It was probably at Askernish four and a half years ago on the R&A Scholars Tour that I reached the height of my faith in what golf should be--organic, for the people, and full of interesting quirk. Much of the past two and a half years though up to this winter had been spent on something lacking at least some of the first two of those ideals. That isn't to say I am not proud of what we accomplished there; in fact it could always go down as my most personally satisfying project given all that was put into it and the results created. It was just a highly engineered one shaped wall-to-wall that was a long way from the rabbit mown turf on South Uist.
This summer, we haven't exactly been mowing out turf on sandy links land, but we are building something closer to that of the small-town Scottish ideal than almost anything else that exists in America. Architect and former Renaissance Cup partner Mike McCartin contacted me while I was in Brazil to see if I would be interested in helping with a 9 hole par 3 course next to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. It would just be the two of us shaping and finishing the thing, and it would be a chance "to show that new, fun, interesting, and ridiculously affordable aren't mutually exclusive in the US." This was all music to my ears because despite the economy and state of the game, I had always believed this was still possible. The course would be quirky, locally involved as it sits right in the town with the Headmaster's Pub serving as the clubhouse, and managed with super low inputs, not even having any irrigation outside of the greens. There will even be an honor box for when the Pub is closed. Sounds pretty close to the Scottish game to me.
So here we are in the unique small town of Sperryville, where the restaurant to resident ratio is a ridiculous 5 to 342, racing to finish the shaping and grading of the Schoolhouse 9 Golf Course by the end of the month in preparation for seeding in September. After a slow start due to some permitting issues, things are going fast and well despite wet weather being more prominent than normal for this time of year. At less than 10 disturbed acres, it should go fast. We have only tilled and stripped topsoil around greens and adjacent tees. Most tees and one green (number 3) will be unstripped--the shaping needing only a little work in the topsoil. There are no USGA specs here. The method of seeding undisturbed areas has not yet been finalized, but no shaping will take place. The idea is not to fight with the gentle landscape of the former pasture field but rather to embrace it and prove that interesting and natural looking golf can be had with just a few key moves. So far so good as shaping is finalized on 6 of the holes and beginning on the other 3 as those 6 begin finish work.
The golf is going to be very fun with a ton of variety and balance. Mike's routing maximizes outside views of the property, including the Blueridge Mountains in Shenandoah National Park, foothills to the north, the adjacent Mt. Vernon farm (which is owned by the client Cliff Miller's family), and a very unique farm ruin behind the 3rd green. The concepts of each hole present different types of challenges while fitting into their respective settings, and there will be different hole locations and ways to play them in effort to keep the par 3 experience from becoming stale. Some examples worked on so far include the 1st with a hidden front and plateau back, the 3rd that looks dead flat but will be maddening to play in a drought as it falls away and to the sides, the 4th with 3 very different sectors including one sitting on a horizon, the 6th tight against the creek with an increasingly difficult pitch for those safely bailing away, the short 7th on the ridge with its back bowl pouring out the right, and the 8th with the biggest bunker on the course and partially hidden saddle green all set against the mountain backdrop.
There is a lot going on for such a small course, but that is also the funny thing, for there is also not a lot of other things going on. There is not a lot of land disturbance, there is not a major contractor, there will not be a lot of irrigation, there won't be a lot of nutrient or pest inputs, and there surely won't be a bag drop and cart station. It is just going to be golf--affordable and environmentally friendly--and that is what the game needs right now.