hate, it’s looking for wayward golf balls. At Mattaponi Springs, those situations are at a minimum.
Wider is better, after all. “From the standpoint of a public golf course, wide is always best,” Lohmann lectured. “At Mattaponi, there are enough hazards already – with the trees and vegetation, water, wetlands, slopes and everything. We wanted to give players a lot of room to land the ball.”
“At the same time, there’re only thirty acres of fairway, which really isn’t that much. There’s a hundred acres of grass out there (out of 340), so when you think about it, it’s not that wide. But we like having fairways that look wide and easy to play, and you kind of push the hazards in -- because it sets up strategies where you have to be on one side of the hole or the other to approach your target, be it the green or the next landing area. The fact that there’s extra room between the trees is only that additional amount of confidence for people, and everybody knows, wide corridors mean good grass. Good grass means happy customers,” Lohmann said.
|The lake that guards the right side of the par five 16th hole is deep enough to supply all the water they'll ever need at Mattaponi Springs. Unfortunately, your ball retriever won't help you here.|
Challenge also means happy players, especially the low handicappers. These people will also meet their match at Mattaponi Springs. “From the back tees, you’ll really have to contend with the elevations and topography. The elevated tees lend themselves to deceiving yardage – there are some uphill shots, so you’ve really got to trust your yardage and hit to the spot. That’s challenging for all players,” Ferris said.
But don’t be thinking goofy or tricky. True, the land is rolling enough where you won’t be able to see every potential landing area. But even where you’ll land it beyond your sight, you’ll get a fair break. Mattaponi Springs rates high in this respect.
That’s not to mention the forward sets of tees, where Lohmann conveniently eliminated the ambiguities – and the excuses. Though the course hasn’t been played yet, there shall be no complaints from the friendly sets of tees.
|From the tee of the par five 6th hole. A little bit of a carry, but certainly manageable.|
One thing’s for sure, there’s a good time waiting for all.
Ferris says the service will provide the difference. “Our goal is to provide superior customer service. We want you to feel like a guest from the moment you step out of your car, and then it’s up to us. We’ll take your bag and put it on your cart, and then we’ll park your car for you. You’ll head to the pro shop and be taken care of very well by the professional staff, as well as the food and beverage people.”
When you exit the clubhouse, you’ll see a personalized tag on your bag, as well as a nameplate on your cart. You’ll also receive a personal amenities package, including a divot repair tool, tees, and a yardage book. Then the practice range awaits, with all the range balls you can tolerate.
|There's quite a dramatic finish at Mattaponi Springs. Hopefully your golf shot's up to the occasion.|
Mattaponi Springs is, and was always meant to be, a public golf facility. It’s truly out in the middle of nowheres-ville, but there’s plenty of lodging nearby. Ferris says they’ll work with the neighboring courses in the Fredericksburg and Richmond areas to package the golf course, which will certainly bring a powerful punch to potential visitors, when combined with the already excellent existing golf product in the region.
Not bad for a newcomer. And you thought that inexperience would automatically mean incompetence. Mattaponi Springs Golf Club (and the people behind it), refreshingly, destroys the stereotype.
Mattaponi Springs Golf Club
Phone: (804) 633-7888
FAX: (804) 633-0801
Course Designer: Bob Lohmann
General Manager: Chris Ferris
Head Golf Professional: Neil Massey
Black 6937 141/73.9
Blue 6403 133/71.3
White 6171 129/70.2 (L) 142/76.7
Gold 5524 122/67.2 (L) 132/72.4
Red 4881 120/69.1
From December through February, 18 holes during the week is $55, $75 on weekends.
$90 on weekends during peak season for 18 holes, and $70 during the week.
Rates include greens fees, cart, range balls, valet parking, and a player’s amenity package, which is the bag tag, divot repair tool, tees, yardage book and ball mark.
Annual memberships are available.
Walking is allowed, subject to further study. The golf course is hilly, and there is some distance between greens and tees. Walking only for the brave.
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