10/14/17

Public major championship venue in peril: Belmont

An update on the plan to renovate the A. W. Tillinghast-designed Belmont Golf Course

by

A.W. Tillinghast is among the most distinguished golf course architects in history. His original designs include Philadelphia Cricket Club, San Francisco, and Quaker Ridge. The iconic 7th hole at Pine Valley, featuring “Hell’s Half Acre,” is his concept. A whopping 24 majors have been held at Tillinghast courses such as Winged Foot, Baltusrol, Bethpage Black…

… and Belmont Golf  Course.

Yes: Belmont GC in Richmond, Virginia, which hosted the 1949 PGA Championship. Back then, it was known as Hermitage Country Club. In the final match of the tournament, Virginia native Sam Snead defeated Johnnie Palmer 3&2. To this day, the 1949 PGA remains the only major held in the state of Virginia.

You may know nothing about Belmont Golf  Course, but you should—especially because right now, this historic Tillinghast design hangs by a thread.

The history

Tillinghast was impressed with the land on his first visit to the site. In a letter to club president O. B. Law, he wrote, “It has been my pleasure to design a number of Southern courses, and without exception, the features on this tract are far more pleasing and interesting than any I’ve encountered south of the Mason Dixon line.”

Tillinghast received the commission at about the same time he was building Quaker Ridge. When finished, Hermitage Country Club garnered praise for its deft routing, natural land movement, and smart use of a creek that ran through its property. It quickly became considered the best championship golf course in Virginia.

Unlike many similar courses, Hermitage survived the Great Depression and World War II. In the post-war years, it thrived and began to host championships. First came the 1945 Richmond Open, won by Ben Hogan. Then the PGA Championship of 1949—the course’s moment in the spotlight.

An aerial photograph of Belmont Golf Course from 1952

In 1977, Henrico County bought the course from Hermitage Country Club and renamed it Belmont GC. Today, the course suffers from several problems endemic to municipal golf. Years of mismanagement have led to shrunken greens, overgrown trees, and eroded bunkers. The bunkers have drainage problems and poor sand quality.

These conditions have damaged the public perception of the course. Yet the “bones” of Tillinghast’s design—the terrain, the routing, the strategy—remain. If you show up to 1600 Hilliard Avenue, you can play essentially the course Snead played in 1949. Plus, the non-resident greens fees go as low as $24. Find me another major championship venue you can play for $24.

An aerial view of Belmont Golf Course today

The dream

Today, Belmont Golf Course is like an abused Frank Lloyd Wright house. It’s architecturally important but begging for a restoration. Properly restored, this Tillinghast design could become one of the golf world’s foremost municipal facilities. While Torrey Pines, Chambers Bay, and Harding Park may host championships, none can boast the Golden Age architectural pedigree of Belmont.

A successful revitalization of the course would also stimulate the local economy. Belmont sits two miles off of interstate 95, the highway that connects the eastern seaboard. Often using this route are golfers heading to destinations in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Florida. Belmont and Richmond would provide a great stopping point along the way.

For inspiration, Henrico County should look no further than the Tillinghast courses at Bethpage State Park. Bethpage Black and Red are both strong, well-cared-for designs that offer a wonderful service for the greater New York City public while also driving tourism.

The threat

This year, Henrico County approved a budget for a golf course improvement. The plan focuses solely on reducing the maintenance costs for the bunkers and would entail the removal, shrinking, or altering of all of Tillinghast’s bunkering. With the end of the year approaching, the county has put out a call for construction services.

Here’s a look at the bunkering on the par-3 18th hole at Belmont from the past, the present, and the proposed future. Rather than being restored and spruced up, the original Tillinghast bunkers will be vanquished in favor of nondescript shapes that rest farther from the shrunken greens. To achieve this, the construction contractors will also regrade the edges of the 18th green. So goes the plan for all 18 holes at Belmont.

Proposed changes to the 18th hole at Belmont

A competent restorer would see that the green has gotten considerably smaller over time. It originally extended down to the front bunkers. If I were in charge, I would build new bunkers in the same position and orientation as today’s and find ways to expand the green to its original size. The rendering below illustrates how large the green should be.

What can be done?

The bid for services closed last week, but Henrico County record do not indicate that it has been awarded. The county should punt. Instead of going with local contractors, bring in a bona fide architect and at least reevaluate the current management of the course. Take some time to assess options.

Tillinghast is one of only six architects in the World Golf Hall of Fame. If you want to play a major championship course built by him, your public options are Bethpage Black and Belmont. So there is tremendous potential here. Why shouldn’t a golf course like Belmont be given the same kind of historical designation a Frank Lloyd Wright house would?

Sadly, the window of opportunity to restore Belmont is closing. In an era when great, affordable golf has become rare, it would be sad and irresponsible to lose a course of this caliber and potential. So now is the time to email and call Henrico County’s Parks and Recreation Office, and to do our best to preserve Belmont Golf Course.

Remember when that architect tried to improve the historic Ocakli Ada castle in Turkey? He failed to see that his work bore little resemblance to the original design, and that it in fact made the building look like a popular cartoon character. Henrico County, don’t do this to Belmont!

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